Friday, 29 January 2016

The Winton Legacy, one to be infinitely proud of and to model today !

Hopefully you managed to catch my post yesterday that describes the start of this incredible story.

Nicholas Winton had managed the impossible, he had found a way to save the children under threat by the Nazi March on Europe

Leaving family, homes and the culture they knew behind on crowded platforms in Czechoslovakia,the children  of the Kinder Transport have boarded trains and have crossed Central Europe, arriving at the Channel Coast

Ships will take them the relatively short distance to England. Most of the Children have never seen anything bigger than the paddle steamers on the Danube. The Ships provide a short period of respite from the terror of the trains, with gangplanks and galleys to explore and as night falls, they travel gently overnight on calm seas, Joe Schlesinger heard many voices in surrounding cabins, voices singing the Czech national anthem.

One refrain was  bitingly poignant “ Where  is my home, Where is my Home? “ a question that remained unanswered for a few, for many years.

Arriving at Liverpool Street Station, children are left standing in a foreign land waiting to be picked up like parcels at the sorting office. Joe vividly remembers the platforms that enabled them to literally step off onto a new land, unlike the open tracks he was used to at home.

A Newsreel of the day announces:

“Liverpool Street saw the arrival of another group of refugee children, another piteous cargo thrown overboard by the ruthless code of the modern European temper”

Two hundred and fifty children arrived in that first group and each had to be signed for by the right family. Inevitable difficulties would occur , “parents”might get delayed and so the police would step in until it was all sorted out.

 One man remembers, Five boys sat on suitcases. A  taxi driver stopped and asked them if they had been sat there since seven in the morning, when they said yes, he took them all for a fish and chip supper and then right on home to his own wife and child. 

“English people on the whole were very kind, I would say, the poorer they were, the kinder they were.”

 Another lady remembers 
“We were assembled in a big hall waiting to be picked up, I was trembling at the knees, then a little lady came running in, smiling and laughing with tears running down he face and hugged me”

“The Nums were  Methodist farmers from Redgrave in Norfolk ,who took us in more boys their cottage had a thatched roof, the boys had never seen a thatched roof before They ran about the house knocking on the walls just to check they would not fall down, the toilet was an outdoor outhouse and there was no electricity,  but he says they were good to them. “They were true  Christians  in he real sense of the word”

The only dissent  Winton ever received after this massive undertaking came from a bizarre quarter.He  was tackled by two Rabbis at his home one day who said they understood a good number of the faithful Jewish Children were being looked after in Christian homes and it must stop. Nicholas was unrepentant, he told them if they would prefer a dead Jewish child to a live one in a warm and welcoming Christian home, that was their problem.

Knowing crisis point was coming ,Winton was pushing even harder for more permits to get as many children out as possible. Eight transports had been arranged from Prague, but they were no where near enough to reach the level needed to deal with the thousands on the lists. The biggest planned transport in September was cancelled because war broke out and then all of a sudden these displaced  children were front row observers of the Battle of Britain .

No matter how scary the blitz, air raids and rationing, Letters from home revealed Jews under 50  being forced into labour camps, they gradually learned about the concentration camps and the slaughters happening in Poland and elsewhere .

Joe Schlesinger last got a letter from his Father in 1942 , in this precious letter  he told his sons that he and their Mother  had been ordered to pack up and were to be moved on and that he hoped his sons would remember the precepts they had learnt at home and that he hoped his sons would grow up to become Just and decent men. I think we can safely say his Father’s wish came to fruition as Joe’s Campaign to make public the work of  Nicholas Winton was  a service to his faith and also to the nation who took him and so many others  to their collective hearts.

After the joy of VE Day , many Czechs returned to the land of their birth to try to trace parents and loved ones. Joe knew his parents had been sent to Poland, but  he never got definitive answers as to their final plight. 

Others went to family homes to search. Heart breaking stories of children being told to sing in Gas Chambers so they inhaled deeper and so passed faster to lessen their suffering filtered back to the children who had found safety, now guilt ridden and grief stricken that pure chance had allowed them to live. Each are moved even to this day as they consider the levels sacrifice and bravery shown by the parents who trusted Winton with their most precious possessions.

This moving history might have remained hidden forever. Winton had joined the RAF when Britain went to War with Germany. He had not told his wife about the Kinder Transport work he had so diligently carried out so selflessly. 

I wonder perhaps if he felt guilty for not getting more to safety before the war broke out,that he did not seek recognition as some sort of personal penance, his assertion that the past should remain there is telling.

His wife was not so ready to keep a secret and contacted a number of historians to  tell Nicky’s story , but none took up the tale until finally she found who was enthralled and began work to get the story into the public domain. She wrote  to each and every one of the six hundred odd  names on the list . Two hundred and fifty people responded. They did not know their own stories, they knew not who had been responsible for their journey to safety.

In 1988  Esther Rantzen, a renowned British TV personality  took up the story and invited Nicholas to attend her Show “That’s Life. ” She revealed that a number of people in the audience had been part of the Kinder Transport and for the first time the children were able to thank their saviour in Person.

Nicholas Winton died in 2015.

His legacy however lives on and stands as a true testament to the Human Spirit, to the values of Decency, doing right -  no matter the cost. It was a  rebellion against Tyranny, violence and degradation. Nicholas Winton is a Hero, an inspiration and hopefully as more and more people become aware of his incredible story, a Teacher too.

Since  this programme was filmed, David Cameron has set up a Holocaust  Foundation to record and archive the testimonies of survivors. A worthy cause. 

I believe Nicholas was wrong about one thing.. We Can and should remember.  If we had taken more notice of the past, we might have been able to avert some of the suffering being seen today in 2016 The world watches another mass refugee problem explode across our globe, the victims here again are vulnerable children, again refugee camps are filled with weary  souls sheltering in tents around camp fires. Again the world has a chance to act with humanity and kindness.

Friday January  29th 2016

David Cameron is accused of heartlessness as his plan to fly parentless Syrian Refugee children from Italy and Greece who have family already in the UK  is  said by Save The Children to be totally inadequate, the government’s £10,000,000 plan is nowhere near the amount needed to accept the 3000 Refugee Children currently in camps.

Meanwhile the numbers of refugees drowning off the Greek shores as last ditch attempts to get to Europe is growing by the day. Human Tragedies, that whatever political party you tie your colours to, must trouble the heart.

Let us remember after-all ,Nicholas was not an aid worker, did not have family to motivate his crusade, he was in Prague purely by chance. The world knew nothing of the Refugee Camps. He took up his fight because his shock at the plight of children overran every other consideration. We know EXACTLY what is happening to Syrians and other refugees because modern media shows us daily. Let us not be desensitised by familiarity. Even if we just stop putting labels and prejudices onto people fleeing the IS Regimes, it will be a start!

We now have a chance to be a saviour, let’s try to open our hearts to those in need, let’s stop the cynicism, let us TRULY LEARN FROM THE PAST.

I leave Nicholas Winton himself to have the final word:

“I never thought what I did 70 years ago would have such a bit impact as it apparently has. And if it is now a story that helps people live for the future, well that will be a bonus”

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Nicholas Winton, The National Treasure we almost never knew existed.

Maidenhead 1988: 
In an attic , in a scrapbook would be found that would reveal a piece of history hidden for fifty years and begin an incredible Chain of events.

This is the story of Sir Nicholas Winton MBE  whose actions were almost lost in the murkiness of time,but thanks to that chance discovery are remembered and celebrated in this BBC Documentary.

Nicholas himself is not one for looking back, he has strong beliefs

“ I think there is much to much Harping in the past, quite frankly I don’t see the point in all that, we have never learnt anything from the past.  The  future lies in forgetting the past not remembering it.” 

I am not sure I quite agree, his story has the most resounding resonance  and even today the actions he took are relevant to common issues borne of conflict zones such as The Middle East and Africa and there is no disputing the  lasting  impact they had on  the children he saved. One of whom is Joe Schlesinger who takes up the story.

It all begins of course from the actions of Adolf Hitler whose fear and hatred for anything Foreign  meant that the lives  of millions of Jews, Gypsies and Slavs would be snuffed out. His rhetoric spread throughout the populace.  The programme cites  a 7 year old girl slapped repeatedly around the face by a classmate because her father had told her to. A four year old boy whose head laceration needed stitches, but was refused them for being a Jew.  Children were the victims of prejudice born of Hitler’s  paranoia of difference.

When The Germans took the disputed Czechoslovakian territory of the Sudetenland, the Czechs expected their  allies in west to act. Sadly in Munich, Britain and France agreed to turn a blind eye in what Joe calls  “cowardly” appeasement. So began a period of terror for Czech Jews that would spread across Europe like a rampant Virus. Britain’s weak response to the German actions meant many were not aware of the Growing threat.

It was pure chance then, that in Dec 1938, a Twenty nine year old British Stockbroker would get a call  that would change his and innumerable other’s lives forever. Living a comfortable, arguably privileged life, Nicholas Winton liked to sail, ski and travel.That Christmas he was due to go to Switzerland to ski, but his travelling companion called off saying he was helping with the Refugee Crisis in Czechoslovakia.”Nicky” went to find out for himself what was really going on.

He went around the camps, where the appalling conditions shocked him. People living in daily fear of a German invasion were living in lean to huts with tiny stoves in the midst of a Czech winter. One man remembers a plethora of small camp fires and being given something hot to drink.

Whilst in Prague he was given sight of a map that showed Nazi ambitions to move into France and the rest of Europe. This troubled Nicholas and his  concern began to filter back to parents of children in the refugee camps who appeared En masse at his Hotel door the following morning. He realised that he could at least attempt to help the Children of these displaced souls and so he spoke to the authorities who told him that moving the children would be nigh on impossible if they were to travel alone and who would take them in?

Not to be thwarted he began writing a plethora of letters, going right to the most powerful seat he could think of, President Franklin Roosevelt. The reply he got back was from the US Embassy in London stating the US government was unable to allow any more immigration beyond the limits set by existing laws.

Not to be deterred, sat in a Café daily , people would come to ask that their children be included on the lists of youngsters hoping to get to Out of the country .Roping in some willing friends a list began to form of considerable length.

The German authorities began to hear of this Englishman causing minor ripples and decided he needed to be investigated; so enlisted the oldest spy trick in the book, an alluring woman to gather intelligence about his plans.

Kirsten and Nicholas met as if by chance and she claimed to be the Prague Representative of the Swedish Red Cross. Friends warned his she was a spy, but Lo and behold, she actually managed to get twenty five children out of the country. Escorting them herself, she vanished without trace, but it had been a success!

The numbers of vulnerable children was growing and he had around 2000 photos and names. Egress via official channels to the USA , Britain and Palestine was proving impossible as boundaries had been firmly shut. People queued at consulates across the city to gain access to places as obscure and foreign to Czechs as Uruguay. Then to make matters worse, stock exchange bosses, who did not see the value in the work he was doing called Nicholas to berate him and to call him home, but Nicholas defied the negative and inhuman attitudes of his money obsessed superiors and remained in Prague.

The children kept coming,  queuing to be registered, but so did the Germans.

When a German Officer came to ask who the Jewish Students were, two little girls raised their hands and were told to sit at the back of the room. Once he had gone, the Headmaster came in and told the class that the back seats were now the seats of highest honour! 

Nicholas Winton sent entreaties out to countries across the globe to  take in these poor dispossessed children and ONLY  Great Britain responded. 

“ The Rest of the World closed it’s Eyes, Ears, Heart and Gates!”

From a modest home on Hampstead Heath in London, Nicholas Winton began the gargantuan  task to get the Germans to let the children on his lists  come over to Britain, ensure the Home Office to let them in, to find British Families willing to house them and to find the sizeable amount of money required to finance the whole thing!

The main stumbling block people thought might be a problem, simply wasn’t The Home Office were actually  happy for Children to come to Britain without parents, but they put in some stipulations that a family must be found until “The Emergency was over” and a cash guarantor for each child must be found at a price of £50 each. A huge amount for  1938!

So Nicholas and a Secretary went to work from the humble surrounds of Hampstead, with just rubber  stamps and Notepaper they  ultimately had a visit from the Police to ask why they were getting so much correspondence from Czechoslovakia. Things were getting very Serious and the news from Prague was Grave.

Some of the “Children” gave their personal testimonies

Children were being forced out of society. Leaving school, unable to go to the cinema or the Opera.

 The Nazis had begun collecting Jews and arresting “Wanted Persons” 

Suicides were not uncommon  and one lady lost her Aunt and Uncle in this way.

Four synagogues were burned to the ground.

With all the photos Nicholas starts his charm offensive, putting them wherever they will be seen by good hearted families who might take children in. Gradually by grouping photos together and getting local people to vet the families in all the far flung corners of the Country children began to be accepted and the heartbreaking task of farewells began.

Sometimes fake papers and Passports were necessary to speed the process. None of the child entrants were illegal, just expedited to get past German Authority scrutiny. The Germans would cancel the Transport without more money to grease the wheels. The money had to be found somehow. It must have taken steely resolve and immense courage to allow one’s children to go to another country to be looked after by strangers.

Every child was given a number tag to wear on the crossing and the journey was fraught with tension and fear, particularly when the trains travelled through Germany. The sight of massive swastikas and Hitler portraits must have been Chilling and and frightening as soldiers boarded the trains to check the carriages.

Finally  however, the children reached the channel.

Come back tommorrow to discover more about the amazing man Nicholas Winton and to read my assessment of what we should take away from the actions of this man whose very existence was shrouded from public knowledge for so long and how it might relate to our understanding of current world events.