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Canada Unsung hero Nicholas Winton saved hundreds from concentration camps

Nicholas Winton, left, had a role in the rescue of Joe Schlesinger and other mostly Jewish children before the Second World War.

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

For half a century, Joe Schlesinger didn't know who saved his life.

The former CBC foreign correspondent was 11 years old when he, his brother and more than 200 other children were placed on a train that whisked them away from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to the Netherlands in June of 1939, just months before the start of the Second World War.

The man behind their escape, British stockbroker Nicholas Winton, was an unsung hero until his wife stumbled upon a scrapbook with the names of children her husband helped save from concentration camps and almost certain death. In the unmasking of his role in the rescue of 669 mostly Jewish children, a long-held mystery was solved and scores of friendships were born.

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Mr. Winton, who died Wednesday at the age of 106, became a father figure to Mr. Schlesinger, said the 87-year-old Toronto resident. Mr. Schlesinger's parents died in the Holocaust.

"He became my role model in every way. In a way, he became my father. We became pretty close," Mr. Schlesinger said. "He was a good man throughout his life."

Indeed, Mr. Winton performed many good deeds. He worked for organizations that aided refugees and helped found a charity that operates nursing homes. In 1983, he received the Order of the British Empire for his charity work.

Many helped in the effort to rescue the Czechoslovak children, but Mr. Schlesinger believes their escape would not have succeeded without Mr. Winton.

In an article for CBC last year, Mr. Schlesinger wrote: "What set him apart was that while the rest were mostly teachers and charity workers, Winton was a businessman, a London stockbroker, who knew how to organize, raise money, publicize, deal with bureaucracies and persuade people."

Mr. Schlesinger and Mr. Winton spoke often over the years. When Mr. Schlesinger asked how he was a few months ago, Mr. Winton responded: "I'm fine from the neck up," Mr. Schlesinger recalled.

Mr. Winton broke his hip a few years ago and was largely confined to a chair and bed, Mr. Schlesinger said.

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A modest man, Mr. Winton was never entirely comfortable with all the accolades he received, but Mr. Schlesinger suspects he took some joy from the honours, which included knighthood from the Queen.

Asked what lessons he learned from Mr. Winton, Mr. Schlesinger summed them up in one word: humanism. Mr. Winton taught him what it means to live life in service of others, for the good of humanity.

"He did good all his life," Mr. Schlesinger said. "All his life, he was a role model for everybody."

Last year, Mr. Winton had a grand birthday party with about 100 guests. Many of them had been passengers on his trains.

"Nicky's humanitarian feat has become a highly emotional bond that has tied us not just to him but also to each other," Mr. Schlesinger wrote for CBC last year.

"We have become 'Nicky's children' in real life, a huge family that includes not just the 669 who were on his trains but also our children and their offspring, a group that now numbers more than 6,000."

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With a report from The New York Times

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