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Winton humbled by children's gratitude

Czech children collect signatures to nominate British knight for Nobel Peace Prize

Posted: October 24, 2007

By Eva Munk

For the post

In his long life, Sir Nicholas Winton, 98, has received many honors, including a knighthood, a planet named after him, and a recent U.S. Congressional resolution for saving 669 children from the Holocaust.

But Czech children still aren’t satisfied.

Over 2,500 students from around the country gathered Oct. 9 in the huge Communist-era assembly hall of the Prague Congress Palace to honor him as only young people can.

After watching “The Power of Good,” Slovak director Matěj Mináč’s film about Winton, the children gave him a three-minute standing ovation.

“This is scarier than anything I ever did in the war,” Winton said, addressing the crowd.

Then the students presented a petition to Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, with over 32,000 signatures, nominating Sir Nicholas for the Nobel Peace Prize.

“I’m embarrassed that school children thought of it before I did,” Schwarzenberg said, adding that he had already sent off a letter to the Nobel Commission in Stockholm.

“I think the Nobel Prize is for people of a completely different caliber,” Sir Nicholas told the crowd in characteristically modest fashion.

Winton came to Czechoslovakia for the first time in December of 1938, just after the German annexation of the Sudetenland. The 29-year-old stockbroker had traveled to Berlin often in the preceding year. He knew about Hitler’s megalomaniacal expansion plans — and what fate he had in store for the Jews.

As Winton watched thousands of Jewish refugees pour into Prague, he realized that something had to be done to save the most vulnerable of them: the children.

When Winton went back to Britain, he started pounding on Foreign Ministry doors. At first his pleas fell on deaf ears — after all, this was only a few months after Neville Chamberlain’s announcement of “peace in our time.” Even America refused to take in the children.

But eventually he wrested a commitment from Britain and Sweden to accept the pint-sized Czechoslovak refugees. The catch was that the British government required that every child should have a British family willing to adopt them — and to pay 50 pounds ($100/2,000 Kč) to do it — a huge sum in those days.

Winton went back to Prague where thousands of frantic Jewish parents were soon entrusting their children to his care. For each of these children, Sir Nicholas tried to find a family in Britain and push the necessary paperwork through the painfully slow British Foreign Ministry pipeline.

“They were infuriating. They kept asking me, ‘What’s your rush?’” Winton recalled. But undaunted, with only a handful of volunteers, he knew he was working against time and Hitler’s armament to get the children out of the country.

Between March and September of 1939 Winton managed to save 669 children. Six trains left Prague, but the seventh, largest train, with over 200 children, never left the station. It was scheduled to leave on Sept. 1 — the same day World War II broke out. Typically for Sir Nicholas, 60 years later, he takes this failure to heart much more than the previous successes.

After those frantic months, Winton never bragged about what he had done in Prague — he just got on with his life.

Realizing he could do no more in Czechoslovakia, Winton went on to drive an ambulance for the Red Cross and train fighter pilots for the Royal Air Force in France. Because he wanted to join as a pilot he already had a pilot’s license, but they wouldn’t take him because of his thick glasses, which he wears to this day.

“I guess you could say that they saved my life,” he said.

After the war, Winton got a job with the International Refugee Organization in Paris, where he was in charge of liquidating the huge store of valuables which the Nazis had confiscated from the Jews, the proceeds of which went to the IRO. He would often find himself escorting truckloads of gold bullion across France alone, with only a driver.

Later, while working at the International Bank in Paris, he met Grete Gjelstrup, a Danish secretary. He approached her with his usual aplomb.

Sparks fly

“He sat down on the edge of her desk and calmly asked her to take a letter for his mother in Britain,” said his son, Nick Winton. “Well, she just thought this was completely out of line.”

But the future Mrs. Winton eventually agreed to marry him and raise a family. They brought their children up with a mixture of old-fashioned firmness and understanding.

“Father wasn’t all that young when we were born, and he was quite strict in the way he brought us up,” said Winton’s daughter Barbara Watson. “When there were guests, we were expected to come down and converse with them properly… And when I was going through my own teenage rebellion, I remember we would disagree a lot. Then, one day, he gave me a box of chocolates and said ‘I know we don’t always agree with what you do, but we don’t want to lose you because of it.’ ... I try to remember that now that my own children are the age I was then.”

Always eager to explore new things, Winton never stuck with one job for long. During his long life, among other things, he owned an ice-cream company.

“It was lovely. We could come home from school and have any flavor of ice cream we wanted,” Barbara recalls. “We felt so lucky.”

After moving to Maidenhead, England, Winton became an active member of the Rotary Club. The birth of his son, Robin, in 1956, with Down’s syndrome got Winton involved in charity work. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of the day, he and Grete didn’t put Robin in an institution, but kept him at home until he died in 1962.

“He was a lovely kid — very loving and affectionate. Father was so appalled at the level of understanding and advice that he got involved in Mencap,” Nick said.

Later, Winton turned his attention to helping the elderly, and today he still helps raise money to build Abbeyfield retirement homes in his region. It was for this work that he received his first award, a Member of the British Empire.

In 1988, when cleaning out the attic, Grete came across a trunk full of pictures of Jewish children. When she asked her husband about them, he told her, “That’s ancient history, get rid of them.”

Instead, she brought them to the attention of Elizabeth Maxwell, the widow of media magnate Robert Maxwell and, 50 years after the fact, Winton’s deeds came to light.

Suddenly, to his dismay, Winton found himself in the public eye. After Grete died, in 1999, he had to face the glare of publicity alone.

That publicity led to a resolution from the U.S. Congress in September to honor him.

“I felt the US had not done the right thing back in 1939 and I wanted to do something to make up for it,” said Peter Rafaeli, the Czech honorary consul in Philadelphia, who initiated the resolution.

And when Winton’s son and daughter accompany him abroad, they are always surprised at the sensation his presence causes.

“At home nobody makes a fuss about him, and then we come to Prague and find out he’s a hero,” Barbara says.

Winton continues to insist he is not.

“I was never in danger,” he says. “I simply saw a need and filled it.”

Seventy years, one knighthood and several international awards later, Winton is convinced that the huge organizational effort that went into his deed was perfectly natural.

“There is nothing that is fundamentally reasonable that can’t be done,” he likes to say.

The Czech teenagers finally broke through Sir Nicholas’ sangfroid. In the grand finale, as two orchestras and the girl’s choir, Bambini di Praga, sang a song that was written for him called “Angels Among Us,” 2,500 cell phones lit up like an army of fireflies, and started swaying to the tune.

Onstage, Sir Nicholas’ thick glasses started to mist over.

Postscript: Thursday, Oct. 11, after visiting Forum 2000 in Prague as a guest of honor, meeting President Václav Klaus and an honors ceremony at the British Embassy, Sir Nicholas Winton was taken to Prague’s Faculty Hospital. Winton was flown home by military airplane last week, and he is apparently out of danger.

Eva Munk can be reached at features@praguepost.com

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