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'British Schindler' dies aged 106

July 1, 2015

Nicholas Winton, who helped rescue more than 650 schoolchildren from being sent to Nazi concentration camps, has died. His Second World War heroism wasn't revealed until almost half a century later.

Sir Nicholas Winton
Image: picture-alliance/AP/Petr David Josek

The death of the 106-year-old was announced via the website of the Rotary Club of Maidenhead on Wednesday, of which Winton was a former president.

"It is with much sadness I have to report that Sir Nicky Winton died peacefully early this morning. Nicky's daughter Barbara and two grandchildren were with him when he died and Barbara said that he was aware of their presence," a statement read.

Born in London to parents of German Jewish descent, Nicholas Winton was a 29-year-old clerk when he took upon the task of evacuating children from Czechoslovakia. Fearing the country would soon be invaded by Nazi troops, Winton discovered that while British supporters were working to rescue Jewish intellectuals and communists, children were being overlooked. He then set himself up as a one-man rescue agency as part of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, and began searching for homes and guarantors for around 6,000 children.

Children say goodbye to their parents at a German train station during World War II
Most of the thousands of children who made it to Britain from Prague never saw their parents againImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Around 20 children were flown out by plane, but after the German army reached the capital Prague in March of 1939 train became the only option. Eight trains with a total of 669 children left the city bound for Britain in the lead-up to the beginning of World War II. The largest transit, set for September 3, 1939, never set off, with Britain declaring war on Germany on that day.

Although far more children were saved from Vienna and Berlin, Winton's efforts were particularly remarkable given his limited resources and finances. "Maybe a lot more could have been done. But much more time would have been needed, much more help would have been needed from other countries, much more money would have been needed, much more organization," he once said.

Winton served in the Royal Air Force during the war, and after its end continued to work with many charitable institutions, including the Abbeyfields organization providing homes for the elderly. Two of the homes were named after him. His life-saving efforts though weren't discovered until 1988, when his wife found documents in the attic of their home. Winton said he never talked about his rescue mission because he didn't feel it was that significant. "Everything that happened before the war actually didn't feel important in the light of the war itself," he said.

He was hailed as a hero around the world, with then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair describing him as "Britain's Schindler" after renowned wartime factory owner Oskar Schindler, who saved hundreds of lives during the Second World War.

In 2003, Winton was knighted, and honored with a statue in his likeness at Prague's main station. The Rotary Club quoted Winton in a letter he had written in 1939: "There is a difference between passive goodness and active goodness, which is, in my opinion, the giving of one's time and energy in the alleviation of pain and suffering. It entails going out, finding and helping those in suffering and danger and not merely in leading an exemplary life in a purely passive way of doing no wrong."

an/msh (Reuters, AP)