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Nicholas Winton, 106, unsung savior of 669 children from Holocaust

May 19, 1909 – July 1, 2015

Nicholas Winton, a Briton who said nothing for a half-century about his role in organizing the escape of 669 mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II, a righteous deed like those of Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, died Wednesday in Maidenhead, England, west of London. He was 106.

The Rotary Club of Maidenhead, of which Mr. Winton was a former president, announced his death on its website.

It was only after Mr. Winton’s wife found a scrapbook in the attic of their home at Maidenhead, in 1988 – a dusty record of names, pictures and documents detailing a story of redemption from the Holocaust – that he spoke of his all-but-forgotten work in the deliverance of children who, like the parents who gave them up to save their lives, were destined for Nazi concentration camps and extermination.

Mr. Winton was a London stockbroker in December 1938 when, on an impulse, he canceled a Swiss skiing vacation and flew to Prague at the behest of a friend who was aiding refugees in the Sudetenland, the western region of Czechoslovakia that had just been annexed by Germany.

“Don’t bother to bring your skis,” the friend, Martin Blake, advised in a phone call.

Mr. Winton found vast camps of refugees living in appalling conditions. War looked inevitable, and escape, especially for children, seemed hopeless, given the restrictions against Jewish immigration in the West.

Britain, however, was an exception. In late 1938, it began a program, called Kindertransport, to admit unaccompanied Jewish children up to age 17 if they had a host family.

But there was no comparable mass-rescue effort in Czechoslovakia. Mr. Winton created one.

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.

He and a few volunteers, including his mother, had photos of the children printed and appealed for funds and foster homes in newspaper ads and church and synagogue bulletins.

Hundreds of families volunteered to take children, and money trickled in from donors – not enough to cover all the costs, but Mr. Winton made up the difference himself. On March 14, 1939, it all came together. Hours before the Nazi regime led by Adolf Hitler dismembered the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia as a German “protectorate,” the first 20 children left Prague on a train.

Mr. Winton and his colleagues later arranged for eight more trains to get the rest of the children out. He and the host families met the children in London. Each refugee had a small bag and wore a name tag.

But only seven of the eight trains made it through, bringing the total rescued to 669. About 250 children, the largest group, were onboard 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.

Nicholas George Wertheim was one of three children of Rudolf and Barbara Wertheimer Wertheim. His parents were of German-Jewish origin but converted to Christianity and changed the family name to Winton. For 50 years, he said nothing of the children’s rescue, not even to his wife, Grete Gjelstrup, a Dane he had married in 1948. They had three children, Nicholas, Barbara and Robin. Robin died at age 7 in 1962. Mr. Winton’s wife died in 1999. Mr. Winton was made a member of the Order of the British Empire in 1983.

The Rotary Club of Maidenhead said his daughter Barbara and two grandchildren were at his side at his death.

– New York Times

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