In the early hours of Saturday 1 July 1939, 10-year-old Věra Diamantová was jerked suddenly awake. Her train had lurched roughly across a railway junction on its way out of Czechoslovakia (today divided between the Czech Republic and Slovakia). As Vera’s eyes adjusted to the pitch-dark carriage, she could just make out some of the other 240 children, mostly Jewish and aged 3–15, crammed in around her. Sitting next to Vera was six-year-old Alfred, who recalled years later that, when leaving the Czech capital of Prague, “I was aware of my mother’s nervousness, but I did not understand the reason why... for me it was a holiday trip and a tremendous adventure.”


The children aboard that train came from widely different backgrounds and had very little in common – except that almost none of them would ever see their parents again. They were among 669 children who, between 14 March and 2 August 1939, left behind their families in Czechoslovakia and were evacuated to England thanks to a small group of individuals headed by Nicholas Winton.

Born in 1909 to German Jewish parents, Winton grew up in north London, where his family suffered ostracism because of their Jewish heritage. They lived there in an enormous 20-roomed house that was managed by four members of staff including a cook and a nanny. “We weren’t, by any means, rich... our class was, I suppose, moderately middle class,” Winton later reflected.

At the age of 14, Winton was sent to the newly opened Stowe School in Buckinghamshire, where the eccentric headmaster taught his students the skills necessary to be “acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck”. While there, Winton enjoyed an eclectic range of hobbies including rugby, horse riding, fencing and pigeon-fancying. Although his academic results were mixed, he left Stowe with a set of strong beliefs and an impressive work ethic.

Winton’s father – whose glass-importing business was slowly failing – encouraged his son to go straight into work in order to help support the family financially. “Father was very keen that I should become a banker,” Winton recalled, somewhat resentfully. Although he never really enjoyed banking, the job enabled him to live in Germany for a year in 1929, where he witnessed first hand the dire impact of the economic depression on the country.

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Winton’s life changed forever when his close friend Martin Blake cancelled a skiing holiday arranged to celebrate new year 1938–39. The day before their flight, Blake called Winton to say: “I’m going out to Prague tomorrow... Give up your winter sports holidays and come and join me.” Intrigued, Winton swapped his ski outfit for a thick woollen suit, and changed his plane ticket to book the next available seat to Czechoslovakia.

Evacuation in action

Nothing could have prepared him for what he experienced when he arrived in Prague on 31 December 1938. In a bid to appease Adolf Hitler, earlier that year western powers had agreed to allow Germany to take control of the part of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland. This thin slither of territory bordering Germany had been incorporated into Czechoslovakia after the First World War, when Austria-Hungary was dismembered. The advent of Nazi rule in
the Sudetenland immediately sparked a mass exodus of terrified citizens, many of them Jewish and only too aware of the persecution they would face under German control. Perhaps 200,000 refugees swarmed into Prague, desperately seeking safety.

The advent of Nazi rule in the Sudetenland immediately sparked a mass exodus of terrified citizens

Arriving in the Czech capital, Winton was faced with sprawling refugee camps, homeless people wandering the freezing streets, and terrified, lost children who had become separated from their parents. It was clearly only
a matter of time before the Nazis invaded the rest of the country, so Winton immediately offered his services to the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, alongside Blake. The Prague office was led by a remarkable woman called Doreen Warriner, an academic from England who had also changed her travel plans, forgoing a research fellowship in the Caribbean in order to help people suffering in Prague’s sub-zero temperatures.

She was immediately impressed by Winton. “Miss Warriner has already asked me to be secretary of a children’s committee,” he wrote to his mother on his second night in the country. Having only three weeks in Prague before he needed to return home for work – and with little help from Blake, who was there for only a few days – Winton immediately set to work trying to understand the practicalities of enabling unaccompanied children to escape the country.

Herculean effort

The task was Herculean. Winton and his colleagues needed to establish the mode by which children could travel, gather the paperwork to enable their exit from Czechoslovakia and into Britain, and finally source families who might foster these children upon their arrival.

Winton began the daunting job of gathering the details of all Jewish children whose parents were desperate to get them to safety. Queues of families would form outside his hotel room from 6am each day, and Winton met each of them in order to create a lengthy list of children. Meanwhile, he set his mother to work in London arranging the necessary travel documents.

Winton heard his story recounted, unaware that many of those he had saved were sitting around him in the audience

As his three weeks in Prague came to an end, Winton flew back to Britain on 21 January 1939 clutching a file with the details of 5,000 children he desperately wanted to help. At that point, Trevor Chadwick – another British man who travelled to Czechoslovakia to offer assistance – took over operations in Prague. Meanwhile, Winton assembled a small team in London – including his mother and Blake – and began trying to find families in Britain who were willing to offer homes to the children on his list. Working as a stockbroker by day, he returned each evening to his flat where he would continue his humanitarian task, writing endless letters to potential foster parents and other people who might be able to donate money.

Journey to safety

A few weeks after leaving Prague, Winton stood with his mother on a damp railway platform at London’s Liverpool Street station, where a green steam train carrying the first 20 children from Prague came to a stop. As they descended from the carriages, Winton introduced each child to his or her new foster parents, and watched them leave to start a new life in England. This became a routine for him over the next few months, greeting each train as it arrived. “I really don’t quite know how we managed to sort the chaos which ensued when the train pulled in,” he later reflected.

In total, 669 children, mostly Jewish, escaped Prague in this way – until such transports were cancelled just before Britain entered the war. Tragically, many thousands of other Jewish Czech children not lucky enough to get a place on one of the eight trains organised by Winton suffered very different rail journeys to Nazi concentration and death camps. Only a handful of them survived.

It was not just Winton’s modesty that prevented him from speaking about his actions in 1939, but also a sense of sadness for those children he was not able to save. His achievements became widely known only when he was invited onto Esther Rantzen’s show That’s Life in 1988.

In a moving piece of television, Winton heard his story recounted – unaware that many of those he had saved were sitting around him in the audience, meeting their rescuer for the first time since 1939. They later presented him with a ring inscribed with words from the Talmud: “Save one life, save the world.” Winton died, aged 106, in 2015.


Edward Abel Smith is the author of The British Oskar Schindler: The Life and Work of Nicholas Winton (Pen & Sword, 2023). Nicholas Winton is the subject of new biopic One Life, released on 1 January