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How celebrated illustrator Peter Sís found a Holocaust hero in his own backyard

The day after Donald Trump won the 2016 election, the author and illustrator Peter Sís met with his editor to discuss a new book.

The former president’s rise was already drawing comparisons to the crises of the 20th century. Still, Sís couldn’t have predicted that he would finish his latest work, a children’s tale of an unlikely Holocaust hero, while waiting out a pandemic and watching anxiously to see what would come of an attempted coup.

“I was waiting until the last moment thinking something terrible would happen,” Sís said of the waning days of the Trump administration. “Just because of the history of my country.”

That country is the Czech Republic, which, when Sís was born in 1949, was the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, a satellite state of the Soviet Union. Sís grew up under communist rule in Prague and worked as an animated filmmaker there before traveling to the United States and receiving asylum in 1982. These days, he’s a celebrated author of children’s books, racking up Caldecott Medals and illustration awards from the New York Times. Books in his oeuvre explore such topics as the discoveries of Galileo or the world of trucks, but much of his most-lauded work grapples with his early life and the cataclysmic war that haunted it.

His latest book, “Nicky and Vera,” tells the story of Nicholas Winton, a young British banker who, with no prior experience as an activist or saboteur, came to Prague in 1939 and started smuggling Jewish children out of the country. Finagling visas and forging them when he couldn’t, Winton ultimately saved about 700 lives. After the Holocaust, he kept quiet about what he’d done, going unrecognized until his wife discovered records of his good deeds and reunited him with some of the children he’d saved in a now-famous televised interview.

After stumbling on the story, Sís discovered that Winton had aided several people in his own social circle, including a friend of his parents and an art school classmate’s family. After years of research, Sís has presented Winton’s actions alongside the journey of one child he saved, Vera Gissing, who went on to write the autobiography “Pearls of Childhood.” Rendered in quiet blues and yellows and boasting intimate sketches of prewar Prague, “Nicky and Vera” balances the story of one man’s heroism with the tragedy of a young life shattered by the Holocaust.

I called Sís at his home in the Hudson Valley to talk about makeshift studios, making art in a pandemic, and the role of children’s literature in a time of political upset. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sís in his improvised home studio in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.

Sís in his improvised home studio in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. Image by Courtesy of Peter Sís

On staying home: I live in Irvington-on-Hudson, and we’ve been hiding here since March. I had a studio for many years in downtown Manhattan. Now I have a little space in the back of the house, where I try to keep some separation of life and work.

What he misses: With the studio downtown, there was a whole process of going there and being there and coming back. You went on the train and thought about what you were going to do, and then at the end of the day you locked the studio behind you. You couldn’t go back to mess it up at night. For me, as an immigrant, it was also about America. The studio was on Prince and Elizabeth Street, and I would look outside and always see people walking by these old tenement buildings and feel like I’m some part of America.

Where he looked for work-from-home inspiration: We are neighbors of Sunnyside, which was Washington Irving’s house. Irving was at one time the most famous American writer, but now no one knows him. He came from New York City because of yellow fever, so there are some connections. I read two or three books about him, because I thought I could focus on what he saw in this area. But so far I don’t see any inspiration in it.

Nicky and Vera.

Image by Peter Sis

His quarantine routine (or lack thereof): Before, I had to get up at a reasonable time for the train, and then I had to lock the studio to be home for dinner with the kids. Now, I can have a leisurely morning, but sometimes it’s noon before I know it. Then I work in the afternoon, but I’m also trying to walk each day with my wife, so it’s like “Oh my God, it’s getting dark, we have to walk.” Home is like a home, and a studio is like a studio. When you’re young you don’t care about any of these things, but when you get old you’re looking for all the help you can get.

How the “Nicky and Vera” color palette came to be: I knew Vera had to be cheerful and innocent and young, but I didn’t want to replicate children’s drawings. I think it can’t be done in a false way. I was trying to come up with something that would look different and optimistic, and show the child’s mind.

The hero of the book, Nicholas Winton, was very private and reserved in the English way. He didn’t ask for any recognition. So I knew it had to be something very somber.

Nicky and Vera.

Image by Peter Sis

On finding Winton in his own life: No one knew about Nicholas Winton until 1988, but I heard this story indirectly. I was born four years after the war, which I thought was a long time even though it wasn’t. It was a time when people didn’t talk about things at all. My parents would say, “This person is a translator from English, and she went to England on the train.” Later, I heard an English man was responsible for the trains, but I was fresh off the boat in America and it didn’t make a dent.

Then, in 2009, my son and I made a trip to Prague so I could show him where my parents lived, where I went to school. By complete coincidence, we walked past the national museum, where there was a party and a huge chocolate cake. (That was very impressive for my son.) It was mostly older people, and they explained it was a party for Nicholas Winton, who was 100 years old. They were about to get on the train and take the same route as in 1939, and he would be waiting for them in England.

The history he learned twice: At school in the communist system, we were always sort of brainwashed that the concentration camps were not about anyone being Jewish, that the camps were where the Nazis held communists. When I went to Auschwitz, they showed us a film of the liberation that I had seen in school. But in school, they showed us the Red Army only, and when you saw the emaciated people they said, “These are all communists.” It took me some time to shift my whole historical memory.

Nicky and Vera.

Image by Peter Sis

His hopes for “Nicky and Vera:” I have two wonderful children and a wonderful wife. But Americans are also wonderful for the fact they think they can do anything. You can just feel it, when people are born free, that they feel invincible. It’s a terrible burden to carry, being born in a place that’s not free, where you’re lied to. I still don’t know how you can make someone think independently, how to make them act like Winton did. At least talking about him will make children think. That’s as much as I can do.

Irene Katz Connelly is a staff writer at the Forward. You can contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @katz_conn.

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