Nicholas Winton—whose tireless efforts helped save more than 600 children from the Holocaust—has died at 106.
The New York Times writes that Winton, born to German-Jewish parents who’d converted to Christianity and changed the family name, was a stockbroker in 1938. A friend working with refugees in the Sudetenland called, asking him to cancel a vacation and come. Because of Britain’s Kindertransport program, it was possible to get unaccompanied Jewish children to safety—but it wasn’t easy. With the help of friends Trevor Chadwick and Bill Barazetti and his own mother, Winton dedicated himself to efforts in Czechoslovakia:
It involved dangers, bribes, forgery, secret contacts with the Gestapo, nine railroad trains, an avalanche of paperwork and a lot of money. Nazi agents started following him. In his Prague hotel room, he met terrified parents desperate to get their children to safety, although it meant surrendering them to strangers in a foreign land.
As their numbers grew, a storefront office was opened. Long lines attracted Gestapo attention. Perilous confrontations were resolved with bribes. Eventually he registered more than 900 children, although he had names and details on 5,000. In early 1939, he left two friends, Trevor Chadwick and Bill Barazetti, in charge in Prague and returned to London to find foster homes, raise money and arrange transportation.
Winton used his own money when funds ran short. And when the paperwork wasn’t fast enough, well: “We forged the Home Office entry permits,” he remembered later.
They got 669 children out, but one last group never made it:
About 250 children, the largest group, were on board the last train out, on Sept. 1, 1939. On that day, however, Hitler invaded Poland, all borders controlled by Germany were closed and Mr. Winton’s rescue efforts came to an end.
“Within hours of the announcement, the train disappeared,” he recalled. “None of the 250 children aboard was ever seen again.” All were believed to have perished in concentration camps.
Those who survived thanks to his efforts still refer to themselves as “Winton’s Children.” Winton himself said nothing about his efforts for decades, until his wife stumbled across a scrapbook tucked away in their attic. The New York Times says this is the closest thing he ever really gave to an explanation, in a 2001 interview:
“One saw the problem there, that a lot of these children were in danger, and you had to get them to what was called a safe haven, and there was no organization to do that. Why did I do it? Why do people do different things. Some people revel in taking risks, and some go through life taking no risks at all.”
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