The Heroic Brit Who Saved 600 Jewish Children
To the roster of Righteous Gentiles that includes Oskar Schindler and Chiune Sugihara — the Japanese diplomat who in 1940 issued 2039 visas that saved 6000 Jews (including my mother and me) — one must now add Sir Nicholas Winton whose British chutzpah illuminates the Menemsha Film documentary “Nicky’s Family.”
Directed by Matej Minac, the wrenching yet heartwarming film chronicles the rescue of nearly 700 Czech and Slovak Jewish children before the outbreak of World War II. During my overseas exchange with Barbara Winton, daughter of the 104-year-old (and still active!) Winton, she recalled the film’s provenance: “A scrapbook found in an attic in the 1970’s, when I was in my early 20’s. I showed the scrapbook to some Israeli friends. None of us recognized the implications it would have on the names on [the scrapbook’s] list.”
Interfacing archival film of Hitler’s march into Czechoslovakia with montages of mothers pleading with a 29-year old Winton to save their children, the film transmits the desperation and panic of that period. “He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of his remarkable deed,” Winton’s daughter pointed out.
Imagine my surprise when one of the rescued Winton children — who appears as an adult in the film — turned out to be a long-time friend, Hanna Slome! In all the years I’d known her, she never mentioned her history. During our chat this week she revealed: “Only recently did I learn who had saved me! All I remembered was my mother at the train station in Prague, May 1938, telling me ‘if I have your hand, I’ll be with you.’ I was fourteen… an older girl, given a young child on my lap, someone to care for and put on a train to England. I have absolutely no recollection of the four-day train trip.” Yet she clearly recalled that on the ship to England “children sang the Czech national anthem.” At the dock in England, she described, “a 3-year old left waiting to be picked up. A taxi driver took him home, fed him fish and chips. The poorer they were, the kinder they were.”
Most of the children never saw their parents again nor knew what happened to them. Slome told me: “In 1942 my mother spent one week in Terezin — Hitler kept good records! She was then sent to Bergen-Belsen or Treblinka.” To this day many of these rescued children — who had been placed in Christian homes — have not been located. At a 500-strong recent Kindertransport reunion held at The Catskills Nevele Resort, Slome finally met someone from her transport, enabling her to begin to retrace her past.
In a 1988 clip from BBC’s “That’s Your Life,” Winton seems unaware that he is sitting next to those he had saved until half the audience — his rescuees — rise to applaud him! There are over 6,000 descendants worldwide.
“Nicky’s Family” opens in New York on July 19 at the Quad and Manhattan’s JCC. Don’t miss.