100 guests gather to celebrate birthday of Sir Nicholas Winton, who helped evacuate children before second world war.
It could almost be a normal birthday party, with music, presents and a cake. But the cake has 105 candles and many of the 100 or so guests who are here to celebrate the birthday of Sir Nicholas Winton owe him their life.
Winton’s 105th birthday party is at the Czech embassy in London, and the guests here are the offspring of 669 children – mostly Jewish – rescued by Winton from almost certain death in the months before the second world war broke out in 1939. Most of their families ended up interned and murdered in Nazi concentration camps. Today they call themselves “Nicky’s children”.
There are around 6,000 people around the world today who owe Winton their lives. It was late in December 1938 when the stockbroker from Hampstead cancelled a holiday to go to Prague to see what was happening to refugees there. Winton spent only three weeks in the city – the most leave he could get from his job at home – but it was enough time for him to recognise the impending threat facing the refugees who had arrived following the Nazi invasion of the Czech Sudentenland in October 1938.
He immediately set about organising eight evacuations of the children on the Kindertransport train. He advertised in newspapers for foster homes, got the necessary permits from the immigration office in the UK, and persuaded the Germans to let the children leave the country. When Winton returned to his job in London on 21 January 1939 he continued the rescue mission, working in the evenings until the last train was cancelled when war broke out in September 1939.
Ruth Hálová is 88 and has flown over for the party from South Bohemia in the Czech Republic. Others have come from as far as New Zealand and the USA. Hálová was one of the children who came over on one of the Kindertransport journeys and she stayed with a British family throughout the war while her mother was in the concentration camp at Terezín, Czechoslovakia.
“I first met Nicky when he came to visit Yad Vashem in Jerusalem,” Hálová told the Guardian. “I was there just visiting family and they phoned me at 10 o’clock at night and said: ‘Nicholas Winton is here!’ It was just amazing to meet him and to see him again today. It is never too long or too far to come and see Nicky.”
But Hálová would never have met Winton had his wife Grete not discovered a scrapbook in the loft some 50 years later. He kept his rescue mission quiet for half a century, not telling even his wife or family. When the story emerged in 1988, it did so in spectacular fashion on the BBC’s That’s Life programme. Sitting in the audience, Winton was astonished when Esther Rantzen announced live on air that the woman sitting next to him, and much of the rest of the audience, were people that he had saved.
The programme reunited Winton with one of his party guests, Lord (Alfred) Dubs, a Labour politician. Dubs’s father fled Prague in March 1939 for England and they were reunited when Dubs arrived on the Kindertransport at Liverpool Street station. Dubs has become firm friends with Winton since. He says: “It’s not often you can say to somebody: it’s thanks to you that I am here at all. I make more speeches because I know Nicky than because of everything else I know.”
Guests have brought presents and gifts but one in particular stands out: a book from his daughter, Barbara Winton. The party also serves as the launch of the biography she has written about him, its title paying tribute to one of his many catchphrases, humble and pragmatic in equal measure: “If it’s not impossible, then it can be done.”
There are birthday cards and letters too – from the prime minister and the president of the Czech Republic. Michael Zantovsky, the country’s ambassador, announces that in October this year Winton will be awarded the Order of the White Lion, the highest order in the Czech Republic.
“Nicky is a national hero in the Czech Republic,” says Vera Egermayer, a holocaust survivor who was interned at Terezín transit camp. “In England, you don’t know about him but everywhere else we do. He did a kind act and never told anybody.” Born in 1940 in Czechoslovakia, Egermayer has long known the story of Winton, who was knighted in 2002. Egermayer now lives in New Zealand where she has founded the New Zealand Children’s Holocaust Memorial Project.
When the man himself arrives, he is quiet but alert and clearly delighted. Still living at his home in Berkshire, with only a day carer, Winton lived almost independently until last year and only gave up his driving licence – much to the relief of his family – at the age of 99.
He speaks softly and the whole room goes silent in a moment: “I am always surprised every time I come here to see all kinds of people who have come really very great distances to say hello,” Winton says. “As far as I am concerned, it is only Anno Domini that I am fighting – I am not ill, I am just old and doddery.”