In December 1938 Winton visited Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia, to see a friend, Martin Blake, who was working at the British Embassy. Czechoslovakia was a country that had been created in 1918 from territory that had previously been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As well as the seven million Czechs, two million Slovaks, 700,000 Hungarians and 450,000 Ruthenians there were three and a half million German speaking people living in Czechoslovakia.
Although Czechoslovakia had never been part of Germany, these people liked to call themselves Germans because of their language. Most of these people lived in the Sudetenland, an area on the Czechoslovakian border with Germany. The German speaking people complained that the Czech-dominated government discriminated against them. German's who had lost their jobs in the depression began to argue that they might be better off under the rule of Adolf Hitler.
In September 1938, Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, met Hitler at his home in Berchtesgaden. Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia unless Britain supported Germany's plans to takeover the Sudetenland. After discussing the issue with the Edouard Daladier (France) and Eduard Benes (Czechoslovakia), Chamberlain informed Hitler that his proposals were unacceptable.
Benito Mussolini suggested to Hitler that one way of solving this issue was to hold a four-power conference of Germany, Britain, France and Italy. This would exclude both Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, and therefore increasing the possibility of reaching an agreement and undermine the solidarity that was developing against Nazi Germany.
The meeting took place in Munich on 29th September, 1938. Desperate to avoid war, and anxious to avoid an alliance with Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier agreed that Germany could have the Sudetenland. In return, Hitler promised not to make any further territorial demands in Europe. Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier and Benito Mussolini signed the Munich Agreement which transferred the Sudetenland to Germany.
When Eduard Benes, Czechoslovakia's head of state, protested at this decision, Neville Chamberlain told him that Britain would be unwilling to go to war over the issue of the Sudetenland. The German Army marched into the Sudetenland on 1st October, 1938. As this area contained nearly all the country's mountain fortifications, she was no longer able to defend herself against further aggression.
Jewish people living in the Sudetenland, fearing Nazi persecution, fled to Prague. At that time Martin Blake was involved in helping people in refugee camps in Czechoslovakia. Winton became convinced that it was vitally important to try and help these people. Winton later recalled: "The Germans were in Prague, and the Germans were only too willing to get rid of these children. You must remember that at that time the Germans never thought they were going to be at war with Great Britain and vice versa. So, from the German point of view there was really very little difficulty."
Winton decided to set up an office at the Sroubek Hotel in Wenceslas Square. Winton was visited by Jewish parents who asked him if he could help their children escape from the feared Nazi invasion. Winton appointed Trevor Chadwick and Bill Barazetti to look after the arrangements in Prague and returned to London where he joined forces with the Refugee Children's Movement (RCM) in London. The mission of this organization was to locate the lodging and money that the British government required as warranties to approve the entry of European refugees, persecuted by Nazism.
As Winton pointed out: "The only problem was to get permits for the children to enter England and to fulfill the conditions which were laid down by the Home Office, which was that I could only bring in a child if I had a family that would look after them." Winton visited the Home Office and the British government agreed that they would allow political refugees younger than 17 years old as long as they had a place to stay and had £50 as warranty of the payment of the return ticket. Winton main task was to find foster parents and to raise the money needed to bring the children to Britain.
Winton returned to work at the Stock Exchange but devoted his evenings to trying to rescue the children from Czechoslovakia. He established an organization, "The British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children's Section." The committee consisted of himself, his mother, his secretary and a few volunteers. Winton advertised in British newspapers for potential sponsors and foster families.
The first group of 15 children were flown out via Sweden on 14th March, 1939. The following day the German Army invaded Czechoslovakia on 15th March, 1939. Over the next few months Winton arranged for 669 children to get out of the country on eight trains. A ninth train containing 250 children was due to leave Prague on 1st September, 1939. However, that day Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland and all borders controlled by Germany were closed.
On 3rd September, Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, declared was on Nazi Germany. The new German administration responded by refusing to allow the train to leave from Prague. Winton later recalled that: "None of the 250 children on board was seen again. We had 250 families waiting at Liverpool Street that day in vain. If the train had been a day earlier, it would have come through. Not a single one of those children was heard of again."
Vera Gissing was one of the children saved by Winton. She later commented: "He rescued the greater part of the Jewish children of my generation in Czechoslovakia. Very few of us met our parents again: they perished in concentration camps. Had we not been spirited away, we would have been murdered alongside them."
Alice Klimova, who was 11 years old at the time, was another child saved by Winton: "My sister was too old. She was already sixteen, so I went instead of her." Other children saved included Karel Reisz, Alf Dubs, Milena Grenfell-Baines and Joe Schlesinger.
Winton's wife discovered a scrapbook in the attic in 1988 that included all the children's photos, a complete list of names and a few letters from parents of the children to Winton. After he told her the full story this information was passed to Elisabeth Maxwell, a Holocaust historian. Eventually, Winton was featured in the TV programme, That's Life. The presenter, Esther Rantzen arranged for Winton to meet some of the children he rescued from Czechoslovakia.
Winton was the subject of two films by Czech filmmaker Matej Mináč. The first was a feature film, All My Loved Ones (1999). This was followed by the documentary film The Power of Good: Nicholas Winton (2002). Later that year Sir Nicholas Winton was awarded a knighthood in the New Year's honours list.
The Bratislava History Project was launched in October 2008. This is a joint project between British and Slovak school children researching aspects of joint recent history. The project brings together the British Council’s Dreams and Teams school twinning initiative which seeks to encourage leadership and citizenship skills and the European History e-Learning Project, an European Commission's Socrates funded project that promotes the use of ICT in the history classroom. The project is coordinated by Richard Jones-Nerzic of the British International School in Bratislava.
Sir Nicholas Winton, Joe Schlesinger, Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines, Lord Alfred Dubs and Vera Gissing will be interviewed by a small group of students. After the event, the students will collaborate to produce a website of their videos and research, along with a documentary of the day. The website is intended to be used by schools in the future as a curriculum resource, but also as a model of best practice in the application of ICT in European school collaboration projects.