In 1988, Greta Gjelstrup was cleaning out her attic in Maidenhead, England, when she stumbled across an old scrapbook belonging to her husband, Nicholas Winton. She had never seen it before, and was surprised and perplexed by the contents: Pictures of children she didn’t know, letters from people she had never heard of, and lists of names she didn’t recognize—hundreds and hundreds of names.
When she asked her husband about the curious memento, he came clean: Half a century earlier, he had been responsible for saving the lives of 669 children.
In 1938, Winton, a British stockbroker, had been planning on a ski trip to Switzerland for Christmas when he received a call from his friend Martin Blake, who had been helping Jewish refugees in a Nazi-occupied portion of Czechoslovakia. Winton halted his holiday plans and jumped into action. Instead of going to Switzerland, he went to Czechoslovakia, and when he arrived, he found refugee camps full of Jews living in terrible conditions. They were desperate to flee, with many especially determined to get their children to safety.
Though Britain was already accepting a limited number of child refugees, getting permits, finding transportation, and locating foster families for the children was difficult. Additionally, Czech parents had to send a £50 (approximately $1295 today) "warranty" with each child to help pay for the costs the foster families would incur.
All of these obstacles were overcome by Winton and a handful of volunteers, who called themselves the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children’s Section. They found British families willing to welcome refugee children with open arms, arranged for transportation from Czechoslovakia to England, and even helped raise warranty funds. When permits ran out, they forged them. When funds ran short, Winton made up the difference himself. They bribed railway officials and fabricated transit papers.
In the end, seven trains carrying 669 children successfully made the journey from Czechoslovakia to Holland, where a boat then took them to England, before the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, closing down Germany’s borders and blocking the train route. Sadly, an eighth train was on its way out of the country when the borders were cut off. The 250 children on board are believed to have died in concentration camps. "Not a single one of those 250 children was heard of again,” Winton later said. “We had 250 families waiting at Liverpool Street that day in vain. If the train had been a day earlier, it would have come through.”
Winton also regretted not being able to place more children abroad. Though he wrote to politicians in the United States, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he received no response. Had the U.S. been willing, Winton later said, he could have saved another 2000 kids.
The 669 lives he did save have never forgotten him. In 1988, after his wife passed the scrapbook to a Holocaust historian, a BBC TV show called That's Life invited Winton to come on the program. Unbeknownst to him, producers had located many of the children, now grown, and invited them to be part of the studio audience. Here's the moment when Winton learns that he's surrounded by people who might not have been there otherwise.
Including descendants, more than 6000 people now owe their lives to Winton. And until he died in 2015 at the age of 106, the rescued refugees, who call themselves "Nicky's children," continued to honor him—with, among other things, birthday celebrations, reenactments, and statues. One of Nicky's "children," John Fieldsend, keeps Winton's photo on his mantel.
Even after his "secret" was revealed and the accolades came, including a knighthood, Winton remained modest about his deeds. “One saw the problem there, that a lot of these children were in danger, and you had to get them to what was called a safe haven, and there was no organization to do that,” he said. “Why did I do it? Why do people do different things? Some people revel in taking risks, and some go through life taking no risks at all.”