By Allan Little, www.bbc.co.uk
Nominations for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize closed on February 1, and among the entrants is a 98-year-old Briton, Sir Nicholas Winton, known as the “British Schindler,” who transported 700 Jewish children to the UK before WWII.
In a school room in southern Bohemia, a class of teenagers sit mesmerised by a film about a young Englishman who came to their country a long time ago and did something so remarkable – brave as well as honourable – that 70 years later they petitioned the authorities to rename their school.
It is, now, the Sir Nicholas Winton School.
In the spring of 1939, the young Nicholas Winton cancelled a skiing holiday in Switzerland and, at the urging of a friend, went to Prague instead.
The city was full of people who had fled their homes in the wake of the Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland.
Nicholas Winton was particularly shocked by the condition of the children: many of them he found living in squalid – and freezing – refugee camps.
He resolved to do something about it.
With a group of others he drew up a list of children whose parents would agree to send them to Britain until the emergency – however long it was to last – was over.
When his list was complete there were 5,000 names on it.
He lobbied the Home Office in London. They said he could bring as many children as he liked, provided he could find foster families for them, and provided they went home when it was safe to do so.
The Winton group then advertised for families. “It wasn’t the ideal way to place children,” he told me, 70 years later.
“But if someone wrote to say they could take, say, a girl aged seven, then we sent some pictures of girls aged seven and said ‘choose one’.
“Not ideal, but it did work and it was quick.”
He then organised a series of closed trains to take the children from Prague directly to Liverpool Street station in London.
Alicie Klimova was 11 in 1939. She took me back to the platform at Prague’s Masaryk Station, where she last saw her parents two months before the outbreak of war.
“The platform was full of children and parents” she said. “My parents did their best to keep on smiling, telling me it was so exciting that I was going to England.
“But at midnight when the train pulled out, my father couldn’t hold back his tears.
“I said ‘Daddy don’t cry – you’ll disgrace me!’ Of course I had no idea that we would never see each other again”.
When Alicie went back to Prague in 1945 she found that both her parents had died in Auschwitz.
The transports continued through the summer of 1939. The last one was due to leave on 1 September – the day war broke out.
There were 250 children on board, but the train never left the station. Most of them died in the Holocaust.
For 50 years Nicholas Winton, of Maidenhead in Berkshire, lost contact with the 670 children he had brought to Britain – and whose lives he had saved.
When he married he didn’t even tell his wife what he had done.
Then, when he was almost 80, some of his children began to get in touch. He found that the original group had grown to more than 5,000.
“Normally events that happened a long time ago diminish in importance as time goes on,” Sir Nicholas told me.
“This story is the opposite – it keeps on growing, because there are more and more people. They keep breeding, you see!”