Between March and September 1939, British stockbroker Nicholas Winton saved more than 650 children, most of them Jewish, by arranging kindertransports from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovkia to the United Kingdom. Winton, the London-born son of German Jews, was moved to action after visiting Prague in December 1938 and seeing firsthand the worsening conditions for the country’s Jews. The undertaking often required falsifying documents or bribing officials, but Winton managed to orchestrate eight transports of children to the U.K. by the time World War II broke out in September 1939.
The children spared the fates that befell their families and friends during the Holocaust didn’t know who their benefactor was, as Winton never publicized his actions. It wasn’t until a BBC television special in 1989 invited an unsuspecting Winton to the studio that the now-grown children saved on Winton’s transports were able to thank him in person. (A documentary about Winton, Nicky’s Family, was released in 2011.)
Now the 105-year-old, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2002, is being properly thanked by the Czech Republic. He will receive the Order of the White Lion, the country’s highest honor, at a ceremony in October, the Daily Mail reports.
But if there’s one thing that’s most striking about the articulate centenarian, its his often-voiced regret that he wasn’t able to do more to save the Jews of Europe. In May, Raphael Medoff wrote that a 60 Minutes segment about Winton revealed he had written a letter to President Roosevelt in 1939, seeking the United State’s permission for his transports of children to enter the country.
“Perhaps people in America do not realize how little is being done and has been done for refugee children in Czechoslovakia,” Winton wrote. “[T]here are thousands of children, some homeless and starving, mostly without nationality, but they certainly all have one thing in common: there is no future, if they are forced to remain where they are.” Winton went on to describe their destitution, and closed with the question, “Is it possible for anything to be done to help us with this problem in America?”
The answer from FDR and the American government was, unsurprisingly, a resounding no.
Winton’s story is an almost unbelievable one, made even more improbable by his decades-long altruistic attempt to avoid any sort of public recognition. It seems he can’t escape the spotlight any longer.
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.