The man who saved 669 Czech children from the Nazis is now the hero of a children’s book
When Vera, a young Jewish girl, was growing up outside of Prague in 1938, she didn’t have much on her mind except her grandmother and her love of animals. But her happy childhood would change forever with the emerging crisis brought on by her country’s neighbor, Nazi Germany.
When Vera’s parents heard about an opportunity for Jewish children to escape to the UK organized by an Englishman named Nicholas Winton, they sent their 9-year-old daughter on a train. Ultimately, 669 Jewish children were saved by the series of transports out of Czechoslovakia.
Winton, who was silent about his role, was caught on live television decades later as other studio audiences were revealed to be children whose lives he helped save.
Winton, lived a long life, dying in 2015 at the age of 106 and now his moving tale is told in “Nicky and Véra”, a new book by award-winning children’s author and illustrator Peter Sis, released earlier this year. The book was named on a children’s summer reading list by The Times and The Sunday Times.
Collectively, those who were saved became known as the “Children of Winton” – one of whom, Vera (Diamantova) Gissing, is the actual protagonist of the book. Winton saved others who would go on to become notable artists, including British politician Alfred Dubs (Baron Dubs), geneticist Renata Laxova, and Israeli Air Force co-founder Hugo Marom, born in Brno. , the same hometown as Sis. .
“The Children of Winton” is part of a larger story of Kindertransports in which Jewish refugee children from Nazism came to the UK.
Learned to act fast, he saved lives
Sis, who now resides in the United States, was visiting his former homeland with his son in 2009 and stumbled upon a celebration of Winton’s 100th birthday in Prague.
Sis himself became a refugee later in his life, fleeing his then communist country to the United States while working on a film project during the Olympics almost 40 years ago. He went on to become several Caldecott Laureates and MacArthur Fellow, with previous titles on Galileo, Charles Darwin, and Tibet.
After Sis took to writing a book on Winton, he was aided by another chance discovery: Gissing’s memoirs of his escape from Czechoslovakia.
“I’m trying to make connections for a younger audience,” Sis told The Times of Israel in a recent interview. “There is the contrast in the life of a little girl, the danger of coming, the expectations, in a time of great uncertainty.
In the character of Winton, he said, “My goal from the start was to show someone… who asked, ‘How can I help someone when I see something wrong, say it? is wrong and do something? “
Before Winton was a lifeguard, he was an Olympic-level fencer. In masterful features, Sis portrays his upbringing. Winton was born into a family of Jewish descent who converted to Christianity. He received a general education before going into finance. The protagonist is fancifully illustrated in his fencing uniform riding a pigeon during college days.
Winton had initially planned to devote the winter of 1938 to another physical activity: skiing. Still, a friend named Martin Blake urged him to come to Czechoslovakia instead, to help deal with the refugee crisis that followed the Anschluss and Kristallnacht – both illustrated with grim illustrations.
“He, because of who he was, moved very, very quickly,” Sis said.
Part of a movement
The author notes that there were many others in Czechoslovakia who were helping the refugees. This point has also been mentioned by Winton’s daughter, Barbara Winton, and by historians.
“He couldn’t have done it himself,” said Barbara Winton, author of a biography of his father. “Someone had to be in Prague to organize the trains” and help other components of the project in Czechoslovakia and beyond, starting from “children’s lists, informing parents, organizing foster homes in the Kingdom -United “.
“A lot of people were instrumental,” Winton said, naming fellow Britons Trevor Chadwick and Doreen Warriner, adding that Warriner’s work had placed her on Hitler’s watchlist. “He was part of a group of people. It was he who took responsibility when the Czech Kindertransport took place, obtaining the permits. He was kind of a catalyst. There were all kinds of people before him who pushed him to get involved.
“I knew Nicholas Winton was a hero,” Sis said. “Because he also lived a long life, he became the face of something. He almost became a mythical hero who kind of saved all these people. I discovered that there were other young people around him – Chadwick was one of them – a whole team. “
“In the afterword,” he said, “I mention [other rescuers, including Chadwick and Warriner]. Anyone can do their own research as and when they are interested. As much [people] came to Prague, of course, you can see many other organizations that are planning to help people – Americans, Christians, Jewish organizations.
Laura Brade, an academic at Albion College in Michigan, called Winton “really part of a constellation of actors who came to Prague as a result of the Munich accord.”
According to Brade, in Prague, Winton connected with Warriner, the chairperson of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, who showed him refugee camps.
“He’s forming a partnership with her,” Brade said. “He decides it might be useful… to help organize transportation for the children.
After three weeks in Prague, Winton had to resume his work as a stockbroker at the end of January 1939.
In London, said Brade, Winton, his mother and a small staff “took care of permits, visas, payments to the Home Office to allow children to come to England, of course also working with the committees. Czechs. The Prague-based Jewish Refugees Committee was very involved with the children… It was really a collaborative effort.
Brade expressed concern that some people involved in the rescue were left out of the story. She and her colleague Rose Holmes wrote an article in 2017 on this topic, “Troublesome Sainthood”.
“We tried to unravel all the players involved in the rescue,” Brade said. “There were really a lot of women involved – Czech women, British women, who actually stayed in Prague, doing a lot of really dangerous work to help refugees in Nazi-occupied Bohemia and Moravia,” which became a Reich protectorate in 1939.
“One of the things that happened was that women were generally placed in very different roles,” Brade said. “They weren’t necessarily the public face of the organization. But they have done a lot of work in the field. They were written out of history.
So the Communists were accused, she said.
“Warriner was later accused of having Communist ties,” Brade said. “She was questioned by the British government. People with questionable political backgrounds, with political leanings, have also been somehow left out of history – Doreen Warriner, Trevor Chadwick, Czech women like Marie Schmolka, Hannah Steiner. All died when Winton’s story gained popularity in the 1980s. ”
As the rescued children entered their golden years, they naturally congratulated themselves “on finally having someone to thank,” Brade said. “I think it played a role in focusing on one person as a hero.”
She called Winton “clearly a very generous, generous, modest individual… He himself was an admirable individual who we all want to measure up to, should measure up to.” She also said, “I think Barbara Winton’s book does a really good job of how these other people got involved,” and although she didn’t read “Nicky and Véra”, “It’s on my list of things to read. I love the work of Peter Sis.
When asked what made Nicholas Winton do what he did, she replied, “I wish we could answer that question. I would have a lot more hope.
“There is the fact that he had a friend who is going [to Czechoslovakia] first and say, ‘You should come and see what’s going on here,’ ”Brade said. “And then I think he’s the kind of person who, when he encountered a situation like this, and felt able to do something, I think he was motivated to act… [If I knew] what motivates altruistic people to do what they do, we would have a very different world.
She noted that the Czech Jewish community suffered “incredibly” during the Holocaust, with around 88% of the country’s Jews killed.
Some of the rescued children, including Vera, returned to Czechoslovakia after the war and found their families had perished.
“It was a terrible ordeal to lose their families,” said Sis, “building completely new lives”.
Yet they came of age – in England, Israel, the United States, in some cases Czechoslovakia, although it became more difficult after the Communist coup of 1948 – and had their own children and grandsons. children, including in Vera’s case.
“I spoke to his daughter,” Sis said. “She has grandchildren and an extended family.” He added that although COVID-19 travel restrictions have maintained his communications with Vera online, “I would love to meet Vera and also her family, families of others. [rescued] children. “
“Now there’s a generation of people, of course in their 90s,” Sis said. “There are fewer and fewer left. It’s an absolutely fascinating kind of tragic story.
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