Sir Nicholas Winton didn't intend to save children from the Nazis when he went to Prague on the eve of World War II, but he had a burning desire to help refugees who were crowded around the city. In the end, with the help of a little trickery, Winton pulled off one of biggest humanitarian acts of the war when he helped arrange the safe transport of 669 mostly Jewish kids from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to Britain. Bob Simon speaks to Winton, now 104, and to some of the people he saved, on the next edition of 60 Minutes, Sunday, April 27 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
Winton used a two-week vacation from his job as a London stockbroker over the 1938-'39 holidays to go to Prague and see what he might do to help refugees whose lives he knew were in danger. His background hadn't exactly prepared him for humanitarian work. He had neither experience nor his own organization, but he tells Simon, "I work on the motto that if something's not impossible, there must be a way of doing it." He wound up collecting the names of hundreds of children from their desperate parents and then returned to London to figure out a way to get them out.
The British government was already allowing in some refugees, but Winton was about to try to bring many more unaccompanied children. In order to convince government bureaucrats that he was legitimate, Winton says he took the stationery of an existing refugee organization, added "Children's Section" to it, and named himself chairman. It worked. Winton then used pictures of the children to recruit families to take them in.
Winton's team in Prague arranged trains to transport the children to Britain. When the British bureaucracy was slow in granting travel documents, Winton found other ways to get them. "Took a bit of blackmail on my part," he tells Simon. He also obtained forged documents. Winton was knighted for his efforts in 2003 and since then has been known as Sir Nicholas Winton.
The story of Nicholas Winton and the rescue of all those children was hardly known until the late 1980s, in part because Winton is an extremely modest man. He also prefers to look to the future rather than the past.
The original 669 children Sir Nick saved had their own children and those children had children and so on. Today the number of people who owe their lives to Winton is in the thousands. They're featured in a documentary film called "Nicky's Family."
One of the "children" Simon introduces us to is Hugo Meisl. His parents put him on one of the trains arranged by Winton when he was 10. Simon asks him if his parents were emotional when they said goodbye. Meisl says they were optimistic and told him they would be joining him soon. "How my parents had the strength," he wonders now in a very emotional moment. "It never occurred to me that what they were saying to us was not true...that they realized that they would not be joining us within a short period of time." Hugo's parents, and the parents of almost all of the other children perished in Nazi death camps.