In 1938, London stockbroker Nicholas Winton decided to use his two weeks vacation to get to work. As violence began escalating against Jewish people in Europe, the 29-year-old traveled to Prague and ended up saving the lives of 669 children, mostly Jews, from almost certain death. Winton – now 104 – has spoken to CBS’ 60 Minutes about his incredible story, which included theft, forging documents and even blackmailing officials to get his way.
‘It worked, that’s the main thing,’ he said, grinning.
As the Nazis marched into Czechoslovakia, Winton – who had no experience or connections in this sort of work – decided that he would travel to Prague to see if he could save people. He had actually booked a vacation to go skiing in Switzerland, but changed his plans at the last minute when a friend involved in Jewish refugee work asked him for help. ‘All I knew was that the people that I met couldn’t get out,’ Winton, who was born to German Jewish parents in London, told CBS’ 60 Minutes in a special interview. ‘And they were looking of ways of at least getting their children out… I work on the motto that if something’s not impossible, there must be a way of doing it.’
He set up shop in the city and people soon started coming to him, forcing him to work late into the night, historian David Silberklang told CBS. When he returned to London, he had lists of hundreds of children and got to task convincing the British authorities to take them. He pretended to be more official than he was by taking stationery from an established refugee organization, adding ‘Children’s Section’ to its header and making himself chairman, CBS reported.
He admitted it took ‘a little smoke and mirrors’ to convince authorities to believe him – but he said it mostly took getting a printing press to print the paper. He continued his work as a stockbroker by day, before returning to the office to work on getting the children to the UK. His mother and volunteers also helped at the office. He said he contacted American authorities to take the children, but they said they were unable. But British authorities said they would take them if Winton found each one a home, so he got to work advertising their pictures so that families would take them. When he had secured them homes, the youngsters were ready to leave – but he found that the British authorities were slow to issue their travel documents.
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