Homage to Sir Nicholas Winton
In this Special, we pay tribute to Sir Nicholas Winton, the Briton who helped save the lives of 669 children by arranging their evacuation from Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia. Sir Nicholas died on Wednesday at his home in the UK at the age of 106. The original story was produced by Rosie Johnston in 2009, when the journey of the original kinderstransports from Prague to London was re-enacted.
“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 remember arriving, and all I remember was feeling totally alone with a piece of string that hurt my neck and a great big card. And I was just totally alone, because my brother went somewhere else, he went to a boarding school, and I went up to the Midlands, to stay with a family, but they couldn’t deal with me, so I was sent down to Stoke on Trent to stay with a German family.”
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?
Sir Nicholas Winton organized a number of kindertransports to bring Jewish children to safety. His last, and biggest, transport never got through. It was scheduled to leave Prague on September 3, 1939, with 250 children on board, but when war broke out, the train was called off. It is thought that none of the children who were supposed to be on board survived.
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.”
Did you see them again after the war?
Where were you from in the former Czechoslovakia?
“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.”
The episode featured today was first broadcast on September 8, 2009.