The world lost a true hero this week. Neil Armstrong’s family issued this written statement for us all…
“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”
Nicholas Winton is surprised when he realizes he is in an audience filled with children whose lives he saved. This emotional video clip is from the BBC television program “That’s Life”.
“I was told that my sister and I were going to be sent to England. I was only 9 and not aware of the situation. A lot of us thought it was an adventure. We didn’t know what was happening.”
Here’s what happened. Milena Grenfell-Baines and 668 other mostly Jewish children were transported from Czechoslovakia to England in order to save their lives before the outbreak of WWII.
The man who made this possible was Sir Nicholas Winton. In 1939, Winton and a friend, Martin Blake, were supposed to take a skiing vacation. Instead, Blake, who worked with refugees, told Winton, at the time a 29-year-old stockbroker, that he should visit him in Prague and help with the refugees fleeing Hitler’s advancing armies.
Nicholas Winton did go to Prague, and he was deeply affected by what he saw: thousands of refugees driven out of Sudetenland, a Czechoslovakian area recently under Nazi control (Britain and France agreed to allow Hitler to annex a large part of Czechoslovakia in an attempt to avoid a World War and the Nazis had started to take control of the country.) There was no plan to save the refugees from the looming danger of the Nazis.
So Winton decided to act. He told the BBC, “The task was enormous but I had to do something. The so-called Kindertransports—initiatives to bring children west—had been organized elsewhere, but not in Prague.”
“Everybody in Prague said, ‘Look, there is no organization in Prague to deal with refugee children, nobody will let the children go on their own, but if you want to have a go, have a go.’”
Winton contacted multiple governments for help, but only England and Sweden agreed. The British government approved his bringing children to the UK if he could find them homes and make a deposit of 50 pounds for each child.
From March to August 1939, Winton worked as a stockbroker by day and a rescue worker at night to get the kids to the UK. Winton advertised in British newspapers and in churches and temples to find families. He raised money for transportation and managed logistics—even forging entry permits when the government was moving too slowly.
Winton saved 669 children, working until war broke out and kids could no longer leave Czechoslovakia.
Winton stresses that he receives too much attention and that his collaborator in Prague—Trevor Chadwick—and everyone who participated deserves credit.
In fact, Winton kept his heroic deeds to himself for almost 50 years. His wife, Grete, didn’t even know about his rescue efforts until 1988, when she found his scrapbook in the attic, with records, photos, names and documents from his efforts. With his wife’s encouragement, Winton shared his story, which led to his appearance on the BBC television program That’s Life. The emotional video clip in this article is from that show—you’ll see the moment when he realizes that the studio audience is composed mostly of people he rescued.
The rescued children, many of them now grandparents, still refer to themselves as “Winton’s children.” And Winton said that hardly a week goes by when he isn’t in touch with one of the children or their relatives.
Vera Gissing, one of the rescued children, said, “If he hadn’t gone to Prague on that day [instead of on his skiing vacation], we wouldn’t be alive. There are thousands of us in this world all thanks to him.”
When asked by a class doing a history project for advice, Nicholas Winton said “Don’t be content in your life just to do no wrong. Be prepared every day to try to do some good.”
If you’re familiar with my blog, you know I have devoted it to sharing information and news that is uplifting. My goal is to give you reasons to smile and pass along more good things. But sometimes, in order to pass along good things, we have to be cognizant of the past. We have to have a willingness to stand up for our friends and our neighbors. We have to realize that our world is better, stronger only by opening our minds and hearts to the unique gifts each one of us has to share.
That’s why when Stephanie Creech at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center shared information with me about local students participating in a national Freedom Riders webcast, I knew that the topic was one we need to talk about.
Yes, the topic of racial injustice is very painful – just as is the topic of cultural and religious injustice such as the Holocaust – but only by educating ourselves and raising awareness can we be steadfast in not allowing history to repeat itself.
If you’re unfamiliar, Freedom Riders were a diverse group of more than 400 Americans who from May until November of 1961 rode south together on buses and trains, putting their lives and their freedom on the line. These brave men and women – blacks and whites, Jews and Christians – endured savage attacks and arrests to challenge segregation policies…often while officials did nothing. The Freedom Rides changed the civil rights movement and demonstrated the power of individual action to change the nation.
Some 200 students from Middletown and Holmes High Schools were in the Freedom Center’s Harriet Tubman Theater to view the webcast. Afterward panelists, including several of the high school students and veteran Freedom Rider Thomas Armstrong, led an open dialogue. At the end of the program, all of the students, NURFC Director of Advancement Kim Robinson and Thomas joined hands and collectively sang “We Shall Over Come.”
When he was thanked for the role he played for changing American culture, Thomas looked into the eyes of the students and told them humbly, “I wouldn’t want to brag, of course, but I do believe we made a difference.”
For more information about the upcoming PBS documentary on the Freedom Riders, and a cross country Freedom Rider with students retracing the original 1961 rides, please click here.