Sir Nicholas Winton on his 105th birthday (HEATHCLIFF O’MALLEY FOR THE TELEGRAPH)
The Czech president, Milos Zeman, wrote to Sir Nicholas: “Your life is an example of humanity, selflessness, personal courage and modesty.”
In 1939, Sir Nicholas masterminded the transportation of children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to Britain, saving them from the concentration camps.
He rarely spoke of his achievements in the decades that followed, believing his actions to be unremarkable.
He came to public attention only in 1988, when he was reunited with some of those who call themselves “Nicky’s Children” on an emotional episode of the BBC programme That’s Life!
He was knighted by the Queen in 2003.
Sir Nicholas has outlived many of those he saved, and looked positively sprightly at the Czech Embassy on Monday night as he was presented with a cake bearing 105 candles.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s only anno domini that I’m fighting. I’m not ill, I’m just old and doddery – more doddery than old, actually,” he said. Sir Nicholas insisted on standing to deliver his speech.
He attributes his longevity to good genes and staying active. When undergoing a hip replacement at the age of 103, doctors asked him if he would want to be resuscitated in the event that his heart stopped on the operating table. He was incredulous.
Sir Nicholas Winton with his daughter Barbara (HEATHCLIFF O’MALLEY FOR THE TELEGRAPH)
“Resuscitate me, of course! I want to live!” he said.
His daughter, Barbara Winton, recalled: “Last year when I half-heartedly suggested that perhaps having a party every year was a bit too much, his reply was that, as he didn’t know when the last one would be, he intended to keep having them.”
Sir Nicholas was a 29-year-old stockbroker about to set off on a skiing holiday in December 1938 when a friend urged him to change his plans and visit Prague. A politically-minded young man, he agreed to go in order to witness what was happening in the country.
The Nazis had invaded the Sudetenland two months earlier and the situation in Prague was becoming increasingly dangerous for Jews.
While agencies were organising the mass evacuation of children from Austria and Germany, there was no such provision in Czechoslovakia.
Sir Nicholas began meeting parents who were desperate for their children to be taken to a place of safety, and began compiling a list of names.
Sir Nicholas Winton with some of those he saved as children from the Nazis in an operation later known as the Czech Kindertransport (HEATHCLIFF O’MALLEY )
The first train left Prague on March 14, the day before German troops marched into Czechoslovakia. Two fellow volunteers, Trevor Chadwick and Doreen Warriner, organised the Prague end of the operation.
Sir Nicholas returned to Britain and masterminded the rescue mission, finding adoptive homes for the children, pleading for funds and navigating the complex bureaucracy – ensuring each child had the £50 guarantee (£2,500 in today’s money) to pay for their eventual return, and securing exit and entry permits.
On some occasions, he forged Home Office documents which had been too slow to arrive, and without which the children would not have been allowed to leave Czechoslovakia.
Name tags around their necks, the bewildered children arrived at Liverpool Street Station where Sir Nicholas and his mother would greet them. Some had relatives in the UK, but most went to live with strangers.
Sir Nicholas Winton photographed in 1942 with his brother and sister in Hampstead
Eight trains reached London. The ninth did not. It had been set to leave on September 1, carrying 250 children – the largest number yet. But that day Germany invaded Poland, and all borders were closed.
Those who arrived at the station were turned away by German soldiers. It is thought that nearly all the children due to leave that day ended up in the concentration camps. Some were siblings of children who had made it out on earlier trains.
An estimated 6,000 people across the world are descendants of ‘Nicky’s Children’.
Guests at the birthday celebration included Lord Dubs, the Labour peer who was six when his mother put him on one of the Kindertransport trains. He was also one of the lucky ones – his parents both survived the war, although other family members perished in Auschwitz.
“Most of the children never saw their parents again so I was exceptional. Don’t put me down as typical,” Lord Dubs said.
“I can still see Prague station – the children, the parents, the soldiers with swastikas. We set off and when the next evening we got to Holland, all the older ones cheered because we were out of reach of the Nazis. I didn’t fully understand.
“It wasn’t until many years later that I understood what had happened and discovered all about Nicholas. When you meet somebody who almost certainly saved your life, it’s very emotional. I didn’t quite know how to handle it.
“I owe my life to him.”
Alf Dubs, a Labour Peer, was one of the children saved by Sir Nicholas Winton (HEATHCLIFF O’MALLEY FOR THE TELEGRAPH)
Others rescued by the Czech Kindertransport include Karel Reisz, director of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Joe Schlesinger, the Canadian television journalist.
Sir Nicholas has always maintained that anyone in his position would have done the same. He dislikes being termed ‘The British Schindler’, pointing out that those who ran the mission from the Prague end took far greater risks with their own safety.
His achievements would have gone unheralded were it not for a scrapbook which he had kept. It contained pictures, documents, letters and photos from the mission, and a list of the children saved.
A family friend passed the scrapbook to a newspaper in 1988 and the story was taken up by That’s Life!, the consumer programme hosted by Esther Rantzen.
Sir Nicholas, then 78, was invited on to the show and, in a moving sequence, found himself seated in an audience made up of those who owed their lives to him.
His involvement with the victims of the Nazis did not end with the Kindertransport.
In 1947, he began work for the International Refugee Organisation, part of the United Nations. His role was to supervise the disposal of items looted by the Nazis and recovered by the Allies.
An undated handout of Nicholas Winton with one of the children he rescued: Nicholas Winton (PA)
Amongst the jewellery, furs, china and artworks were horrific reminders of the fate that had befallen so many Jews: crates of false teeth and reading glasses; gold fillings removed from corpses in the gas chambers.
Sir Nicholas’s job involved photographing and sorting these items into those that could be sold at auction – with the money going to help people displaced by the war – and those which were deemed financially worthless.
The latter were disposed of at sea, in a ceremony overseen by Sir Nicholas. He was keenly aware that each “worthless” item was a part of someone’s history, but had no way of tracing ownership.
His last undertaking was to see the gold jewellery melted down into bars, which he brought to London.
A matter-of-fact telegram sent by Sir Nicholas to his boss in February 1948 notes the solemn nature of the task.
“Many months work… culminated today my arrival London with kilograms 650 gold formerly gold teeth etcetera sold for approx. sevenhundred thousand dollars stop This ends one chapter concentration camps and opens new one for resettlement survivors nazi terror stop”
Sir Nicholas has said of the disposal: “I think not only of all those innocent lives, senselessly and horrifically cut off, most of them in their prime, but of the depraved minds obsessed with the material gains to be obtained from pitiable items so small and so personal as gold fillings.”
He devoted his later years to working for charity, including the Abbeyfield organisation which provides care for the elderly. Some years ago a chance conversation uncovered the fact that one of his fellow trustees was the son of a child Sir Nicholas had saved.
His extraordinary life has been chronicled in a biography, written by his daughter, Barbara. If It’s Not Impossible… The Life of Nicholas Winton takes its title from his motto: “If something is not impossible, then there must be a way to do it.”
Czech Kindertransport founder Sir Nicholas Winton speaks to media at his home in Maidenhead (PA)
She said of her father: “What he did in 1939 wasn’t out-of-character. It was typical of the kind of impulses he has when he sees a situation and thinks it should be rectified.”
In the book, Barbara writes: “My father’s wish for his biography, having agreed to me writing it, is that it should not promote hero worship or the urge for a continual revisiting of history, but if anything, that it might inspire people to recognise that they too can act ethically in the world and make a positive difference to the lives of others in whatever area they feel strongly about, whether it be international crises or nearer to home, in their own community.
“If reading his story about the rescue of the children causes people to think, ‘What a hero. I could never do anything like that. It’s much too difficult and anyway, heroes like that were on needed in remote history when we were at war. Now let me get on with my life,’ he is not that interested.
“But if reading it inspires people to think, ‘Well, things are not right in the world now. I can make a difference in my own way and I am going to do it,’ then he will be a happy man.”
Sir Nicholas’s parents were Jewish but not religious, and had him baptised as a Christian as a way of integrating into British life. He now describes himself as agnostic.
Asked what message he would like the biography to carry, Sir Nicholas told his daughter: “I came to believe through my life that what is important is that we live by the common ethics of all religions – kindness, decency, love, respect and honour for others – and not worry about the aspects within religion that divide us.”
If It’s Not Impossible: The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton, by Barbara Winton (published by Troubador) is on sale for £12.99 at troubador.co.uk
Barbara Winton will be speaking to Simon Schama and Philippe Sands at the Hay Festival on May 27 at 10am. For tickets, visit hayfestival.com/boxoffice