Nicholas Winton in Prague

Sir Nicholas Winton

One of the most interesting events at the recent Karlovy Vary film festival was the premiere of a documentary film about Sir Nicholas Winton. He was the British diplomat who in the spring and summer of 1939, just after Nazi Germany had occupied Bohemia and Moravia, helped to save the lives of at least 700 Czech Jewish children, by sending them to families in Britain. The film, "Nicholas Winton - the Power of Good" is made by Matej Minac, who also recently made a very popular feature film, "All My Loved Ones", about Sir Nicholas's work. "All My Loved Ones" portrays the agonizing decision of the parents of a Jewish girl, who decide to send their daughter to England, knowing that they will probably never meet again. Today Sir Nicholas is an energetic 93-year-old and last week he was in Prague to meet some of his "children" - who themselves are now nearly all in their seventies. David Vaughan was at the event and brings this report.

It was fascinating eavesdropping on the conversation as Sir Nicholas spoke with some of the people he had helped as children. It was also strange to think that without his initiative none of the people we were talking to would be alive today. Sir Nicholas himself was clearly moved, and I asked whether he could put his feelings into words.

Nicholas Winton: "No, I can't, it's very emotional, and all of them have led obviously such difficult lives. None of these children ever saw their parents again."

One of the children was Alice Klimova, who was eleven when she was parted from her parents and sent to England.

Alice Klimova:"My sister was too old. She was already sixteen, so I went instead of her. This is how I got onto that children's transport. By pure coincidence my sister managed to get onto the next transport, so we were able to be there both. She was more than a sister. She was a mother to me. I was very fortunate to have her there because absolutely nobody from the family survived. Unfortunately she died twenty-one years ago."

What were your impressions when you arrived in England?

AK:"I would say very favourable. I was very fortunate because I came to a very nice pleasant young family and they took very good care of me. They had a four-month-old baby. Mr Marshmant, he died already, but Mrs Marshmant, she's still alive and we're still in touch. She's a wonderful person."

Did you have any idea of what had happened to the rest of your family?

AK:"No, absolutely none. It didn't sink in, actually, what happened. Only slowly, after I had my first child, I realized what it means to have parents, grandparents for my children, somebody to lean on, to have a background, and that's why I said, my sister, she was always such a brick and such a help."

And nobody survived from your family?

AK:"Absolutely nobody."

Sir Nicholas Winton talks about his work in 1939 with extraordinary modesty. In fact, until he had never talked in public about what he had done. To this day he says he was simply doing what he felt to be right.

Nicholas Winton: "I could see in England what the political situation was and I thought it was much more serious than the politicians did. One came to Prague in '39 and I was told that although there was an organization which was trying to get out the elder people, they had no permission from the British Government and they had no financial means to get out the children. So I merely said, if it was possible, I would do it. And in fact it wasn't really difficult. It was a lot of hard work, but it wasn't difficult, because the Home Office made no problems at all about granting visas."

This was in the strange period between March 1939, when Hitler marched into Prague, and September when the war itself broke out. Paradoxically, Nazi Germany didn't try to stop Sir Nicholas's work and he was helping the children quite openly.

NW:"The Germans were in Prague, and the Germans were only too willing to get rid of these children. You must remember that at that time the Germans never thought they were going to be at war with Great Britain and vice versa. So, from the German point of view there was really very little difficulty. The only problem was to get permits for the children to enter England and to fulfill the conditions which were laid down by the Home Office, which was that I could only bring in a child if I had a family that would look after them."

This was a mammoth task, but Nicholas Winton eventually found families for around 700 children.

The documentary about Sir Nicholas Winton and his children is made in English, and, although it was shown on Czech Television last year, the Karlovy Vary Festival was the first opportunity to see it in 35mm format. Director Matej Minac.

Matej Minac:"He's the last living rescuer, like Schindler or Wallenberg, who did such an incredible thing and he's still alive. And I think it's very important for the public to realize that he's still among us and to learn things from him, because soon these people will pass away and there will be no-one to tell from the first hand these accounts. And his account is incredibly interesting."

Matej Minac is currently looking for distributors, so that audiences in the English-speaking world will have the chance to see the film. In the meantime you can read about Sir Nicholas in a fascinating book written by two of the rescued children, Vera Gissing and Muriel Emanuel, called "Nicholas Winton - the Rescued Generation". It's published in the United Kingdom by Valentine Mitchell.