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”