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Remembering the Quiet Man Who Changed History for 669 Children Remembering the Quiet Man Who Changed History for 669 Children

Sir Nicholas Winton got a kiss in 2002 from Vera Gissing, who was 11 years old when she escaped to England on one of the transports Winton organized.

(John Stillwell/PA Wire/Press Association Images)

A recent memorial for Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 children from the Nazis, serves as a potent reminder of what just one man’s life can mean for many others.

Winton, who died last year at age 106, led the 1939 kindertransport effort that ferried children out of Czechoslovakia as Hitler’s Germany tightened its grip. As a 29-year-old stockbroker visiting Prague, he met parents desperate to find safety for their children as violence against Jews escalated.

Britain Winton Memorial Group
Evacuees rescued as children by the kindertransport set up by Sir Nicholas Winton pose for a photo at his memorial service.
(Dominic Lipinski/AP)

Back in London, Winton marshaled funding, paperwork and volunteers to take in the children. Over the course of a few months, he managed to arrange for eight journeys via train and ferry from Prague to Britain. A ninth transport, set to carry 250 children, was cancelled on the September day that Germany invaded Poland.

Winton “could have been imprisoned, he could have been shot — anything could have happened to him," said one of the children, John Fieldsend, in a recent interview with NPR. "He had no reason to be involved. He was just a good British stockbroker." Fieldsend’s parents later died at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Several of “Nicky’s children” were at a memorial service for Winton held last week in London, many of them joined by their own kids and grandchildren. One of them, 92-year-old Kurt Taussig, told the BBC he “would have swum an ocean to be here.”

At least 6,000 people owe their existence to Winton. His work only became known nearly 50 years after the fact, when a British TV program surprised him by placing him within a studio audience full of the people he’d saved. See the moving moment:

Sir Nicholas Winton - BBC Programme "That's Life" aired in 1988 Sir Nicholas Winton - BBC Programme "That's Life" aired in 1988

“Nothing was the same again for my father” after that program aired, writes Winton's daughter, Barbara, in a 2014 biography. “For many, Nicky has become an honorary father to those who lost their own in that terrible time.”

She says that Winton was not so interested in having his biography written if it caused people to say, “'What a hero. I could never do anything like that … heroes like that were on needed in remote history when we were at war.'”

On the other hand, she wrote, “if reading it inspires people to think, ‘Well, things are not right in the world now. I can make a difference in my own way and I am going to do it,’ then he will be a happy man.”

Britain Winton Memorial Lia Lesser
Lia Lesser, 85, who was rescued as a child by the kindertransport set up by Sir Nicholas Winton, poses for a photo with her daughter Naomi at his memorial service, in central London May 19.
(Dominic Lipinski/AP)

Indeed, Britain and other countries are again facing choices regarding exiles from war—the Winton family’s website notes that contributions made during the memorial service last week would be donated to charities that support Syrian refugee children.

The title of Winton’s biography, If It’s Not Impossible..., is based on the man’s motto: “If something is not impossible, then there must be a way to do it.”