Nicholas Winton honoured by Czechs for saving children from Nazis

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Media caption,

Sir Nicholas said he was "delighted" so many of the children he helped were able to attend the ceremony

A British man who saved 669 children, most of them Jews, from the Nazis has been awarded the Czech Republic's highest state honour.

Sir Nicholas Winton was 29 when he arranged trains to take the children out of occupied Czechoslovakia and for foster families to meet them in London.

The 105-year-old was given the Order of the White Lion by the Czech president during a ceremony at Prague Castle.

In a speech, he thanked the British people who gave the children homes.

He said: "I want to thank you all for this enormous expression of thanks for something which happened to me nearly 100 years ago - and a 100 years is a heck of a long time.

"I am delighted that so many of the children are still about and are here to thank me."

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Sir Nicholas received the honour from Czech President Milos Zeman
Image source, AP
Image source, EPA

He went on: "I thank the British people for making room for them, to accept them, and of course the enormous help given by so many of the Czechs who were at that time doing what they could to fight the Germans and to try to get the children out."

'No fear'

The remarkable mission of the man dubbed the "British Schindler" came to light only in the late 1980s.

It began in 1938 after the Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland, the name for areas of pre-war Czechoslovakia.

The then Mr Winton visited refugee camps outside Prague and decided to help children secure British permits in the same way children from other countries had been rescued by "kindertransports".

At the time he was a stockbroker in London, and being from a German Jewish family he said he was well aware of the urgency of the situation.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Sir Nicholas was working as a stockbroker when he got involved in helping children come to Britain

"I knew better than most, and certainly better than the politicians, what was going on in Germany," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme ahead of his visit to Prague.

"We had staying with us people who were refugees from Germany at that time. Some who knew they were in danger of their lives."

But he said he was not afraid to help: "There was no personal fear involved."

Media caption,

Sir Nicholas Winton reflects on his life

He organised a total of eight trains from Prague to London and helped to find foster families for the refugees.

He said he was aware that many children would have died if it had not been for his actions, but added: "That's what was happening all over Europe."

A ninth train - the largest, carrying 250 children - was prevented from leaving by the outbreak of World War Two. None of those children is believed to have survived.

'We have not learnt'

BBC Prague correspondent Rob Cameron said Sir Nicholas lived a life of "relative obscurity" in England but in the Czech Republic he was "treated with enormous gratitude and respect".

The Czech defence ministry sent a special plane to take him to Prague where he also met some of the people he rescued 75 years ago - themselves now in their 80s.

Our correspondent said the RAF veteran, who has a passion for planes, was reported to be very much looking forward to seeing inside the cockpit.

Sir Nicholas, who lives in Maidenhead, was born in May 1909.

He did not tell anyone about his actions for 50 years, until his wife found a scrapbook.

Media caption,

'English Schindler' Winton was reunited with rescued children on That's Life in 1988

He was knighted by the Queen in March 2003 and a year earlier was finally reunited with hundreds of the children he saved - including Labour peer Lord Dubs and film director Karel Reisz - at a gathering for 5,000 descendants of the "Winton children".

His efforts have been likened to the work of German businessman Oskar Schindler, whose saving of Jews was dramatised in the film Schindler's List.

When asked by the BBC what he made of today's world, Sir Nicholas responded: "I don't think we've ever learnt from the mistakes of the past...

"The world today is now in a more dangerous situation than it has ever been and so long as you've got weapons of mass destruction which can finish off any conflict, nothing is safe any more."