Monday night saw the announcement of this year's Emmy television awards in the United States, and among the winners was a Czech-Slovak co-production called "Nicholas Winton - the Power of Good." The film tells the extraordinary tale of a British diplomat who helped around 700 Jewish children escape Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. The children never saw their parents again, while Nicholas Winton never talked about what he did for fifty years. Radio Prague's David Vaughan recently had the opportunity of meeting Sir Nicholas Winton, now 93, and some of "his" children, during a visit to the Czech Republic.
It was fascinating eavesdropping on the conversation as Sir Nicholas spoke with some of the people he had helped as children. It was also strange to think that without his initiative none of the people we were talking to would be alive today. Sir Nicholas himself was clearly moved, and I asked whether he could put his feelings into words.
Nicholas Winton: "No, I can't, it's very emotional, and all of them have led obviously such difficult lives. None of these children ever saw their parents again."
One of the children was Alice Klimova, who was eleven when she was parted from her parents and sent to England.
Alice Klimova: "My sister was too old. She was already sixteen, so I went instead of her. This is how I got onto that children's transport. By pure coincidence my sister managed to get onto the next transport, so we were able to be there both. She was more than a sister. She was a mother to me. I was very fortunate to have her there because absolutely nobody from the family survived. Unfortunately she died twenty-one years ago."
What were your impressions when you arrived in England?
AK: "I would say very favourable. I was very fortunate because I came to a very nice pleasant young family and they took very good care of me. They had a four-month-old baby. Mr Marshmant, he died already, but Mrs Marshmant, she's still alive and we're still in touch. She's a wonderful person."
Did you have any idea of what had happened to the rest of your family?
AK: "No, absolutely none. It didn't sink in, actually, what happened. Only slowly, after I had my first child, I realized what it means to have parents, grandparents for my children, somebody to lean on, to have a background, and that's why I said, my sister, she was always such a brick and such a help."
And nobody survived from your family?
AK: "Absolutely nobody."
Sir Nicholas Winton talks about his work in 1939 with extraordinary modesty. In fact, until he had never talked in public about what he had done. To this day he says he was simply doing what he felt to be right.
Nicholas Winton: "I could see in England what the political situation was and I thought it was much more serious than the politicians did. One came to Prague in '39 and I was told that although there was an organization which was trying to get out the elder people, they had no permission from the British Government and they had no financial means to get out the children. So I merely said, if it was possible, I would do it. And in fact it wasn't really difficult. It was a lot of hard work, but it wasn't difficult, because the Home Office made no problems at all about granting visas."
This was in the strange period between March 1939, when Hitler marched into Prague, and September when the war itself broke out. Paradoxically, Nazi Germany didn't try to stop Sir Nicholas's work and he was helping the children quite openly.
NW: "The Germans were in Prague, and the Germans were only too willing to get rid of these children. You must remember that at that time the Germans never thought they were going to be at war with Great Britain and vice versa. So, from the German point of view there was really very little difficulty. The only problem was to get permits for the children to enter England and to fulfill the conditions which were laid down by the Home Office, which was that I could only bring in a child if I had a family that would look after them."
This was a mammoth task, but Nicholas Winton eventually found families for around 700 children. Director Matej Minac.
Matej Minac: "He's the last living rescuer, like Schindler or Wallenberg, who did such an incredible thing and he's still alive. And I think it's very important for the public to realize that he's still among us and to learn things from him, because soon these people will pass away and there will be no-one to tell from the first hand these accounts. And his account is incredibly interesting."
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