Britain's Own Schindler; the Extraordinary Story of the British Banker Who Saved Hundreds of Jewish Children from under Hitler's Nose as the Nazis Began Their Reign of Terror

Article excerpt

Byline: GENEVIEVE FOX

FOR 30-year-old Nicholas Winton it should have been the quiet end to another unremarkable day. But the phone call he received on his return from work at the London Stock Exchange to his small Hampstead flat that December evening in 1938 changed his life.

The caller was his old friend Martin Blake and Winton assumed he had some last-minute arrangements for their forthcoming ski trip to Switzerland. 'The skiing's off,' said Blake, a Westminster schoolmaster. 'I am off to Prague instead.

I have a most interesting assignment and I need your help. Come as soon as you can. And don't bother bringing your skis.' Winton had known Blake for so long that he wasn't at all perturbed by the cryptic invitation. He trusted his friend.

He duly changed his travel arrangements and set off for Prague as soon as he could.

When the slim, bespectacled young man arrived at Prague's Hotel Sroubek (now Hotel Europa) late on a Tuesday evening just before Christmas, he had no idea what power he would come to wield.

He certainly did not imagine that between March 1939, when German forces marched into Czechoslovakia, and the outbreak of World War II in September that year, he would become the sav-iour of more than 600 Czechoslovakian Jewish children; that he would enter their names on a list as sacred as that drawn up by the industrialist Oskar Schindler some five years later; and that his name would be blessed, to this day, by those he helped to cheat death.

Martin Blake explained the cryptic summons to his friend: he had become an emissary for the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, a body recently set up to deal with the flood of refugees and political enemies of the Third Reich who had fled to Prague after the occupation of the Sudetenland two months previously.

HITLER had convinced the British Premier Neville Chamberlain in September 1938 that his proposed annexation of the Sudetenland would be his 'last territorial claim' in Europe. But Nicholas Winton was one of those convinced that war was imminent and so he agreed without hesitation to help.

That December he established makeshift headquarters in a tiny office in the Hotel Sroubek in Wenceslas Square - then as now presided over by an equestrian statue of the eponymous saint who, according to legend, is ready to gallop into action to save the Czechs in their hour of need.

'It was only then,' explains Winton, now a robust 89 and living in Surrey with his wife, 'that I found out that the children weren't being looked after. I decided I'd help the children, too, if I could get permits when I came back to Britain.' Anti-Semitism was endemic throughout Europe and news of Kristallnacht, the bloody pogrom against German and Austrian Jews on the nights of November 9 and 10, 1938, had reached Prague. Jewish Czechs feared for their lives - and particularly those of their children.

Winton's immediate, unenviable task was to compile a list of the most vulnerable children.

Hearing of the Englishman of Wenceslas Square, Jewish parents formed long queues outside his office overnight. 'It seemed hopeless,' he said years later.

'Each group felt that they were the most urgent. How could I, or anyone else in London, choose the most urgent cases?

'Often it was heartbreaking.

Some had plenty of money, others not the price of a meal. Some of the mothers were already "on the streets" to get money to buy food for themselves and their children. I began to realise what suffering there is when armies start to march.' He did eventually compile his list and, on his return to Britain, embarked on the next stage of his mission: how to get these Jewish children to the UK.

Among refugee parents in Britain, the air was thick with rumours of an Englishman who was bringing six trainloads of Czechoslovakian children into the UK as part of the Kinder-transporte which, in all, would save the lives of 10,000 children from Nazi-occupied Europe. …