LONDON - A Briton who saved hundreds of Jewish children from being sent to Nazi death camps during World War II was finally honored Wednesday as "Britain's Schindler" during a ceremony in London.
The event also allowed Nicholas Winton, now 93, to meet for the first time some of the 669 Czechoslovakians he saved by organizing train transport from Prague to London at the outbreak of the war in 1939. In all, eight trainloads brought Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia through Hitler's Germany to Britain. But it took 50 years for the young stockbroker's humanitarian act to become public knowledge.
In the ceremony at the Barbican Screen in London earlier this week, Europe Minister Peter Hain gave Winton a letter from Prime Minister Tony Blair, praising him as "Britain's Schindler," after the German businessman Oskar Schindler, who also saved Jewish lives during the war. A film documenting Winton's heroism also received its first British public screening during the event.
"This film is long overdue recognition of your extraordinary human achievement in saving Czechoslovakian children from death," Blair said in his letter. "The people you saved, and their children, many thousands together, are a living and heartwarming testimony to your courage."
Winton's deeds first became known when his wife, Grete, found an old scrapbook detailing the evacuations. She persuaded her husband, who was then nearly 80, to have his story officially documented. On Wednesday, for the first time he met some of the children, now in their 70s, whom he saved.
The Slovakian-made documentary, "Nicholas J. Winton: Power of Good," was shown as part of the New Europe Film Season, a Foreign Office initiative to highlight countries that want to join the European Union.
"Nicholas Winton has touched the lives of many. All of the children he saved survived the war, but few of their parents did," Hain said. "The legacy of his act extends across the globe. There are over 5,000 descendants of the Winton children around the world, including in the UK, Canada, the Czech Republic and the United States. This film is a poignant portrait of his legacy."
Winton, who was 30-years-old prior to the outbreak of the war, worked as a stock broker in London. He visited Prague towards the end of 1938 at the invitation of the British Embassy. Upon arriving, he was asked to help the British team in setting up refugee camps. After being in Prague for two months, shocked at the unending stream of refugees, he decided to do whatever he could to save Jewish children from the Nazis.
He set up an office at his Prague hotel, and the rumors spread quickly about the "Englishman of Wenceslas Square." Many parents turned to him and requested that he include their children on his lists.
At the beginning of 1939 Winton returned to London in order to organize the logistic aspects of the transfer of, while co-operating with the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia and the Czechoslovak travel agency Cedok. At the same time, the Home Office was hard at work issuing entry permits for the children. For each child Winton was required to make a 50-pound deposit and find a foster family.
In nine months of campaigning Winton managed to ferry eight trainloads of children from Prague to London, a total of 669 children. An additional group was flown to London through Sweden. The ninth train, the largest, was supposed to leave Prague on September 3, 1939, but never left the station. All 250 youths on board disappeared and were never heard from again.
In 1939, Winton wrote in a letter that there was "a difference between passive goodness and active goodness. The latter is, in my opinion, the giving of one's time and energy in the alleviation of pain and suffering," he said. "It entails going out, finding and helping those who are suffering and in danger, and not merely in leading an exemplary life, in a purely passive way of doing no wrong."