Czechs saved by Nicholas Winton remember their journey 70 years on
The usual station announcements boom out of the loudspeakers at London’s Liverpool Street Station on Friday but, if you listen hard enough, you can hear some of the tens of extra policemen drafted on special duty, and the hiss of a steam engine that’s just arrived at platform 10. The Winton Train set out from Prague on September 1, transporting some of the Czech and German Jewish children saved from the Holocaust by Sir Nicholas Winton back along the route they traveled to safety in 1939. On Friday, the train arrived in London, and was greeted by Sir Nicholas himself:
“Seventy years ago, it was a question of getting a lot of little children together with the families who were going to look after them, and with the 200 children and the 200 people who were going to look after them all surrounding the station here, it was quite difficult to get them together. And, of course, every child had to be signed for. Anyway, it all worked out very well, and it is wonderful that it did work out so well, because, after all, history could have made it very different.”
“I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but when I got onto the platform and I saw this train I started to cry. And I didn’t think I would be sentimental at all, because I was a teenager traveling with friends of my own age, we were hiking. I don’t even remember if my own mother came to see me off. It wasn’t a big deal, you know. It must have been terrible for the little ones, because they couldn’t understand why their parents were sending them away.”
One such younger passenger was Lisa Midwinter, whose name sounded a lot more Czech in 1939:
“I was so little, but I just remember a blue train, and looking up, I thought the drivers were dressed in blue. But, having looked at it now, it’s blue, which is amazing that I remember that. Because I’m 74 now, so I remember that from 70 years ago! It is incredible!”
Do you remember anything else from the journey?
“I don’t remember the journey, but I remember the station. I thought I saw people crying, adults crying, and white being waved, which must have been white handkerchiefs. And I don’t know, but I think they were singing ‘Kde domov můj?’ - the national anthem - but whether they did or not… I just have that in my memory.
Have you been back to Prague, and to this station since, or is this the first time in 70 years?
“No, no. I came back. We first came back in 1948, because we were going to come back here. But it was all too much for my mother. She had heart problems from the age of 40 due to all this. So, my father decided we would stay in England. But I’ve been back five or six times. Because I’ve got a cousin who lives here, and I went to Teplice, because I wanted to see where I was born with my brother. That was about ten years ago now.”
So you come from an old Prague family which found itself in a tight situation in 1939?
“Well, I was lucky insofar as I had an uncle in England. So although I traveled on the kindertransport, I was received by my uncle there, so Mr Winton didn’t have to look for a parent for me in England.
“I remember the journey very well. My parents said goodbye to me and more or less told me ‘you’re going on a holiday, we’ll see you soon’. And what was interesting was that one of the girls I was traveling with, a young girl, had swallowed some of the jewellery of her parents in order to bring it out at the other end, you see.”
And did you see you parents again?
“I studied in England, and my parents and my brother went to Terezín and to Auschwitz. My father died in Auschwitz, but my mother and my brother actually survived, and in 1945 they came back. I managed to bring them out of Czechoslovakia to England, and my mother then lived in Vienna with me for a while.”
On the Winton Train itself last week, Eve Leadbeater told me she was on one of the last kindertransports out:
“I came in July 1939. I have only very, very vague memories, because I was only eight. And when I arrived in England, I didn’t see anybody else from Czechoslovakia for, I think, it was 50 years, really, until we had the kindertransport reunion. So I had nobody to remind me of what happened. Plus the fact that something like that you push to the back of your mind to get on with your life. So, to be honest, the memory of waving goodbye to my parents, I’m not sure if it is mine or if I got it from other people.”
Where were you from in the former Czechoslovakia?
Why did you decide to come on this recreation of the Winton kindertransports?
“I actually hesitated, because I knew it would be painful in parts, but I just thought it would be a kind of neat end, and a kind of act of gratitude to my parents and to Nicholas Winton.”
You said that you hadn’t met Czechs in Britain for 50 years, and anyway, you pushed these things to the back of your mind, does that mean that this morning coming back to Prague and getting on this train was particularly emotional?
“It was pretty emotional, I think, yes. Because I was just thinking of my parents sacrifice and my brother who didn’t make it. He was due to come on September 1 and didn’t make it.”
What do you think of Nicholas Winton and everything that he has done?
“I think that he is an example to us all, and a wonderful man, and I just want to say thank you.”