Sir Nicholas Winton rescued 669 Jewish children from German-occupied Europe on the eve of war. To mark his 105th birthday, his daughter Barbra Winton has published a detailed account of her father’s remarkable achievements.

Here, in the first of two exclusive extracts, she reveals the lengths the great man went to save young lives. 

Above: Images of some of the 669 ‘kinder’ put up for adoption.

Images of some of the 669 ‘kinder’ put up for adoption.

With the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the urgency Nicky felt increased and he was soon writing imploring letters to be published in various papers and journals, asking people to come forward to take or sponsor children. On 4 May 1939 he wrote a letter to a newspaper with a plea to readers’ consciences:

“Dear Sir. Tales of violence and war, treaties made and broken, concentration camps and social ostracism have become so commonplace in the daily papers that the average person has completely lost his normal moral standard. A few years ago the publication of a story about a number of refugees without nationality or home who were starving in No Man’s Land, not being allowed admission by one country but being expelled by the other, would most certainly at the very least have made people stop and think.

“Now they are too inured to such tragedies even to consider how they might be able to mitigate such suffering. They are content to consider themselves as individuals without responsibility for what is going on in the world today. They hope it will all come right in the end but, in the meantime, can do nothing. The more conscientious, perhaps, dream the platitude that, if the individual were perfect, all would be perfect and go home resolved to lead good lives.

Sir Nicholas with one of the children after their arrival from Nazi-occupied Europe.

Sir Nicholas with one of the children after their arrival from Nazi-occupied Europe.

“But there is a difference between passive goodness and active goodness which is, in my opinion, the giving of one’s time and energy in the alleviation of pain and suffering. It entails going out, finding and helping those in suffering and danger and not merely leading an exemplary life, in the purely passive way of doing no wrong. And they can help to an enormous extent.

“In Bohemia and Slovakia today, there are thousands of children, some homeless and starving, mostly without nationality, but they certainly all have one thing in common: there is no future for them if they are forced to remain where they are.

“Those who left the Sudetenland after Munich are in the worst plight. Without homes, jobs, nationality or permits to reside in the country, they wander hither and thither getting charity where they can and only hoping they will not be found by the police and sent back to Germany where, at the best, a concentration camp awaits them.

“They are mostly middle-class people, doctors, teachers, journalists, civil servants, whose only crime has been their outspoken defence of democracy. Surely we owe a debt to these people who have lost all for those ideals which we are now striving to maintain.”

He goes on to ask people to foster or sponsor or donate money towards the sponsorship of the refugee children and ends:

“Help to save the children of this courageous and desperately unfortunate people whose self-sacrifice has been our gain.”

These pleas and articles written by Nicky and others, such as the Reverend Rosalind Lee of the Unitarian Church, brought in hundreds of offers of help through the spring and summer. However, they had thousands on their list and only hundreds coming into Britain.

Sir Nicholas’ mother, Barbra

Sir Nicholas’ mother, Barbra

In the hope of getting a much larger number out, Nicky resorted to writing to America: to the President of the American Jewish Congress, the Governor of New York, the Senator for New York and even the President of the USA himself.

The replies he got to all these were much the same: a Bill was going through the Senate to allow more refugees into the USA and nothing could be done until it was enacted which was hoped to be soon; the recipient was unable to help, but had passed the letter on to others more involved in the field, etc, etc.

But it was all too late; no Bill was passed in time to take in any children. Articles put into a magazine, The Picture Post, with photos of some of the children drew big responses. A packed letters page torn from the magazine and put into the scrapbook is full of heartfelt notes from people offering homes to some of the pictured children.

However, not everyone was happy with Nicky’s business-like methods of obtaining homes for the mostly Jewish children. One day some rabbis arrived at Willow Road to complain to him about Jewish children going to Christian homes, or even worse, to the Barbican Mission home.

Nicky, in calmer moments, understood their concerns, but just then with the urgency at its peak, he was not conciliatory. He told them forcefully that he would not stop placing children wherever he could. If they preferred a dead Jewish child to a converted one, that was their problem.

He had, however, in a February report commented: “It may not be generally known that although Munich is four months back, only 25 children have been brought out of Czechoslovakia. These were brought out under conditions which are not even acceptable to a large section of the British public, in so far that an undertaking had to be given, if they were Jewish, that they should be baptised.”

He was therefore not unaware of the religious sensitivities involved.

If it’s Not Impossible… The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton by Barbara Winton (Troubador Books) is on sale from 19 May, £12.99.