— By Hannah Lee
Can you imagine saving the lives of 669 strangers and not talking about it for 50 years — that is, until your wife finds the scrapbook you’ve made in the chaotic prelude to the outbreak of World War II? That’s the true story of Nicholas Winton, a young British stockbroker who spent his Christmas holiday in Czechoslovakia when Jewish refugees started fleeing the regions bordering Germany. His compassion for their desperate plight propelled him to single-handedly mobilize a rescue mission to save their children. His international appeals to governments were ignored by all but his own and Sweden. England agreed to issue him visas as long as he could find families to take in the children, as well as pay 50 pounds per child. Once war broke out, he changed course to serve his own country and never spoke about it again.
More after the jump.
Appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his work in establishing homes for the elderly in Britain and knighted in 2002 for his role in the Czech kindertransports, the very active and lively Sir Nicholas will turn 103 on May 19th.
The Czech director Matej Minac was raised by a mother who’d survived the Auschwitz death camp and he has been fascinated by this man’s story over a 26-year career. His latest cinematic effort is Nicky’s Family, which was shown on January 16th as part of the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival. He answered questions from the audience via Skype at the Prince Music Theatre afterwards, even though it was 3 am for him in the Czech Republic.
Nicky’s Family intersperses interviews with the now-elderly rescued children with newsreel footage and re-enactments with Czech actors, who do not have speaking roles in the American version. Minac told the audience he was delighted to learn from Sir Nicholas — called “Nicky” by all — that there was footage of some of the transports in the federal archives in Washington. He wanted to tell a more intimate tale, so the re-enactments depicted the emotional aspects of these rescues, such as the one of Marta, a mother who was hesitant about giving up her small child. In the film, the scene depicts her retrieving her daughter, and then chasing the train to return her through the window to the group.
So why did Nicky remain silent about his deed, not even telling his own wife? In the film, he said that it was no longer relevant and he “had much more interesting” things to share. Maybe it was because his last and biggest transport of 250 children was aborted by the outbreak of the war, a view offered in person on Monday by Peter Rafaeli, the “honorary Czech consul” in Philadelphia, the person who’d spent seven years lobbying for American recognition of these courageous rescues, culminating in the Congressional bill HR583.
How did Nicky raise the money he needed — without an organization backing him? Minac said that Nicky had good money sense, being in the financial profession. He took photographs of the children and made photo cards with six children depicted on each card. Prospective families were shown the cards and asked to make a selection. His methodology was very effective and he found families over a narrow window of several months in 1939.
How many of the rescued children remained Jewish? Minac said that about 90% of the children were Jewish, but the transports also included children from other families also targeted for persecution by the Nazis. In the film, Nicky recalled being rebuked by some people in England for sending the Jewish children to Christian homes but his defense was that it was better than the alternative of dead Jewish children. Minac said that a few of the children were reunited with their families but it was not an unqualified joy. One man who now lives in Australia was rescued at age 6 and reunited with his father at age 13. Sadly, there was no emotional bond by then, because he’d found happiness with his foster family. Minac estimates that there are almost 6000 people living today because of Nicky’s rescue missions.
Minac’s 2002 breakthrough documentary, Nicholas Winton- The Power of Good, won many awards, including the International Emmy Award for Best Foreign Documentary. He covered the same topic – the rescue of Jewish children during WWII – in his 1999 feature film, All My Loved Ones. Culminating over 12 years of devotion to this story, Nicky’s Family highlights the greater impact of Nicky’s legacy: how his deeds continue to inspire children and adults to do acts of good around the world.
The Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival continues its “Documentaries and Dialogues” series on Monday evenings at 7 pm at the Prince Music Theatre on 1412 Chestnut Street. The remaining films are: Just Like Home on the 23rd ; Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment and Strangers No More, both on the 30th; and Eichmann’s End on February 6th. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit www.pjff.org.
This article has been corrected for the proper address of a British royal, as per a savvy reader. Sir Nicholas Winton is called Sir Nicholas, not Sir Winton.