Evacuees greet holocaust rescuer

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The Independent Online

Seventy years ago, a 30-year-old stockbroker named Nicholas Winton stood nervously on a platform at Liverpool Street Station in central London.

The train that eventually pulled to a stop in front of him was one of eight he had arranged to carry hundreds of young children, most of whom were Jewish, on a treacherous 642-mile journey across Nazi Germany from Prague to London.

His actions were to save 669 of them from almost certain death in Hitler’s concentration camps.

Today, Sir Nicholas – who was knighted in 2003 and is now 100 years old – met 22 of the people he helped evacuate, after they recreated the journey to mark the 70th anniversary of their escape.

The centenarian, from Maidenhead in Berkshire, masterminded their removal to Britain shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. He has come to be known as the “British Schindler”.

Today, a steam train from Prague again arrived at Liverpool Street, and Sir Nicholas was standing on the platform once more, greeting the surviving evacuees with the words: “It’s wonderful to see you all after 70 years. Don’t leave it quite so long until we meet here again.”

Surrounded by a crowd of several hundred people who had gathered to witness the reunion, he gave an emotional speech on the platform where he had stood seven decades earlier.

Describing the scene at the station in 1939, he said: “It was a question of getting a lot of little children together with the families that were going to look after them. It was quite difficult to get them together and, of course, every child needed to be signed for.

“Anyway, it all worked out very well and it’s wonderful that it did work out so well because, after all, history could have made it very different.”

Just before Christmas 1938, the young Sir Nicholas was packing for a skiing holiday when he received a telephone call from a friend, Martin Blake, who was working in a refugee camp in Czechoslovakia, which had already been occupied by the Nazis.

Blake told him he needed his help in the camp, and the young stockbroker was so affected by the plight of the refugee children he met in Prague that he decided to find a way for them to escape.

Sir Nicholas’s grandson, Laurence Watson, 21, spoke with pride about his grandfather’s actions. “It’s very strange when someone you know as a relative turns out to be a hero,” he said.

“There has always been bad things going on in the world and there has always been wars and conflicts. You see it everyday in the newspapers.

“Very occasionally you meet someone who has read those same articles but who decides to do something about it. That’s what my granddad did. He said ‘something needs doing and I am going to do it’.”

Alice Masters, 84, who fled her home in Czechoslovakia on one of Sir Nicholas’s trains, said her journey had been “very emotional”.

She said: “Seventy years ago it wasn’t so luxurious. Then, me and my sisters were three little girls crying our eyes out and eating sandwiches made for us by our mother. We knew that we were leaving our parents.

“"Going through Germany was a lot different then as well. When we got to the Hook of Holland we were delighted. Of course, we were very grateful to the British because nobody else would have taken the children.

“At first I didn’t want to take this [reunion] trip because it was so long, but I’m glad I did. It was nice to see some of the people who took the same train as me 70 years ago.”

Otto Deutsch, 81, who is originally from Vienna but now lives in Essex, said he “vividly” remembered leaving Prague in 1939.

“I never saw my parents again or my sister,” he said. “I remember my sister running after the train. She shouted: ‘Be a good boy. We will see you shortly.’ Whether she realised we would never see each other again, I don’t know.”

After the ceremony the evacuees and their relatives were taken to a reception at the Czech Embassy in London.

“I can’t remember much but I can remember being at Prague railway station, crying my eyes out,” said Alexandra Greensted, 77, an evacuee who has since settled in Maidstone, Kent. “Today has been very emotional.”