May 19th marked what would have been the 107th birthday of Sir Nicholas Winton – the British humanitarian, who helped rescue mainly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia in the run up to the Second World War. And the Czech Republic is participating in events staged in London to mark the birthday.
A mass was held on Thursday in London’s Guildhall to honour Winton’s life attended by his children Barbara and Nick. Also in attendance were former Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg and current minister for human rights Jiří Dienstbier. Other Czechs representatives were at the event, including Jindřich Forejt, head of the office of protocol for President Miloš Zeman, and Michael Žantovský, head of the Václav Havel Library and former Czech ambassador in London.
Sir Nicholas Winton died in the British town of Slough in July, 2015 aged 106. His efforts during the “Kindertransport” to evacuate 669 mainly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia prior to the outbreak of World War II were later recognized as a major humanitarian act. Thanks to Winton and others, ultimately thousands of children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland were evacuated to Britain – thus avoiding near certain death in the ghettoes and concentration camps of Nazi Germany.
Here is Winton speaking in 2009 on the occasion of a memorial event in which a special “Winton Train” carrying many of the surviving children arrived in London from Prague along the same route it had travelled in 1939:
“Seventy years ago, it was a question of getting a lot of little children together with the families who were going to look after them, and with the 200 children and the 200 people who were going to look after them all surrounding the station here, it was quite difficult to get them together. And, of course, every child had to be signed for. Anyway, it all worked out very well, and it is wonderful that it did work out so well, because, after all, history could have made it very different.”
A Holocaust memorial charity, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (IRWF), has petitioned the former mayor of London Boris Johnson, and also the new mayor Sadiq Khan, to name a London street after Winston. A statue in Liverpool Street Station was installed in 2006 marking the point where Kindertransport children arrived in London.
On Friday, additional ceremonies are being held to remember Winton. The Czech and Slovak embassies in London are holding lunch events for surviving members of the rescued refugee children. Later in the evening, a memorial concert in being staged at St. John's, Smith Square church in London’s Westminster.
Although personally humble about his achievements – he once told Czech Television “I am just an ordinary person” – Winton’s efforts were nonetheless recognised on several occasions during his life. In 1998, President Václav Havel awarded Winton with the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk; in 2014, an elderly Winton was also flown over to Prague in a special plane in order to receive the Order of the White Lion – the highest honour bestowed by the Czech Republic.
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