Holocaust Remembrance Day, marked each year on the anniversary (27th January) of the relief of Auschwitz in 1945, has become an established part of our calendars in the post-Christmas and New Year weeks.
And quite right too. It’s become a hackneyed phrase, but it is right that we don’t forget the worst atrocity carried out by man against his fellow men in the Western world. Even more atrocious was the fact that the perpetrators were members of a “civilised” culture and nation, steeped in Christianity for centuries.
This sobering anniversary has been marked in many different ways up and down Britain, from civil ceremonies that only pay lip service to the holocaust itself to those which truly reflect and remember the deaths of six million Jews in less than five years of orchestrated and industrialised mass murder.
This year, Cadogan Hall in London’s Chelsea was host to a screening of “Nicky’s Family”, a film that revealed the heroic actions of a man named “Britain’s Schindler” a few years ago by one of our national newspapers.
Nicholas Winton (originally Wertheimer) was a Jewish-born London stockbroker in 1938, watching the growing clouds of war develop from a distance and planning a Christmas skiing trip in Switzerland with a friend. But he and his friend (who was already involved in Jewish refugee work) changed their plans and travelled to Czechoslovakia instead.
What was happening there was that anti-semitism was on the rise, just as it had been in Germany for several years. Hitler’s claims on the Sudetenland area of the country (where there was a heavy population of Germans) were to become the first invasion of the second world war as he sought for “lebensraum” for arian Germans.
As political tension mounted, so did discrimination and persecution against Jews in Czechoslovakia. By the time Winton and his friend visited Prague families could see the writing on the wall and were frantic to get their children to freedom, knowing that Jews would be the first section of the population to face arrests if or when Germany invaded.
From a hastily cancelled skiing trip came one of the most remarkable rescue efforts in the history of the holocaust – the “Kindertransport” (children’s transport). And it was all due to the perseverance and initiative of Nicholas Winton and his small team of volunteers.
Through diplomatic and bureaucratic obstacles, they organised the removal to Britain by train of 669 Jewish children, spiriting them to freedom under the noses of invading German soldiers. More trains had been planned, but were prevented by German intervention.
Fortunately, Winton’s effort was made easier by a bill that had been passed in Britain following the horrendous “Kristallnacht” night of anti-Jewish riots and destruction in November 1938. The bill allowed for unaccompanied children under 17 fleeing persecution to enter Britain temporarily.
Further, permission to enter the country was granted on the basis of lists of names rather than individual applications. This made it possible for refugee children from Germany, Austria and now Czechoslovakia to be saved from almost certain slaughter. Winton’s work dovetailed into other “Kindertransport” rescues across Europe.
Winton and his helpers set up what was effectively a massive fostering agency, based in Prague and London, through which they placed hundreds of Jewish children with British families. Originally intended as a temporary arrangement, the war and the death of all their parents made the fostering arrangements long term.
Played to a Jewish and Christian audience, the London film screening was organised by Christian event planner Judy Littler-Manners, who had seen the emotive film elsewhere and was determined to bring it to a wider audience in Britain.
Turning the screening into a charity fundraising event raised money for three charities helping holocaust survivors in Israel; the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, Dutch run “HomeCare” in Jerusalem and The Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel.
As “Nicky’s Family” so effectively shows, one person’s kindness, determination and perseverance did much more than save the children. Even though the survivors did not know who their saviour was for many years, many went on engage in humanitarian work themselves or become successful academics, scientists and politicians.
Uniquely, many others who heard Winton’s story or who met him or one of the survivors, have been inspired by his qualities and gone out to do “good works” as far away as Indonesia, Cambodia and other countries where children are suffering and dying.
The sacrifice of Czech parents in consigning their children to an unknown future was highly emotional, more so as every survivor in the film recounted that they were the only one of their family to survive the arrests and camps where those grief-stricken but prescient parents died.
The children of “Nicky’s family” went on to benefit their generation is so many ways because of this one man. What if more children had been saved from death? What if six million had never been slaughtered?
There are now nearly 6,000 members of (now Sir) Nicholas Winton’s extended family – and that with only a small proportion of the survivors ever having been found. Quiet, humble, humorous and dedicated, Winton was without a doubt “Britain’s Schindler”.
The film “Nicky’s Family” is currently only available in the US, through Menemsha Films (NTSC) or downloaded through I-Tunes. Trailers are available on the Menemsha Films website.
Photos copyright stevewinstonphotos.com