The Power of Good – The story of Nicholas Winton
During my first year of teaching English in Prague I had the good fortune to meet a delightful old lady by the name of Anna, Czech by nationalty but who had been a Hungarian translator during the war. I vividly remember one lesson when, for some reason, she mentioned the name Nicholas Winton. I paused thoughtfully for a moment dredging my memory, the name was familiar, and I then recounted that almost 20 years previously the British TV programme ‘That’s Life’ featured the heartwarming story of Nicholas Winton and how he had saved the lives of 669 children at the outbreak of WW2. The presenter Esther Rantzen thumbed through a curious and dusty old scrapbook stuffed with photos of children, train tickets, luggage labels, notes and other miscellany that Winton’s wife had come across while cleaning the attic. When she asked her husband about it Winton said it was nothing important and told her to throw it away. Fortunately, being a good wife she ignored her husband and had the good sense to hang on to it. Esther Rantzen then explained how Nicholas had, while in Prague just before the second World War, realized the imminent Nazi threat and then almost single-handedly bundled over 600 children out of the country to a new life with foster parents mainly in Britain right under the noses of the incoming Nazis.
Sitting next to Winton in the audience was Vera Gissing who had been one of the children and she retold the story of how she owed her life to him with a very tearful ‘Thank You’. Esther Rantzen then asked if anyone else in the audience also owed their lives to him and, to his complete astonishment, two thirds of the audience seated around him silently stood up. They were some of the children he had last seen 50 years previously in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia and had no idea what had become of any of them.
When I had finished telling Anna about this, she told me that her nephew, Matej Minac, had made a documentary ‘The Power of Good’ (2002) about the story, that Nicholas was due to visit Prague the following month to attend a very special celebration in his honour and asked me if I would like to go. Of course I said yes.
Getting on with work I completely forgot about it until several weeks later when, one morning, the school receptionist handed me an envelope that had been left for me. In the envelope was a VIP ticket for the Winton event with a hand written note from Anna about meeting her at the venue etc.
Anna introduced me to Vera Gissing, the lady who sat next to him on That’s Life, her nephew Matej, the director of the film, and several other of ‘Nicky’s Children’ who had made the trip to Prague to attend the celebration. I took a very privileged seat between them for the event which included a complete screening of ‘The Power of Good. By the end of the film there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, both Anna and Vera were blubbing quietly either side of me and it took an almost superhuman effort on my part not to burst into an audible flood of tears. Following the various speeches and presentations we repaired to the VIP and waded through the buffet while we waited for the appearance of the guest of honour who, apparently, was so overcome by the proceedings that he ‘didn’t want to see another human being for at least twenty minutes’. Eventually the elderly and wheelchair-bound yet sharp as a button hero made an appearance and, as is usual at such things, made the round of chats and photo calls.
It was, for everyone who attended, an emotional and inspiring event in honour of Nicholas Winton whose foresight, courage and determination in the face of apparently insurmountable odds saved the lives of 669 Czechoslovakian children, finding willing foster parents, forging documents, tagging the children with luggage labels and bundling them out of Prague on trains, never to see their parents again, to a new life in Britain.
The story of Nicholas Winton clearly demonstrates what a difference that a single individual fuelled by compassion can make in a world where it so often seems that anger, bitterness and hatred gain the upper hand.
I would thoroughly recommend ‘The Power of Good’ (2002) and defy anyone to see it through without shedding a tear.
Winton’s initial reluctance to discuss, even with his wife, this episode in his life was due to the burden of guilt he shouldered for almost 50 years. The cause of his guilt? Between March 13 and August 2, 1939 Nicholas Winton successfully organized 8 transport trains carrying children out of Prague. One final train was cancelled at the last moment by the Nazis who had by then fully occupied the country and taken complete control. The children were taken off the train and probably sent, with their parents, to endure a grim fate in a concentration camp. Nicholas returned to London, settled back into his usual job and tried to put the entire episode out of his mind. His amazing story only came to light some 50 years later when his wife discovered the scrapbook and notes.
Sir Nicholas George Winton, MBE, (born 19 May 1909), British humanitarian who organized the rescue of 669 mostly Jewish children from German-occupied Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War in an operation later known as the Czech Kindertransport. Winton found homes for them and arranged for their safe passage to Britain. The UK press has dubbed him the “British Schindler”. He humbly kept his efforts a secret until his wife found a scrapbook about the children in their attic. Winton was Knighted by the Queen of England, who said of Winton: “It’s wonderful that you were able to save so many children.
The Power of Good (2002)
“A gripping documentary about the courage and determination of a young English stockbroker who saved the lives of 669 children. Between March 13 and August 2, 1939, Nicholas Winton organized 8 transports to take children from Prague to new homes in Great Britain, and kept quiet about it until his wife discovered a scrapbook documenting his unique mission in 1988. Winton was a successful 29-year-old stockbroker in London who “had an intuition” about the fate of the Jews when he visited Prague in 1939. He quietly but decisively got down to the business of saving lives. We learn how only two countries, Sweden and Britain, answered his call to harbor the young refugees; how documents had to be forged and how once foster parents signed for the children on delivery, that was the last he saw of them.”