Julio Gonzalez, M.D., J.D.
What are you willing to do to defeat evil? Would you have the courage to fight it?
It was December 1938, when Nicholas Winton got the call from his friend, Martin Blake. Nicholas was preparing to go skiing in Switzerland, but Martin had other plans for him. Martin wanted Winton to come to Prague and join him in caring for some refugees.
Prague had become a refuge, albeit temporary, for displaced Jews. Earlier in 1938, Europe had reached the Munich Agreement resulting in the annexation of Sudetenland by Germany.
Sudetenland was a province in the northwest section of Czechoslovakia. Its transfer to Germany was monumental, as it essentially signaled the end of the defenses for Czechoslovakia. That Czechoslovakia would soon be in the hands of the Nazis became a foregone conclusion.
Worse, on November 8-9, the Germans led a pogrom against Jews living in Nazi terroitory. In all, thousands of Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Hundreds of Jewish business and synagogues were destroyed. In fact, the assault upon the Jews that November came to be known as Kristallnacht, or the night of the broken glass, because of the destruction that took place.
Whatever fears the Jews may have had prior to that horrible night, it was immediately intensified. Countless Jews evacuated for safer destinations seeking an escape from the nightmare that was to come.
This was the reality that confronted Nicholas when he arrived in Prague that December. But Nicholas didn't decide to go home, nor did he succumb to the futility of his efforts. Instead, he made it his mission to get the Jewish children out of Czechoslovakia.
Indeed, there was already such a program at work in Europe. It was called Operation Kindertransport, but it did not include Czechoslovakia. Nicholas would have to do it on his own.
First, Nicholas set up an organization called The British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children's Sector. Then he began networking with friends in England and with British authorities in the hopes of being able to get the children to safety. After much effort, he finally obtained an agreement from England that the children would be allowed to relocate if there were an accepting family, and they paid a 50-pound fee.
Winton's next hurdle was administrative.
Although Winton was operating under great haste, his compatriots in England were not, as the country was still in denial of an impending war. It would be March 1939, before Nicholas would arrange for the first group of children to leave Prague by plane. Later, the evacuations would take place by train, and with each trip, Winton would document the names of the children and the families that had agreed to receive them.
In all, Winton rescued 669 children. But the ones he remembers the most were the 250 that were loaded on a train on September 1, 1939, the same day World War II began. On that day, the Czechoslovakian borders were sealed. The children aboard that train never made it to safety. As a matter of fact, they were never heard from again. Later, Winton would reflect that he was forever haunted by the memory and fate of those kids.
After the war, nothing was heard about Winton's rescue efforts, certainly not from Winton himself. But in 1988, his wife found his notes hidden in their attic. Grete Winton gave the notes to a Holocaust historian who chased down the 669 children whose names were inscribed in the book. She found 80 of them.
Later that year, Winton was unsuspectingly taken to the studio of a British biographical television program named That's Life. Unbeknownst to him, the show would be about his own life. Even more amazingly, in the room were 24 of the 80 identified children.
Ostensibly surrounded by complete strangers, at one point in the presentation, Winton heard the hostess ask, "Is there anyone in our audience tonight who owes their life to Nicholas Winton? If so, could you stand up please?"
The first six rows of people stood.
Winton would be knighted on December 31, 2002, and would die in his sleep on July 1, 2015. On his finger, he wore a ring that with a phrase from the Talmud: "Save one life, save the world."
Sir Nicholas Winton stared at the face of evil and fought back. His life, unknown to many, would forever serve as a testament to self-sacrifice and unwavering devotion to others.
Dr. Julio Gonzalez is an orthopaedic surgeon and lawyer living in Venice, Florida. He is the author of The Federalist Pages and serves in the Florida House of Representatives. He can be reached through www.thefederalistpages.com to arrange a lecture or book signing.