Saturday, September 5, 2009

LONDON | Elderly Holocaust survivors were reunited at a London railway station Friday with the man who saved them on the eve of World War II - a now 100-year-old former stockbroker who rescued hundreds of Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.

“For me he is like a father,” said Joseph Ginat, who was 10 when he traveled to England in August 1939 as part of the “kindertransports” organized by Nicholas Winton.

“He gave us life,” said Mr. Ginat, 80, whose brother and two sisters were also among the 669 children carried to safety. Their mother died in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the rescue, a vintage train carrying some two dozen survivors along with members of their families pulled into London’s Liverpool Street Station on Friday after a three-day journey by rail and ferry from the Czech capital, Prague.

There, they were greeted by Mr. Winton. Frail and in a wheelchair, he stood briefly with the help of a cane and shook hands with the former evacuees as they stepped off the train.

“It’s wonderful to see you all after 70 years,” a beaming Mr. Winton told the survivors, some of whom he was meeting for the first time. Some gave him flowers, while others posed for photographs as a band played festive music.

Mr. Winton, whose parents were of German Jewish descent, was a 29-year-old clerk at the London Stock Exchange when he traveled to what was then Czechoslovakia in the winter of 1938 at the invitation of a friend working at the British Embassy.

Alarmed by the influx of refugees from the Sudetenland region recently annexed by Germany, the young man feared - correctly - that Czechoslovakia soon would be invaded by the Nazis and that Jewish residents would be sent to concentration camps.

He immediately began organizing a way to get Jewish children out of the country.

Mr. Winton persuaded British officials to accept the children - as long as foster homes were found and a 50-pound guarantee was paid for each one - and set about fundraising and organizing the trip. He arranged eight trains to carry children through Germany to Britain in the months before the outbreak of war.

The youngsters were sent to foster homes in England, and a few to Sweden. Few saw their parents again.

The largest evacuation was scheduled for Sept. 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war on Germany. That train never left, and almost none of the 250 children trying to flee that day survived the war.

Mr. Winton never spoke about the heroic rescue, not even to his wife, and his story did not emerge until 1988, when she found correspondence referring to the prewar events.

“My wife didn’t know about it for 40 years after our marriage, but there are all kinds of things you don’t talk about, even with your family,” Mr. Winton said in 1999. “Everything that happened before the war actually didn’t feel important in the light of the war itself.”

Mr. Winton’s wife persuaded him to have his story documented, and a film about his heroism, “Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good,” won an International Emmy Award in 2002. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair praised him as “Britain’s Schindler,” after the German businessman Oskar Schindler, who also saved Jewish lives during the war.

He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and honored in the Czech Republic. A statue of Mr. Winton was unveiled at Prague’s central station before the train left Tuesday.

It is estimated there are 5,000 people around the world who owe their lives to Mr. Winton - the children he saved and their descendants.

The children Mr. Winton saved include the late British filmmaker Karel Reisz, who directed “The French Lieutenant’s Woman;” Joe Schlesinger, a one-time Associated Press translator who became a prominent Canadian TV journalist; British lawmaker and peer Alfred Dubs, and Dagmar Simova, a cousin of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, according to the documentary’s Web site.

“He doesn’t think that what he did was a big deal,” said Marianne Wolfson, 85, who traveled from her home in Chicago to make the anniversary journey. “But we got our life back.”

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