Nicholas Winton was a 30-year-old British stockbroker in the summer of 1939, and had been planning to spend his vacation in Switzerland. But when Germany occupied Czechoslovakia in March of that year, he obeyed the secret dictates of his heart and traveled to Prague instead. He was not given any official mission, he had no diplomatic connections, he had no secret contacts. But thousands of children, many of them orphans, were already anxiously awaiting their future in various camps there.
Winton was not Jewish, nor did he have Jewish relatives. There were few Jews among his friends and acquaintances. He simply felt an obligation to help people in trouble. In vain he turned to his country's government and those of other countries: Everywhere he met rejection. They considered his fears exaggerated or groundless.
At his own initiative (and at first, at his own expense), Winton founded an organization to assist children from Czechoslovakia. He was the president, the treasurer and the only employee. On behalf of the association, he tried to find homes with British families for Czech and Slovakian children, most of them Jews. Their trips to England were initially organized by Winton's Czech friends.
In England, Winton tried to find homes for the children. He did so, as he explained years later, through advertisements and correspondence with those who answered them. A Scottish mother, he recalled, asked to host a girl of 10, blonde if possible. Winton sent the mother pictures of 10 girls so the family could choose among them.
During the course of that summer, 669 children arrived in England in that way. Many of them were torn from their parents and relatives at the Prague railway station. Nobody knew where the children would end up or whether they would ever see their parents again. In fact, many parents died in Auschwitz.
The last group was supposed to leave Prague on September 3, 1939, but it was sent back: Two days earlier, Nazi Germany had invaded Poland, and the war began.
Winton managed to find a home for every one of the rescued children. After the war, the children scattered all over the world, from Israel to South America. Winton did not maintain contact with them. He felt that by finding them a home, he had completed his work in the best possible way.
Yesterday, exactly 70 years after the outbreak of the war, a memorial train set out from Prague to London's Liverpool Street Station along the 1,300-kilometer route traveled by these 669 children on their way out of the Nazi inferno. The train is a replica of a World War II-era train. It is operated by a steam engine, and its carriages all date from that period: They were gathered from several European countries for the purpose of the trip. Among them is the official state railway car used by Tomas Masaryk, the president of Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and 1930s.
The trip, which will take four days, departed from Prague's main train station - the same station from which Winton's children set out, and where they parted from their parents, some of them forever. The train will pass through Germany and Holland until it hits the Dutch coast, where the passengers will transfer to a ferry that will take them to the British Isles. In England, they will be met by another train from that period that will take them to London.
The survivors and their families now number 5,000 people, 240 of whom will be on the train today, along with public figures and statesmen. At the climax of the journey, when they arrive at Liverpool Street Station in London, they will be greeted by Sir Winton himself, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday.
Helen Singer left for England with the last children's transport from Czechoslovakia before the outbreak of the war. Singer, a member of the Wallach family, which immigrated to Czechoslovakia from Germany after the rise of the Nazis, does not know how contact was made between Winton and her parents. But in July of that year, when she was 14 years old, she was put on the train.
"I didn't know where I was going, where they were sending me," she told Haaretz on Monday. She was taken in by a German Jewish family living in the port city of Hale. The city suffered from bombings, and in letters that her family in Czechoslovakia managed to receive during the war, the words "the child is crying" appear - the family's code for bombings.
"She wrote that the child was crying all night," said her sister, Hannah Wislovitch. "It drove my mother crazy, because two months would pass until the letter got through all the censorship in England and then one of the neutral countries. She didn't know what had happened to Helen since the time she wrote the letter."
But Helen made it through the war, and was also successful in her studies. Only four years after arriving in England without knowing a word of English, she was accepted to study philosophy, economics and politics at Oxford University. Her mother and sister survived the war in the Theresienstadt ghetto; her father was sent to Auschwitz on the last transport that left the ghetto, and died there.
After the war, her mother and sister found Helen again thanks to a British soldier whom Hannah had met in the ghetto, and who searched England to find her. "Mom wanted Helen to return home immediately after the war, but her adoptive father asked that she stay for another year to complete her degree, and that's what happened," said Wislovitch. In 1962, Singer immigrated to Israel together with her two sons.
A suitcase in the attic
Eventually, Winton became Sir Winton, after being knighted by the queen in recognition of his activity in 2002. That was almost 20 years after he received his first royal honor, the MBE. Surprisingly, however, it was not the rescue of the Czechoslovakian children that brought him that first honor, but rather his work to promote the welfare of elderly Britons.
That is because Winton considered the rescue project so natural that he never bothered to mention it, even to his wife Grete. His activity came to light only 50 years later, when she was looking for something in the attic of their home and found an old suitcase with a scrapbook from the war years that included a list of the 669 rescued children.
Grete contacted historian Elizabeth Maxwell, who organized an amazing meeting on a BBC television program between Winton and several of the children he had saved. Since then, the Winton legend has aroused a great deal of interest in England, as well as in other countries. At present a film is being made about it, by a Slovakian director.
In 1998, the president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, awarded Winton the Order of T.G. Masaryk. Students from a high school in the Czech town of Koncak decided to have people sign a manifesto calling to have Winton awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Over 53,000 signatures were soon collected.
It is questionable whether Winton will receive the Nobel Prize. But his rescue activity has already become classroom material. At schools in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, there were lectures about Winton and his deeds as part of a series called "The Power of Good." In addition, over 100 students participated in a literary competition on the subject: They wrote, photographed and filmed in order to prove that even in our busy world, we should try to do good.
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