Saturday, September 5, 2009

Steam train reunites 'British Schindler' with Jews he saved from Nazis

Hauled by a newly built British steam engine, a specially chartered train arrived at Liverpool Street station in London yesterday to commemorate the rescue of almost 700 Czech Jewish children on the eve of the Second World War.

Tornado, the first mainline steam locomotive to be built in Britain for almost 50 years, had been chartered by Czech Railways to haul the final leg of a train from Prague, poignantly recreating the escape of 669 Jewish children in 1939. The famous “Kindertransport” was organised by Sir Nicholas Winton.

Sir Nicholas, who turned 100 in May, was there to greet some of the now elderly people he saved from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. “It’s wonderful to see you all after 70 years,” he told them. “Don’t leave it quite so long until we meet here again.”

A band played and hundreds of wellwishers crowded the platforms to greet the train.

Twenty-two of the children, accompanied by 150 others, left Prague on a steam train on Tuesday, following the same route they had taken in 1939 out of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. They arrived yesterday morning at Harwich and travelled the final leg to London to honour Sir Nicholas, known as the “British Schindler”.

In 1938 Nicholas Winton, a stockbroker of Jewish origin working in London, visited a friend in Prague and realised the danger of an imminent German invasion. He set about chartering special trains, and returned to London to raise money and find host families who would accept the children. Eight trains set off, travelling through Germany in 1939. But a ninth, with 250 children aboard, never left Prague, as it was due to depart on September 3, the day war broke out. The children were never seen again.

Sir Nicholas never spoke of his work until it was revealed by chance 50 years later by his wife, Greta, who found a briefcase with documents on the Kindertransport in their attic in 1988. Since then he has received many honours: he was awarded the freedom of the city of Prague, was decorated by President Havel, and Czech astronomers named a small planet after him. In 2002 he was knighted by the Queen.

In 1998 the Czech Ambassador to Britain sponsored a commemoration called “Thank you Britain” to honour those who helped to settle the children. A statue to him was unveiled at Prague station before the train left on Tuesday. Yesterday survivors spoke of their gratitude to Sir Nicholas and of the tragedies that befell their families.

Otto Deutsch, 81, who is originally from Vienna and now lives in Southend, said: “It happened so many years ago yet I remember it so vividly. I never saw my parents again or my sister. My parents were shot and what they did with my sister I really don’t want to know.”

Alexandra Greensted, 77, from Maidstone, said: “It’s a very emotional day for me. I can’t remember much about the actual train journey. All I can remember is being at the railway station crying my eyes out. I left my father and two older brothers behind.”

Tornado, the engine hauling the train into London, is an A1 Pacific that cost almost £3 million to build and was put into service on charter trains last year. Mark Allatt, the chairman of the trust that raised the money from volunteers, said that they were honoured to provide the motive power for this commemoration, dedicated to the Czech presidency of the EU, of the Kindertransport trains.

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