A plaque to the previously little-known Doreen Warriner has just been unveiled in Prague. The Englishwoman saved the lives of hundreds of people by helping them escape to the UK just before WWII. Czech and British officials – as well as people rescued by a number of courageous souls like Warriner 80 years ago – were in attendance at Monday’s ceremony.
Until recently the Englishwoman was virtually unknown. But along with others, such as Nicholas Winton and Trevor Chadwick, Doreen Warriner helped saved the lives of hundreds of people by securing them passage from Prague to the UK on the eve of WWII.
The Czech minister of foreign affairs, Tomáš Petříček, paid tribute to all of these righteous individuals at the unveiling ceremony.
“These people risked their lives to help others. They really worked in an environment in which, on an everyday basis, they were in danger of being caught.
"They helped hundreds of Czech children to find refuge in the United Kingdom, to survive the war.
"This is something that is valid even today, even though it happened 80 years ago.”
“There are an astonishing and wonderful number of individual Britons who did great things around the war.
"Obviously Nicholas Winton is the best-known. People are now looking a little more deeply and finding others.
"But I think also of the Staffordshire miners who rebuilt Lidice after the war.
"For me as British ambassador, it’s wonderful – this is just pure, good, altruistic stuff. It makes me very proud.”
Among those in attendance on Monday were several people, now in their 80s or 90s, who are alive today in large part thanks to this altruism.
They are in Prague to mark the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransports, trains to the UK from Czechoslovakia and elsewhere that in total managed to rescue almost 10,000 mainly Jewish children.
Doreen Warriner’s nephew Henry Warriner is also here for those events. He shared her remarkable story.
“She had been in Prague during the 1930s, because she worked in the field of economics and peasant farming.
“She knew quite a lot of the politicians and the people living in Prague. She had friends in Prague.
“When it became obvious after the Munich agreement that there was going to be a major refugee problem, she thought she could come to Prague and do something useful.
“She could speak Czech, she knew people and she had contacts in England who gave her some money to help.
“She came out and I think everybody thought initially, You have to provide food and warmth and coal and clothes and whatever – and the refugee problem will be OK.
“So within about a month of coming to Prague she realised that the problem was not just looking after the refugees – it was getting people out to, in her case, Britain, and persuading the British to accept refugees, which wasn’t too easy.”
Many people know the name of Nicholas Winton. Did your aunt work directly with Winton?
“My aunt came here in October 1938. There were already various Quakers, or members of the Society of Friends – Tessa Roundtree, Jean Roundtree and another lady – here.
“And there were several politicians from the British Labour Party who all thought there was a real problem.
“Nicholas Winton came a couple of months later.
“Because there was an immediate problem. My aunt could to some extent get adult refugees out of the country.
“But you couldn’t move the children, because the only way was if you could find foster people in England to look after them.
“For that you needed a different organisation, and that’s what Nicholas Winton did – he got children out, but above all he found people in the British Isles who would look after the children and give them foster homes.”
When did you first learn about what your aunt had done?
“My aunt died in 1972. I knew her very well because my parents had split up and I was the only sort of nephew. So I knew her well and I stayed with her in England and in Switzerland, where she was working.
“During her lifetime we knew nothing.
“When she died there was an obituary in the London newspaper The Times which talked of what she had done in Prague.
“That was the first time I knew anything about it. She never talked about it and since I didn’t know about it, why would you ask a question?
“It wasn’t for around 20 years that I discovered that she had actually written a document about her time in Prague.
“I started doing research in the National Archives outside London and there is an enormous amount of documentation on what all the workers here were doing and what the British Committee for Refugees in Czechoslovakia was doing.
“So there was a lot of information out there, but obviously if you don’t know about it you don’t start.”
I presume you and all of your family must be very proud of what she did?
“I think she did something amazing, but she didn’t seek recognition.
“And I think this true of everybody who was there. Nobody went back to Britain, or anywhere else, and said, Look what I’ve done.
“She wrote a document that she didn’t really intend to be published, and it wasn’t published until the 1970s.
“But that is equally true of everybody else. Nicholas Winton didn’t tell anybody what he’d done.
“I think the story of his finding the suitcase in his attic is totally true, but he hadn’t sought publicity before that.
“I don’t think anybody did. It was just how it was.”