December 31, 2002

Nicholas Winton, secret hero who saved Jewish children from the Nazis is lauded, 50 years on


A STOCK EXCHANGE clerk who saved hundreds of Jewish children from the Nazis has been recognised alongside other unsung heroes, including traffic wardens, typists, beekeepers and blind golfers.

For nearly 50 years, Nicholas Winton, now 93, concealed his remarkable humanitarian mission, which was similar to Oskar Schindler’s celebrated rescue immortalised in Thomas Keneally’s novel and Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. He has now been knighted.

Sir Nicholas’s wife, Greta, discovered that he had smuggled 669 youngsters out of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939 only when she found lists of the children in an old leather briefcase in their attic.

Sir Nicholas said of his knighthood: ”The honour speaks for itself. It’s supposed to be a secret. I’ve kept it from my family and I’m not going to talk about it with anybody until the official announcement.”

He recently met some of the 5,000 descendants of the ”Winton children”, who probably would not have been born without his intervention.

When he first travelled to Prague in 1938, Sir Nicholas said that he was confronted with a seemingly ”hopeless” scene of newly erected refugee camps.

During nine months spent in Czechoslovakia, he tirelessly lobbied the Home Office in London to give visas to the Jewish refugee children. He arranged for 669 children to escape on eight trains from Prague to London after Home Office bureaucrats insisted that he first find a foster family and a £50 guarantee for each child.

A ninth train packed with 250 children was to leave on September 3, 1939, the day that Britain entered the war, but it never left the station. None of its passengers was seen again. More than 15,000 Czech children were killed during the war.

Sir Nicholas said: ”From the German point of view there was really very little difficulty. The only problem was to get permits for the children to enter England and to fulfil the conditions which were laid down by the Home Office, which was that I could only bring a child if I had a family that would look after them. It was a lot of hard work, but it wasn’t difficult.”

Vera Gissing, one of the children saved by Sir Nicholas, said recently: ”I owe him my life and those of my children and grandchildren. He rescued the greater part of the Jewish children of my generation in Czechoslovakia. Very few of us met our parents again – they perished in concentration camps. Had we not been spirited away, we would have been murdered alongside them.”

The eclectic honours list also recognises the achievements of less heroic figures, including a farmer from Cumbria and a traffic warden from Thame.

William Boyd, a Lanarkshire postman, was appointed MBE for services to the Bellshill community.

June Mann, a former typist for the Scottish Prison Service, and John Smith, a pot-washer at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, are two of the more humble workers to be appointed MBE.

Unsung heroes of education celebrated in the list included June Duggan, a lollipop lady from Lymm, Cheshire, appointed MBE, and Fred Boyne, a Cambridge college porter. Mr Boyne, the first head porter of Robinson College, retired in June. He was appointed MBE after being described as a ”legendary gatekeeper” by the college.

The achievements of individuals in cottage industries and obscure pastimes, from folk-dancing to beekeeping, were also recognised.

Michael Badger, the president of the British Beekeepers’ Association, was appointed MBE for services to beekeeping. Mr Badger has been involved in recent government consultations over the potential impact of GM crops on bees and beekeeping.

Cyril Swales, a Scarborough folk-dance teacher and enthusiast, was appointed MBE for his contribution to the pastime in North Yorkshire.

Others appointed MBE include Geoffrey Newey, a York clock-maker, the crossword compiler, Eric Chalkley, 85, and Jim Gales, for services to blind golf.