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1939 letter found, plea to FDR to save Jewish kids

An archivist makes a stunning find after a 60 Minutes story airs about Sir Nick Winton, the Londoner who saved 669 children from the Nazis

By Evie Salomon

This past April, 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon told the remarkable story of Sir Nicholas Winton, a stockbroker in London who saved 669 Czech children-- most of them Jewish--from the Nazis during WWII.

England took in almost all of the 669 children. Winton, now 104 years old, told 60 Minutes he had made a desperate plea for help to the United States back in 1939. He said he had written a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, describing the plight of the Czech children and asking that America grant refuge to a number of them.

"But the Americans wouldn't take any, which was a pity," Sir Nick said on the 60 Minutes broadcast. "We could've got a lot more out."

David Langbart, an archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration, happened to be watching 60 Minutes when the story aired, and he was struck by Winton's story.

"The man has an incredible amount of chutzpah," Langbart says in an interview with 60 Minutes Overtime. "I thought this is an incredibly caring man who put himself on the line to help people that he didn't even know."

After seeing the story, Langbart decided to look for evidence of Sir Nick's letter to FDR in the Department of State records at the National Archives. "And lo and behold, I came up with his original letter to President Roosevelt," Langbart says. The whereabouts of the document had been a mystery for almost 75 years.

Vanessa Fica, the story's co-producer, says she got "goose bumps" when she learned of Langbart's discovery.

"Winton scholars and even his own children were shocked when we told them the letter had been found," Fica tells 60 Minutes Overtime. "I am grateful that Winton, now approaching the age of 105, will be able to see his letter for the first time in 75 years."

Winton's "craft" is evident in the letter he wrote to Roosevelt, says Fica: "He kept it poignant and respectful while conveying a real sense of urgency."

The letter, dated May 16th, 1939, addresses President Roosevelt as "Esteemed Sir."

"Perhaps people in America do not realize how little is being and has been done for refugee children in Czechoslovakia," the letter reads. "Is it possible for anything to be done to help us with this problem in America?... It is hard to state our case forcibly in a letter, but we trust to your imagination to realize how desperately urgent the situation is."

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Also in the archives, Langbart uncovered a chain of internal government communications about Winton's letter.

According to Langbart, after the White House received Winton's letter, it referred the request to the Department of State for action. Shortly thereafter, the Department of State forwarded the letter to the President's Advisory Committee on Political Refugees, suggesting that organizations involved might be interested in Winton's cause.

Langbart also found another memo from the Department of State that instructed the U.S. Embassy in London to "acknowledge receipt of Mr. Winton's letter" and "advise him that the United States Government is unable, in the absence of specific legislation, to permit immigration in excess of that provided for by existing immigration laws."

The U.S. officially denied Winton's request in a letter sent by the U.S. Embassy in London. The original copy of that note, which Winton kept in his personal scrapbook, appeared on the 60 Minutes broadcast.

When asked for his reaction to the U.S.'s response to Sir Nick's plea, Langbart shared that he had roots in Eastern Europe and members of his family had perished in the Holocaust.

"Personally, I wish that the United States government could have done more," Langbart says. "I'm not sure that anybody really recognized what was coming as far as the Holocaust. The United States opened its doors to the extent that the law allowed at the time. I wish it could have been more-- but it wasn't."

Winton's full letter to President Roosevelt is as follows:

"Esteemed Sir,

Perhaps people in America do not realize how little is being and has been done for refugee children in Czechoslovakia. They have to depend entirely on private guarantors to get into England, which means that somebody has to take full responsibility for maintenance, upkeep, and education, until they are 18 years of age. No other country is taking an interest in them except for Sweden, which took 35 children last February. We at this office have case-papers and photos of over 5000 children, quite apart from a further 10,000 whom we estimate have to register. Actually, so far, we have brought only about 120 into England.

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, if they are forced to remain where they are. Their parents are forbidden work and the children are forbidden schooling, and apart from the physical discomforts, which all this signifies, the moral degradation is immeasurable. Yet since Munich, hardly anything has been done for the children in Czechoslovakia. Many of the children are quite destitute having had to move more than once since they originally fled from Germany.

Is it possible for anything to be done to help us with this problem in America? It is hard to state our case forcibly in a letter, but we trust to your imagination to realize how desperately urgent the situation is.

Believe me, Esteemed Sir, with many thanks,

Your obedient Servant,

Nicholas Winton."

Editor's Note: This segment was originally published May 18, 2014. Since the above video was published, Sir Nicholas Winton turned 105.