The man who saved 669 children from the Nazis

The first train carrying child refugees left Prague on 14 March, 1939. The next day, German troops occupied the whole of Czechoslovakia.

Battling bureaucracy and filled with a growing sense of desperate urgency, Winton began forging the Home Office entry permits, which were slow arriving.

Between March and August 1939, a total of eight trains carrying 669 children, most of who were Jewish – although there were also children who were political refugees – left Prague, passing through Germany and France to Britain. At Liverpool Street Station in London, they would be met by Winton and his mother, before they were collected by their adopted families.

Vera Gissing and her sister escaped Prague on Kindertransport in July 1939. They were taken in by two separate families, with Vera staying with a poor Methodist family, the Rainfords, near Liverpool.

She recalled meeting them at the station. “When my foster mother first saw me, I call her my little English mother because she is so small, tears were pouring down her face and she hugged me and she said some words I didn’t understand, but now I know she said “You shall be loved.” And she was right, loved I was.

“They had very little money, but they had a heart as big as a house. They did everything they could to make me happy. I was very lucky.”

A ninth train carrying 250 children was supposed to leave on 1 September. But that day Germany invaded Poland, war was declared and the borders were closed. The children who were due to leave were turned away by German soldiers at the station.

Two of those children were Vera Gissing’s own cousins. Both would later die in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It is estimated that of the 15,000 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia sent to camps, fewer than 150 children survived the war.

With war declared, Winton registered as a conscientious objector and served as an ambulance driver in Normandy. He was one of the people evacuated at Dunkirk. In 1940, he rescinded his conscientious objector status and joined the RAF. Following the end of World War Two, he worked for the International Committee for Refugees, taking charge of items looted by the Nazis and selling them to raise funds for Jewish organisations, and later for the International Bank in Paris where he met his wife Grete Gjelstrup.

What is all the more remarkable is that despite the magnitude of the accomplishment, Winton never really spoke about what he did with the Kindertransport operation, believing his friends who stayed in Prague took greater risks. For decades his heroism went largely unnoticed.

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