The most inspiring and heartbreaking story since Schindler’s List is Nicky’s Family, another authentic Holocaust saga that will make you weep.
In my view, there is nothing so poignant as a film showing inhabitants of a long-ago city scurrying along in their huge hats and long skirts, the men in their long black overcoats, stepping over the trolley tracks and avoiding the slow-moving vintage automobiles as they go about their daily business.
They are all ghosts, long gone, their business done.
Except for one. Nicholas Winton is 104 now, a holdover from another time. It was he who, in 1938, at the age of 29, organized and ran a type of Kindertransport that removed mostly Jewish babies and young children from German-occupied Czechoslovakia to families he recruited in England to care for them. He personally sent some 669 children to loving foster families. The children were saved, but most of their original families were not.
For some 50 years Winton’s feat remained unknown. Even the children did not know their own stories, nor the name of the man who had saved them.
Until one day his wife Grete happened on a trunk in their attic that held a scrapbook of documents, ledgers, lists, and other evidence of the work that her husband had undertaken half a century before.
The world was apprised of this modest banker and stockbroker’s history on a BBC television program, That’s Life, similar to Ralph Edwards’ old This Is Your Life program. Winton had been lured there as a member of the audience, and so had more than two dozen adults who had been transported by him to England so many years earlier.
Winton’s story is told in a thrilling and moving documentary by Czech director Mataj Minac. The film includes interviews with the elderly survivors, and with the Dalai Lama, Elie Wiesel, and several survivors who grew up to be prominent in their own fields, such as physicist Ben Abeles, Canadian television journalist and author Joe Schlesinger, and Nicholas Winton himself.
There is also a scene in which he is knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, to become Sir Nicholas Winton.
There is none of the traditional horrific Holocaust footage. Just children being taken to the train station to be shipped to safety. No arrivals at concentration camps. No piles of dead bodies. No skeletal survivors in striped pajamas. Just elderly men and women telling their survival stories.
This is a simple documentary, different in many ways from the epic Schindler’s List. Nicky’s Family is an emotional visit with the actual survivors, while Schindler’s List uses recognizable actors to tell the story and is somewhat at a remove from the real people it introduces only at the end.
In 2009, to celebrate Winton’s 100th birthday, a special train with a locomotive and carriages from the 1930s reprised the trip to Britain that the Czech Kindertransport trains had undertaken some 70 years earlier. The train was filled with survivors and many of their descendants. It is estimated that there are more than 6,000 family members of the original transported children alive today.
The trip also commemorated the last transport of 250 children scheduled to travel to Britain who were unable to travel because of the outbreak of World War II two days before their trip. All of those children later died in the camps.
Ironically, Winton could not be included in Israel’s list of honored Righteous Gentiles because even though he had been baptized a Christian, his ancestry was originally Jewish and he was born a German Jew.
There are statues commemorating his work, however, at Maidenhead railway station and at a railway station in Prague. He is a member of the Order of the British Empire, and received the Pride of Britain Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2003. A minor planet was named for him by Czech astronomers, and in 2008 the Czech government nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. (In 2013 some 200,000 signatures have been collected to nominate him again.)
Nicky’s Family was named Best Documentary of the 35th Montreal World Film Festival, was awarded the Forum for the Preservation of Audio-Visual Memory prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and the Audience Award at the 46th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival from among some 275 competing films. In all, the film has won 32 festival awards worldwide.
But the most striking image one is left with is of a smiling century-old gentleman happily sharing his motto: “If something isn’t blatantly impossible, there must be a way of doing it.”
Nicky’s Family will open in New York and Los Angeles on July 19th and around the country shortly thereafter.