Nicholas Winton saved 669 children from the Holocaust. The world has lost a hero.

Yesterday, the world lost a great and amazing man: A man who saved over 669 children, mostly Jewish Czechoslovakian, during the Holocaust in World War II; a man who risked his life during a time of incomprehensible danger to help parents who were fearful for their children’s lives. That man is Sir Nicholas Winton, who peacefully passed away in Maidenhead, England at the age of 106.

The New York Times describes Winton as a “reluctant hero” who was truly humble about his immensely noble deeds. In fact, Winton said nothing about his heroic past for half a century, and he only spoke about his work after Grete, his wife who passed away in 1999, found a dusty book in their attic that contained names, pictures, and documents chronicling the children that he had saved from being sent to Nazi concentration camps. “I did not think for one moment that [the records] would be of interest to anyone so long after it happened,” Winton said later, according to the New York Times.

Winton, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2003, started his work at the tail end of 1938, when his friend Martin Blake, who was helping Czechoslovakian refugees, implored Winton’s assistance. When Winton arrived from England, he found the country in disarray and on the brink of war. Though there was a system in place in Britain that saved 10,000 children from being sent to their demise in concentration camps, there was no such effort in Czechoslovakia — so Winton took it upon himself to create one himself.

Despite the fact that doing so was an incredible risk — according to the New York Times, “dangers, bribes, forgery, secret contacts with the Gestapo, nine railroad trains, an avalanche of paperwork and a lot of money” were involved, and Nazi agents even began to follow him — Winton registered 600 children and had details on 5,000. Months after he had begun his work, he flew back to London to raise money and figure out foster homes and transportation for these children so he could get them to safety.

Eventually, he and a few volunteers started calling themselves, “British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children’s Section,” and they found hundreds of families who were willing to take in rescued children. They got donations, but not enough to cover all costs, so Winton covered the rest out of his own pocket. The committee even forged visas themselves because the response time was so slow.

By March of 1939, he was able to send the first 20 children out of Prague on a train. Winton arranged for eight more trains to be sent out carrying refugee children to London, making sure to be there to meet the children and the host families — but only eight of the nine trains Winton commissioned made it through. Winton would have saved 900 people if the last train, the largest, carrying 250 children, had made it — but on the first day of September 1939, the day this last train had departed, Hitler invaded Poland, and all borders controlled by Germany were closed.

“Within hours of the announcement, the train disappeared,” Winton said, according to the New York Times. “None of the 250 children aboard was ever seen again.”

But those 669 children he saved grew to be adults. After Winton’s wife found the records, she gave them to a Holocaust historian, which led to a newspaper article, and then a heartbreakingly beautiful episode of the BBC program That’s Life, which aired in 1988. In the episode, Winton was in the audience, oblivious to the fact that that he was surrounded by the people (who now call themselves “Winton’s Children”) he had saved all those decades ago. When the people around Winton stood up, he was finally able to see the true impact he had on the world.

After news broke of his work, Winton was bestowed various awards: “the Czech Republic’s highest award, honorary citizenship of Prague, an American Congressional resolution, letters of appreciation from President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, former President Ezer Weizman of Israel and people around the world, and a nomination by the Czech Republic for the Nobel Peace Prize,” the New York Times reports.

“One saw the problem there, that a lot of these children were in danger, and you had to get them to what was called a safe haven, and there was no organization to do that,” Winton said in an interview back in 2001. “Why did I do it? Why do people do different things. Some people revel in taking risks, and some go through life taking no risks at all.”

The world will forever remember the risks you took, Sir Nicholas Winton. Rest in peace, and thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.

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