Just before Christmas 1938 Nicholas Winton, a 28-year-old stockbroker, took a trip to Prague instead of going on a skiing holiday. There he met Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. Unlike some recent accounts of tourists annoyed and disappointed that the presence of refugees had spoilt their holidays, Winton was moved with compassion. Back in his hotel room in London he set up an office and orchestrated trains to travel to Czechoslovakia with the express purpose of evacuating endangered children to safety. He secured homes for them and sponsorship to the tune of £50. In all he organized eight trains carrying 669 children to safety. In 2009 it was estimated that there were now 5,000 descendants of 'Winton's Children'.
Sir Nicholas, who some have called 'The British Schindler' died aged 106 on Wednesday July 1. I spoke to one of the children that he rescued. Now 83, John Fieldsend remembers, at age seven, being taken to a train station near the Czech border in the small town of Witkov by his parents. One of his lasting memories is his mother saying her goodbyes on the station platform. As train number 6 pulled away she handed him her watch through the window saying "Don't forget us."
That was the last time Fieldsend ever saw his parents. Curt and Trude were among the six million Jews killed in the holocaust. As they awaited their fate in Auschwitz they found a way to get a last letter out to their young sons. After the end of the war John and his brother Arthur, who was also evacuated, received this:
"When you receive this letter the war will be over because our friendly messenger won't be able to send it any earlier. We want to say farewell to you who were our dearest possession in the world, and only for a short time were we able to keep you... we go bravely into the unknown with the hope that we shall yet see you again when God wills. Don't forget us and be good. I too thank all the good people who have accepted you so nobly."
When Fieldsend arrived in the UK he was fostered by a Christian family, Les and Vera Cumpsty. He eventually converted to Christianity himself and became a minister in the Church of England. In 1988, he took part in the famous 'That's Life' episode, in which 50 of the children Nicholas Winton rescued surprised him in the studio.
Sir Nicholas Winton, the modest understated hero, who saved so many lives, has died at age of 106. Watch this https://t.co/bvHHjLYV9n— Nicky Gumbel (@nickygumbel) July 1, 2015
Fieldsend remembers the show being highly emotional, and from that time he kept in touch with Winton, dropping round for coffee as recently as last week. When asked what he thought the world ought to know about Winton, he told me, "He was very modest, he was a man of great determination and had a sheer pig-headedness to get things done." Fieldsend reminded me that Winton's 'Kinder Transport' was just one of many remarkable achievements. He was an Olympic standard fencer, and built two of the Abbeyfield Homes for dementia sufferers.
76 years after his dramatic rescue from certain death in the concentration camps Fieldsend most of all just wanted to express again "thank you." Part of the way he honours his rescue is by telling his story in schools. There is rarely a dry eye in the room as he talks about his life and the grace of God shown to him even in the middle of tragedy.
As we look back in honour and thanksgiving for a man who spent his life well, I think about the other unsung heroes of that time – foster families that took in 669 refugee children with no knowledge of the horrors of Auschwitz, or any idea of how long they would stay.
Today, there are unprecedented numbers of children in danger, even in the UK. 4.1 million children are living in absolute poverty. 62,000 children are in care. 9,000 more foster carers and adopters are needed. Reading these statistics and coming across Sir Nicholas Winton's story several years back helped to inspire the Home for Good charity to get started.
Wouldn't it be amazing to look back and see children that were helped to find love, stability, kindness and maybe even a relationship with God as a result of Christian families offering to adopt or foster them? Will we follow the example of Sir Nicholas and respond to the needs of vulnerable children in our time? I hope and pray we do.