By Yehuda Lahav and Nir Hasson, www.Haaretz.com [see follow-up article posted on Sept 22, 2009]
In 1939, Sir Nicholas Winton was a 30-year-old stockbroker at a British bank planning to take a vacation in Switzerland. At the time he had no diplomatic connections, no secret contacts and was not being sent anywhere on behalf of anybody.
But when German troops invaded Czechoslovakia in March that same year, Winton followed his heart and changed his travel destination from Switzerland to Prague.
By that time, thousands of children — many of them orphans — were already awaiting their fate in various camps in the Czechoslovakian capital.
Winton was not Jewish, but felt a responsibility to help those struggling during the war. He turned first to his own government, then to the governments of neighboring states, but was met with rejection by all. In their eyes, his fears appeared exaggerated or unfounded.
Of his own accord (and initially at his own expense), Winton founded an aid association for the children of Czechoslovakia. He was its president, treasurer and only employee.
Using the association’s name, he tried to find British foster families for Czech and Slovakian children — most of them Jewish. Their journeys to Britain were organized by Czech friends of Winton.
As he explained years later, Winton searched for foster families via notices and mail correspondence. He recalled one Scottish family who requested a 10-year-old girl, preferably blond. Winton sent the family photographs of 10 children so that the family could decide which they wanted.
Using these methods, 669 children were brought to Britain from Czechoslovakia by Kindertransport in the summer of 1939. Many of them were torn away from their parents and close relatives at the Prague train station. Nobody knew where the children were going and if the parents would ever see them again. Many of the parents were later murdered at Auschwitz.
The last group was supposed to leave Prague on September 3, but was sent back — just two days after Nazi Germany invaded Poland and World War II began.
After the war, Winton managed to find homes around the world for the children from that group that survived, sending the refugees everywhere from Israel to South America. Winton chose not to maintain contact with the children, as he felt that by finding them a home he had finished his good work.
On Tuesday September 1, 2009 — the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion beginning of World War II — a train will head from Prague to the Liverpool Street station in London, on the same 1,300 kilometer route taken by the 669 children in their escape from the Nazi inferno.
The steam train being used for the journey is a replica of the trains used during World War II and will include carriages from that era, obtained from several European countries for the reenactment.
One of the carriages being used on the current journey is that which was used by Tomas Masaryk, the president of Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and 1930s.
The journey, which will take four days, will leave from Prague’s central train station — the same location at which Winton’s children parted from their parents.
The train will pass through Germany and Holland before arriving at the Dutch coast, where the passengers will board a ferry that will take them to Britain. Once there, they will board another historic train that will bring them to London.
The survivors and their families number some 5,000 people today, 240 of whom will be on the train on Tuesday, accompanied by diplomats and members of the public. Waiting for the passengers at Liverpool Street station will be Sir Winston himself, who in May celebrated his 100th birthday.
‘The child is crying’
Helen Zinger escaped the Nazis with the last group to successfully leave Czechoslovakia before the outbreak of the war. Zinger, whose family arrived in Czechoslovakia from Germany for after the Nazis rose to power in 1933, does not know how Winton got in touch with her parents. But she does remember boarding the train in July 1939, at the age of 14, and told Haaretz that she didn’t know where she was being sent.
Zinger was eventually brought to a German-Jewish family in the northern English coastal city of Hull. The city suffered from German bombing during the war, and in letters she sent to her family in Czechoslovakia during the war, she wrote the words “the child is crying,” a family code for being bombed.
Her sister Chana Vislovitz, who also survived the war, recalled receiving the letters with the special code.
She told Haaretz that her mother went crazy not knowing what had happened in the months between the writing of the letters and its passage through the British censors.
Zinger survived the war and also succeeded in her studies. Four years after arriving in Britain without knowing a word of English, she was accepted to Oxford University to study philosophy, economics and politics. Her mother and sister survived the Theresienstadt ghetto, but her father was sent out of the ghetto on the last train to leave for Auschwitz before the end of the war, where he was murdered.
Following the war, Helen was reunited with her mother and sister with the aid of a British soldier Chana met in the ghetto, who organized for a search to be conducted for Helen in Britain.
According to Vislovitz, their mother wanted her sister to return to Czechoslovakia from Britain after the war, but Zinger’s adoptive father asked that she stay an extra year to finish the degree.
Zinger eventually moved to Israel together with her family in 1962. She and Vislovitz both still live there today.
Winton was awarded a knighthood in 2002, but in his own mind the work he did to save the 669 children was natural, and he never even mentioned it to his wife Garda.
In fact, his name only became known around 50 years later, when Garda came across an old briefcase filled with papers from the wartime years, including the list of the 669 children, while searching for something in the attic of their house.
Garda called historian Elizabeth Maxwell following the discovery, and the BBC organized a meeting between Winton and several of the survivors. In recent years Winton’s story has gained much attention in Britain and other countries, and a Slovakian director even made a movie about him.
In 1998, then Czech president Vaclav Havel awarded Winton the Order of Tomas Masaryk. More recently, Czech schoolchildren began collecting signatures calling for Winton be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Some 53,000 signatures have already been collected.
Whether Winton wins the prize is open to question, but what is known is that his rescue actions have become educational material for school children in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, who are taught about the actions of a man labeled “the utmost inspiration.”
More than Czech 100 students participated recently in a literary competition named after Winton, in which they wrote, photographed and produced films with the aim of proving that even in today’s world one must stand