New doc uncovers mission that saved scores of Jewish children

A new Czech Television documentary, Barbican: Forgotten Mission, tells the previously unknown story of how around 100 Jewish children were air-bridged to the UK from Prague in early 1939. The organisers were a Christian group focused on converting Jews and their actions predated the well-known kindertransports run by Sir Nicholas Winton, though he was involved. The film’s director Jiří František Potužník says the story began with an archive photo of a small boy and a pilot.

This photograph was the starting point for the documentary Barbican: Forgotten Mission, photo: CTKThis photograph was the starting point for the documentary Barbican: Forgotten Mission, photo: CTK “The only mark [on the photo] is the date: January 12, 1939.

“At that time we were working on a book for Václav Havel Airport, which at that time was called Dlouhá míle [Long Mile], and that picture was quite essential for the history.

“So I started to at least try to find some information about this picture, about the circumstances.

“Finally we found out that that small boy is the same one who is known around the world because he appears in a picture being held by Sir Nicholas Winton.

“But it was originally believed that this picture, the other one [found in the archive], was taken in March 1939 – which means after the Nazis took Prague and Czechoslovakia.

“So we found out there were some differences in the dates and our project started as a film.”

What was the involvement of Sir Nicholas Winton in this story?

“We asked him personally a few years ago, before he died, and he told us he was just helping.

“He didn’t even know that the flight from Prague Airport landed finally in London (they actually flew through Rotterdam).

“He thought that the plane had probably landed in Stockholm and that it had been organised by the Swedish Red Cross.

Jiří František Potužník, photo: Alžběta ŠvarcováJiří František Potužník, photo: Alžběta Švarcová “But we found not only documents about the flight but about the kids in London as well, so he was quite surprised that the final destination of more than 50 kids in January, and another 28 in March, was London, not Sweden.”

How many of these children, now obviously elderly people, did you manage to track down?

“In the end we found two small girls, now grandmas of course. One of them is living in London and the other is living in Hamilton in Canada.

“We spent four years finding them, because all the connections were broken in the past.

“The only lady we got a contact for – at the Barbican Mission in London; the institution is today called the Christian Witness to Israel – was Inge Plitzka in London.

“But then we spent another two years finding Hana Popper, the lady living in Hamilton in Canada.”

Tell us about this group the Barbican Mission to the Jews. Is it the case that they made saving the children’s lives conditional on them converting to Christianity?

“No, no, that was just an option.

“They informed the parents that those kids would be brought up in a Christian environment, not a Jewish one.

Barbican: Forgotten Mission, which was co-created by filmmaker Roman Vávra, will be screened by Czech Television on January 30. An English-language version, with commentary voiced by former UK ambassador to Prague Jan Thompson, has also been prepared.

“And if those kids would like themselves to be baptised before they reached the age of 16 the parents signed permission, that they had no problems with that.

“But we found documents saying that even if the kids were baptised after WWII, Reverend [Isaac] Davidson [a Jew who had converted] asked the parents who had survived WWII – if they had survived – if they don’t have a problem with that.

“From Czechoslovakia there were at least 100 kids and definitely not all of them were baptised – let’s say half of them were.”