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Vera Gissing, saved from Holocaust in celebrated rescue mission, dies at 93

Vera Gissing was one of at least 669 children delivered out of Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust by the English rescuer Nicholas Winton. (Family photo)

When Vera Gissing boarded the train that would deliver her out of Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II, she was certain that she would be home, back in the arms of her family, within a year. That was what her parents had told her — what they, too, fervently hoped — as they readied Vera, 10, and her older sister, Eva, to journey alone to England.

Along with her sister, Mrs. Gissing was one of at least 669 girls and boys, most of them Jewish, rescued from the Holocaust by a young English stockbroker called Nicholas Winton, although they would not learn his name for nearly half a century.

Winton, who dismissed his efforts as nothing more than a “wartime gesture,” did not speak of his past until the 1980s, when his wife discovered in their attic a scrapbook containing the records of his rescue mission. Reported first by the British media, Winton’s story made news around the world, and made him known as a hero in the mold of Oskar Schindler.

In 1988, the BBC television program “That’s Life!” devoted an episode to Winton, who by then was nearly 80 years old. Unbeknown to him, Winton was surrounded in the TV studio by the children he had saved. At one point, the host, Esther Rantzen, turned to Mrs. Gissing and announced, “I should tell you that you are actually sitting next to Nicholas Winton.”

“Hello,” Mrs. Gissing whispered, cradling his hand in hers as Winton wiped tears from his eyes.

Rantzen then addressed the entire studio. “May I ask,” she said, “is there anyone in our audience tonight who owes their life to Nicholas Winton? If so, could you stand up, please.”

Everyone around him rose.

Mrs. Gissing — who chronicled her Holocaust story and Winton’s in books and interviews, offering her survival as evidence of the good that can be achieved through the kindness of a single person — died March 12 at a nursing home in Wargrave, in Berkshire, England. She was 93.

Her daughter Nicola Gissing confirmed her death but did not cite a cause.

Veruska Anna Diamantova was born in Prague on July 4, 1928, and grew up just to the east in the town of Celakovice. Her father was a wine merchant, and her mother worked for the family business. They were Jewish but not especially observant.

Mrs. Gissing recalled a childhood full of delight. “My sister was very serious and studious, and I was a ragamuffin who always got into scrapes,” she said in an interview for a Holocaust oral history archive at the University of Michigan at Dearborn.

But their lives were upended by the German invasion of the Czech regions of Bohemia and Moravia on March 15, 1939. (The Czech territory known as the Sudetenland had already been ceded to Adolf Hitler in the Munich Pact of 1938.)

“German armored cars, motorcycles and tanks followed by line upon line of high-booted, marching soldiers were moving along the street, filling our square,” Mrs. Gissing wrote in her memoir, “Pearls of Childhood.” “Suddenly our home was no longer ours.”

Winton, who was 29 at the time, had traveled to Czechoslovakia with a friend, who worked with the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, and who promised Winton a “most interesting assignment.”

Winton threw himself into the organization’s mission, modeling his efforts on the Kindertransport, the effort to shepherd children out of Germany and Nazi-occupied Austria.

Over a period of weeks, he collected thousands of applications from Jewish families seeking passage for their children out of Czechoslovakia. Parents waited in line for days. Among those parents was Mrs. Gissing’s mother.

One evening, Mrs. Gissing wrote in her memoir, her family was gathered at the dinner table, but her mother could not bring herself to eat.

“Suddenly she pushed her plate aside, looked at father and said, ‘I heard today that both Eva and Vera can go to England,’” Mrs. Gissing wrote.

“There was a deathly silence,” she continued. “Father looked shocked and terribly surprised. … All at once his dear face seemed haggard and old. He covered it with his hands, whilst we all waited in silence. Then he lifted his head, smiled at us with tears in his eyes, sighed and said, ‘All right, let them go.’ ”

The girls left on July 1, 1939, three days before Mrs. Gissing’s 11th birthday. Their mother dressed them in stylish clothes exactly their size; she could not bear the thought, Mrs. Gissing said, that her daughters would be away long enough to grow into larger garments. Her father gave her a leather-bound diary, where he instructed her to record all her experiences during their separation, in order to share them when the family was together again.

“The scene at Prague station will be with me forever,” the Daily Telegraph quoted Mrs. Gissing as recalling. “The forced cheerfulness of my parents — their last words of love, encouragement and advice. Until that moment, I felt more excited than afraid, but when the whistle blew and the train pulled slowly out of the station, my beloved mother and father could no longer mask their anguish.”

Mrs. Gissing’s transport was one of eight organized by Winton between March 1939 and August 1939. A ninth, which was to carry Mrs. Gissing’s two cousins, was scheduled to leave in September but was canceled after Hitler invaded Poland, precipitating the outbreak of World War II. All the children chosen to depart on that train were believed to have perished in the Holocaust.

In England, Winton and his associates had arranged for the children to be placed with foster families or in boarding schools, as happened with Eva. Mrs. Gissing was placed with a Methodist family in Liverpool, the Rainfords, whom she remembered with deepest affection.

“The door opened and there stood a little lady, barely taller than I was,” Mrs. Gissing wrote in her memoir, remembering her first encounter with “Mummy Rainford.” “Her hat sat askew on her head and her mackintosh was buttoned up all wrong. A pair of bright eyes peered at me rather anxiously from behind glasses before her rosy-cheeked kind-looking face broke into a wide warm smile. She ran toward me then, laughing and crying at the same time, and hugged me tightly, talking to me with words I could not understand.”

Four of those words, she later learned, were: “You shall be loved.”

“And loved I was,” Mrs. Gissing wrote.

For a period, Mrs. Gissing attended a school for young Czech refugees in Wales, visiting her foster family for vacations.

She returned to Czechoslovakia after the war, but not to be greeted by her parents, as she had long hoped. Both had been deported to concentration camps. Her father was executed during a death march. Her mother died of typhoid days after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in April 1945.

Mrs. Gissing studied English at a university in Prague and was working as a translator at the Defense Ministry when Communists assumed control of the country in 1948. She returned to England, where she worked as a literary translator, and married in 1949.

“We somehow felt that we had to achieve something,” she said years later of herself and the other rescued children, “to repay the fact that we were alive while our loved ones, who had made the ultimate sacrifice of wrenching themselves away from their children, did not survive.”

Mrs. Gissing learned of Winton’s part in her survival while writing her memoir, which was published in 1988, the same year that he and the children were reunited on “That’s Life!” As it happened, Mrs. Gissing and Winton lived several miles away from one another.

Also among the children saved by Winton were Dagmar Simova, a cousin of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; Karel Reisz, the director of the 1981 film “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”; and the Labour Party politician Alfred Dubs.

Mrs. Gissing appeared in and contributed to several documentary films about Winton. With Muriel Emanuel, she co-wrote the book “Nicholas Winton and the Rescued Generation” (2001) — the title a reference to Mrs. Gissing’s contention that Winton had “rescued the greater part of the Jewish children of my generation in Czechoslovakia.”

She and Winton were also the subject of the children’s book “Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued” (2021) by Peter Sís.

Mrs. Gissing’s husband, Michael Gissing, died in 1995. Their daughter Sally Gissing died a decade ago.

Besides her daughter Nicola, of Bristol, England, survivors include a son, Clive Gissing of Thame, Oxfordshire; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Winton died in 2015 at 106.

“He has,” Mrs. Gissing told the Daily Mail in 1998, “become the much cherished father-figure of the largest family in the world, because our own parents had perished in the Holocaust — as surely we would have done, without his swift and timely intervention. To him we owe our freedom and life.”

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