Holocaust Children Unite to Celebrate their 100-Year-Old Hero

In 1939, a British stockbroker went on a mission to rescue 669 Jewish Czech children from certain death at a concentration camp. 70 years later, his "children" have made a journey back to thank him.

In December 1938, Sir Nicholas Winton was just a 29-year-old stockbroker from London, headed off for a skiing vacation in Switzerland. But shortly before he was scheduled to leave, he received a cryptic phone call from a friend, Martin Blake. “I have a most interesting assignment and I need your help,” Blake told him. “Don’t bother bringing your skis.”

Under Blake’s urging, Winton skipped out on his holiday and headed to Prague instead. There, he volunteered as an aid in a refugee camp where thousands of Jewish families were living in inhumane conditions. It became more and more evident that war was unavoidable, and Winton knew that Jewish families everywhere would be in grave danger when the Nazi troops arrived.

At the refugee camp where he was volunteering, “the parents desperately wanted at least to get their children to safety when they couldn’t manage to get visas for the whole family,” Winton said. “I began to realize what suffering there is when armies start to march.”

Winton pledged to find safe homes for all of the Czech children in his refugee camp, and quickly got to work arranging their escape plans. He worked late into the night after his day job, with assistance only from his mother and a few volunteer helpers. It wasn’t easy, but he secured foster homes for all of the Czech children in Great Britain and Switzerland, and raised money to pay the £50 transportation fee for each child. Winton managed to put 669 children on trains to safe havens over the next months, until Hitler’s invasion of Poland put an end to railroad trips across Germany-controlled borders. Though many of their relatives were sent to concentration camps and never seen again, all 669 children survived the war.

Last Friday, another train pulled into a railway station in London, carrying 22 of “Winton’s children,” as they now call themselves. Now in their 70s and 80s, the survivors had come together to mark the 70th anniversary of their escape from Prague, and to pay tribute to Winton, who is now 100 years old.

Standing at the platform, Winton shook hands with each of the children he’d rescued. But while the 22 survivors who made it out for the visit were thrilled to be reunited with their savior, many more were sending him thanks from afar. As it happens, Wilton’s family of survivors has grown quite a bit in the 70 years since he sent the children to safety: today, between the 669 rescued Czechs and all of their descendants, Winton’s “children” number more than 7,000.

We’d have to agree with the Talmudic statement that’s inscribed on a ring that one of the survivors gave to Winton years ago: “Save one life, save the world.”

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