In the final months of 1938, the shadow of war was spreading across Europe. Hitler’s armies had marched into the borderlands of Czechoslovakia, forcing Jewish families, among others, to flee their homes and seek refuge inland. That winter, as the light of Hanukkah and Christmas drew near, so did the darkness of ethnic cleansing.
Meanwhile, 800 miles away in London, a twenty-nine-year-old English stockbroker, Nicholas Winton, was preparing for a ski vacation in Switzerland.
But just days before his departure, a friend called from Prague. “Nicky,” he said, “forget the skis. You need to see what’s happening here.”
Nicky, the son of Jewish-German immigrants, had a background in international banking and was fluent in German and French. Long interested in world politics, he was naturally curious and immediately changed his plans.
Nicky arrived in the Czech capital on New Year’s Eve. There, in the throes of winter, he found sprawling encampments of refugee families—mostly Jewish—huddled in tents and makeshift huts.
At best, they were trapped. Visas for adults were nearly impossible to obtain, much less for entire families. Some wanted to escape, and others were determined to stay, but most agreed something had to be done to safeguard their children now before it was too late.
Nicky turned this problem over in his mind: “If it’s not impossible,” he thought, “then there must be a way to do it.”
Working with other organizations, a plan emerged: By special waiver, children could leave the country without their parents, as long as host families abroad took them in.
As word of the plan spread, parents lined the hallways and staircases of Nicky’s hotel, begging for their little ones to be included. If they could get their children out of the country safely, they would find a way to join them.
Three weeks later, when Nicky’s holiday vacation came to an end, he carried home the names and photographs of literally hundreds of children, entrusted to him by their parents.
Back in London, Nicky worked at the stock exchange by day and coordinated the rescue by night. To expedite the effort, he borrowed stationery from the British refugee committee, adding the words “Children’s Section” and calling a meeting of one to appoint himself “Honorary Secretary.”
Using that title, he wrote to various governments for help. Several declined, but the British Home Office agreed—as long as Nicky provided a £50 guarantee for each child—the equivalent of more than four thousand American dollars today.
With the assistance of his mother and a growing circle of helpers, Nicky threw himself into recruiting host families, raising funds, and securing visas. For nine months the work continued. And for nine months, children traveled by train and ferry to England.
Among the most moving images of Nicky’s service are parents on the train platforms at Prague’s Wilson Station. Hiding their grief, they took their children in their arms, assured them of an exciting adventure ahead, and promised to be reunited soon.
Through that spring and summer of 1939, as train whistles blew and steam filled the skies, parents waved goodbye, pleading for the strength that only God could provide.
All too soon, war was declared, and the Czech border closed. At final count, 669 children had been rescued. With few exceptions, their families perished, never to be seen again.
The only record of the rescue was a scrapbook made by one of Nicky’s team members. The book’s pages were brimming with lists of children, emigration passes, diplomatic correspondence, and so on.
But Nicky was not focused on the past. He was thinking about the future. So the scrapbook went into the attic, and Nicky moved on with his life.
He married, had three children, worked in local business and government affairs, organized assistance for the disabled and elderly, and went about doing good wherever a need was found.
For some fifty years, Nicky rarely spoke of his rescue work, and when he did, it was only in passing.
In the months before Nicky’s eightieth birthday, his wife, Grete, found herself in the attic sorting papers. There, in a worn leather case, she discovered the scrapbook. Needless to say, she was astonished. Who were these children, she wondered, and why don’t I know about them?
“It happened so long ago,” Nicky explained. “Quite frankly, I haven’t given the episode much thought since.”
As they talked, they agreed that the book—and the history in it— had to be preserved. With the help of a well-known Holocaust expert, the story began to come to light. Eventually, the BBC invited Nicky to appear on a television program called That’s Life. And what happened next was a surprise, even to Nicky himself.
During the program, the host told Nicky’s story and introduced a few of the rescued children—now in their fifties and sixties. Nicky had never met them, and they had not met him. As they embraced one another, they wept.
Then the host turned to everyone else in the studio. “Is there anyone in our audience who owes their life to Nicholas Winton? If so, could you stand up, please?”
Most of the audience rose to their feet. As Nicky turned to see them, it became clear that he had done more than rescue nameless, faceless children. He had saved a generation of people who had gone on to live productive, meaningful lives—people who now had families and children of their own.
In his final years, Nicky was continually surrounded by these and many more honorary children and grandchildren, all grateful to finally understand the story of their lives.
Though Nicky was knighted by Queen Elizabeth and often referred to as the “British Schindler,” he rejected adulation. “I am not a hero,” he insisted. “I just did what needed to be done.”
When Nicky died at the age of a hundred and six, most of the original children had still not been found. But the known posterity of his rescued family numbered over six thousand.
In time, Nicky’s scrapbook was placed in Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. In that setting, his wartime service shines as it should, in memory of the parents and families who sacrificed to save their children.
Nicky was once asked, “Why did you keep the scrapbook a secret?”
“I didn’t keep it a secret,” he said. “I just didn’t talk about it.” Perhaps that’s because Nicky knew he had more good to do in his life, more than could be contained in any book—for gifts of goodness are truly endless. As we are blessed, we bless others. And the giving goes on.
During that last winter before the war, Jewish parents in Czechoslovakia were not able to celebrate Hanukkah in all the customary ways. But they knew that in the Hanukkah menorah, the single center candle lights all of the others. The light of God’s goodness in just one person can bring light to many, now and for generations to come.
Which invites us to ask these questions of ourselves: What light will we bring to others? What stories will fill the scrapbooks of our lives? For some, it will be helping refugees in war-torn lands. For others, it will be visiting a lonely neighbor or lifting up a downcast friend. Whatever we do, the spark of our tiny effort can fill this world with light and write a story of hope and peace that never ends.
This year, as you dedicate yourself to sharing God’s light through service to others, consider making a scrapbook of your own. Remember the people who have served you and those you have been blessed to serve.
You can gather photos from your device into a digital album or store them on a dedicated portable drive. Or make a physical or digital scrapbook to inspire the ones you love. Let those who come after you discover how our stories of service go on—and the light we share shines forever.