IT WAS THE SPRING OF 1954 and Nicholas Winton was in the middle of an ultimately fruitless campaign for a seat on the borough council of Maidenhead, England, a small city west of London. His campaign leaflet included basic voting information, a photo of himself, a three-paragraph appeal to voters, and, at the very bottom, a section labeled “Personal Details.”
Buried in the middle of that section — after mentions of his achievements in local politics and business, and before mentions of his fencing and air force service — was the following:
“After Munich evacuated 600 refugee children from Chechoslovakia.”
The Maidenhead voters, along with virtually anyone beyond Maidenhead’s borders, may have given this line little notice. Yet those eight words contained a heartrending, inspiring story of courage, cunning, and selflessness.
The British Schindler
Between December 1938 and September 1939, with World War II looming, Nicholas Winton and his associates managed to save at least 669 children from the Nazis in Czechoslovakia.
But you’d never quite glean that from its oblique mention in Winton’s campaign leaflet 15 years later. Likewise, it would be a further 34 years before the international media spotlight would find Winton and bring him tributes, statues, and nicknames like “the British Schindler” — all of which Winton himself shied away from.
It’s a stance befitting a man who believed, as he told the Guardian in 2014, that in the adage “Some people are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” he fell in the final category.
The event that spurred Winton’s rescue mission makes it somewhat easier to see why he placed himself in that category. Indeed, the story of his rescue mission began with a single phone call and a ski trip that never came to pass.