“The two stories made it possible”: Petr Sís discusses Nicky & Vera
Nicky & Vera, the latest work by the great Czech-born children’s author and illustrator Petr Sís, is being published on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Subtitled A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued, the beautiful and moving book comprises two intertwining narratives: the story of Sir Nicholas Winton, the young Briton who saved 669 mainly Jewish children from the Nazis on the eve of WWII; and that of Vera Gissing, one of the children who Winton managed to get on a “kindertransport” train he had organised from Prague to London. Born Věra Diamantová in a small town in Central Bohemia, she has been living in the UK permanently since the late 1940s and is today aged 92.
Sís, who has been resident in America since the 1980s, says he was partly inspired to write Nicky & Vera on a visit to Prague with his teenage son; when they encountered an exhibition dedicated to Winton’s selfless mission, the multi-award winning writer and artist said he realised he hadn’t devoted enough attention in his work to the reluctant, quiet heroes of this world.
I spoke to Petr Sís from his home in New York State.
The story of Nicholas Winton and his immense act of humanity first came to light in the UK in the late 1980s. When did you initially encounter that story?
“It’s more a question with me of when did I pay attention to the story.
“I think I briefly must have heard about the story in the late ‘80s.
“I didn’t speak to Milena Grenfell-Baines until now, when I said, I have your name since 1967.”
“But that was just three, four years into my emigration to America, so I had other problems, just like with finding out who I was.
“But I know it crossed my mind that since I was a little boy I knew two people, who were friends of my father.
“One was a translator from English in Prague. She said, I grew up in London, or I grew up in England, I went on the train.
“And it was sort of interesting, but like with lots of things and events during World War II, you didn’t question.
“Because people usually didn’t volunteer information.
“And as you know – but this is very hard to explain here in America – people who went to England, who were children born in England, or even the [Czechoslovak RAF] pilots… it just wasn’t something you would want to talk about under the Communist regime.
“So I was always surprised when I heard that somebody grew up in London, or was born in London.
“I knew a number of people like that, but I never was able to put it together, because we never asked more questions than that.
“Then also I went to London myself a number of times, which is interesting vis-à-vis the train to England.
“For me it was the obsession with the music and getting outside of the East Bloc.
“I remember I was staying for a few days with an old lady at Marble Arch, maybe it was on Oxford Street.
“And I think this was one of the foster parents of the children from the Winton trains – but again I didn’t know the details.
“I knew that Soňa, which was the name of the translator, knew her.
“This lady was a very wonderful character, living in a little apartment at the very top of an old London building.
“She talked about children, but I didn’t understand the connection at all.
“What is funny is that I have a little address book from 1967, when I went to England and my mother wrote me some names of people she knew.
“Among them was the name of Milena Baines, who was the wife of an architect in Preston.
“She was a friend of friends. I never made it to Preston, so I didn’t speak to her then. She knew my parents.
“And [laughs] I didn’t speak to her until now, when I said, I have your name since 1967.
“I said, Now I know you are Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines, one of the Winton children.
“But back in 1967 I had no idea how she had got there.
“So for me it’s fascinating how all these things came together, and how I thought this happened far away in history – and all of a sudden I’m able to speak to her and to her sister, Eva Paddock, who was a principal in Boston.
“I also spoke to a man in Hartford whose name is Ivan Backer, who was one of the children.
“All of a sudden I can speak to people who are part of the history and in fact are not that much older than I am.
“Because I was born four years after the war and I thought, Oh, it’s such a long time after the war.
“But in fact it was just after the war, so there were lots of things around me in my childhood in Prague, whether it was German helmets or sort of little SS swords.
“There were lots of remains and bullet holes and bunkers and people talking about things – and we didn’t know as children…
“People who went to a concentration camp wouldn’t say, I was in a concentration camp – they were trying to fit in.
“And the Communists were talking about the whole issue as mostly about Communists being in concentration camps.
“I found two books: Train to Freedom by Ivan Backer and Vera Gissing’s Pearls of Childhood.”
“The whole question about Jewish people and all that was pushed into the background.
“So I knew about little things, but it only came together after 1988 [when Nicholas Winton’s story came to light in the UK].
“At that time somebody said, You should think about a book about it already. This was in the early ‘90s.
“But I think that was a subject which would be very difficult to push through the American publishers then.
“But Czechoslovakia as such was getting more and more recognition, because before that it would be, Why don’t you do a book about Paris, or Venice?
“Prague was not this destination.
“And I thought, Oh, it’s too good as a story.
“The story was about a man who was so good that he saved all these children and then he went home and nobody knew for 50 years, until they found out.”
One thing that interests me a lot is why you chose the device of two stories, the story of Nicholas Winton himself and the story of this girl Věra, or Veruška. Why the two stories?
“That made it possible, the two stories.
“Because I had his story, which I thought, I can’t do it; I’d seen the film by Matej Mináč, which was also based on it.
“I think in film you have another dimension, where you can work with just him being good – but you needed some sort of drama [for a book].
“And I found, by complete coincidence, two books.
“One was in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington: Train to Freedom by Ivan Backer,
“And one was Vera Gissing’s book Pearls of Childhood.
“It was a wonderful book in the sense that in it she’s so optimistic and she’s such an innocent little girl.
“And also she’s from this small town.
“She describes her town in the way of the Czech sentiment of this new-born country in 1918.
“Everybody is so excited; people love Masaryk and love this whole idea of Czechoslovakia.
“She describes how they sing the national anthem.
“Religion as such and politics are not important in her perspective.
“They are one of the few or only Jewish families there, but it’s not important: She wears national costume, she goes to these meetings.
“So that describes this almost idealistic time in Czechoslovak history.
“Because she’s in a small village and she runs around and plays.
“For me it was like, How did people sign up their children for the train?”
“She loves nature and describes how she goes in the evening to swim or with their horse.
“She goes to the Labe and describes these wonderful feelings when the sun is setting and she’s sitting on the wet horse.
“But anyway, she’s like an ideal innocent child who is growing up in this small town with a loving mother and wonderful family.
“She’s doesn’t really know, or her parents keep her sort of protected from some bad news beyond the border, from Germany.
“And then it all comes quickly home to roost, when she hears about this.
“The mother is cautious. And for me it was also like, How did people sign up their children for the train?
“The mother was in this situation where she doesn’t have to do it but she feels this sort of urge: It’s like safety, this might not end up well – I will go and sign her up with Nicholas Winton.
“Because she was in Prague at that time.
“Then she has to somehow sell it to the father, who doesn’t like the idea.
“Also what’s in her book is that England in that time is so far away. It’s a country which is far away for Czechs.
“And who ever heard about parents that would send their children so far away? Even if children were sent for maybe a few months.
“In Winton’s story it was all very sort of like European history: Kristallnacht, the Anschluss, England being an exceptional country which gives visas to children who are under 17 and they have to put down the money for the return ticket – they get some temporary visa and must have a foster family.
“So this I knew from Winton’s side – and now I had this little girl who was describing emotional things from her perspective.
“However, she herself in her book doesn’t get into the complexity of when she comes back to Prague after the war, when she has the best intentions to stay, even though her family had perished in the camps.
“But then because of what happened… and I think all of a sudden there was an attitude of Czechs against Jews, or some Czechs, I should say.
“All of a sudden it wasn’t this idealistic place she knew as a little child.
“But now she was also this grown-up woman. And she hears what people are saying about, Oh, they came back, and all this.
“She doesn’t like this and prefers somehow, I guess, the attitudes of feelings in England.
“She fells more at home in England, so she goes back to England.”
Many, perhaps almost all, children’s books can be read and understood by a child alone, it seems to me. But I presume with this book that younger kids at least might need to have a parent with them to explain some of the things in it? For instance, when you say that Vera’s parents “died in the Nazi camps”.
“I know. That’s now the dilemma for me, because this book is not yet out here but it’s being sent to reviewers and critics – and all of a sudden I’m getting lots of reactions saying that people cry.
“They’re saying, I was crying – I didn’t want to cry.
“That I never thought about. My books were always ambitious, going beyond…
“And I admit it, I have books for little kids which are very simple.
“Then I was trying to somehow fulfil my artistic ego, and probably also trying to find my place in America, so I had books which were more ambitious, whether it was Galileo [Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei] or Tibet [Tibet Through the Red Box] – some books which, as one publisher says, were looking over the shoulder of a child.
“But I also found out, for example with the Tibet book, that people have it and then some child reads it without any preparation, not knowing where Tibet is or what’s going on – and gets one level of the story, of the missing father or whatever.
“And then maybe they get a little older and read it again – and then they read it with somebody who explains where Lhasa is and what is happening.
“So I would hope this would happen with this book.
“There was a big argument at one point.
“Somebody said, You can’t publish this book – you don’t show enough of the suffering during the war, enough of what happened to…
“But she was speaking from the position where she thought everybody in the book was Jewish.
“If you can make a difference, if you can do something in some moment – can you do it?”
“I would like to point out that according to these lists of Winton’s, the majority of the children were Jewish, but there were also children who were children of political leaders who were afraid of the Germans, or whatever – this was a humanitarian, sort of universal thing.
“But this person, who is so used to the kind of literature which is being published about the Shoah, about the Holocaust, said, You should have told more about what was happening in these concentration camps.
“My perspective… and this is not entirely my doing – I wanted to put in more details of the suffering, but the editor of the book and my wife were good guides and I didn’t.
“And in a way also it comes from the perspective of Vera, who doesn’t know.
“They have a Czech school in Wales, where she’s with the other kids, and then in 1943 only… She had been in England from 1939 and in 1943 she’s growing up, she’s adolescent and she’s in this school full of kids and they listen to the BBC every evening.
“She has absolutely no news from home. Which again today – how do you explain to kids that there’s no news?
“And they hear for the first time in 1943 that there might be some camps where the Germans are exterminating people.
“And she’s still not able in her head to imagine that this would be, because she still hopes her parents may be in hiding.
“So that’s her first encounter with something like that.
“Of course then the end of the war comes. And her mother does get out of Bergen-Belsen, but she dies of typhoid a few days later.
“So I think maybe that I created something where through not talking directly about it there is some feeling of horror in the background – because as a child you don’t know probably why she comes home and there’s nobody there.
“And the mention of the cat, because she used to love cats so much and this one she meets may be the grandchild [of her cat] – that’s also a quote.
“I found out that after her book there is a big interview with her from the University of Delaware, which is done for Holocaust survivors who would explain that time.
“And she’s getting questions like, Are you a Holocaust survivor? What’s your name? Were you born in a hospital?
“It’s almost sort of clinical.
“And she answers with such sincerity about the cats, and how she was trying to hide the cats because they were always pregnant and her father was upset and wanted to drown the kittens.
“Then there were some things that I didn’t or couldn’t include.
“Like the father writes to her in England, because she gets letters for the next, whatever it is, two months.
“Parents send presents and send presents to the English families to say, Thank you for taking care of our child
“And then everything stops, of course.
“The letters come from some intermediary in Holland.
“The father says, I wanted to paint the whole house but in the bathroom I found a message you wrote on the wall – and I decided not to paint that room because it’s your handwriting on the wall.
“And then when she comes back after the war she finds her own handwriting, but the parents are gone.
“So there are there these little heartbreaking stories.”
I’ve got to say I myself found the book really moving. It’s a beautiful book I think – a great achievement. I’m wondering, what would you as the author hope that the reader would take away from Nicky & Vera?
“When I came to New York, when I was just fresh off the boat as an immigrant, I remember visiting somebody who had two cobblestones from Prague on their table in New York.
“She said these are cobblestones from Prague.
“And when I was a little boy I was jumping on these cobblestones or we were kicking them or whatever – and you were just taking them as, This is where you belong.
“You don’t think about where it came from, or where it’s going.
“But it was quite stunning when somebody said, Probably my family was grabbed to the concentration camps [across them]… and I said, No, no, these might be cobblestones where I was maybe going for a date.
“Or whatever – it just depends what story you project on this.
“But all of a sudden with doing now several projects to do with Prague, because the Tibet book starts in Prague also and The Wall, with the Communists, and The Three Golden Keys – it’s interesting how I’m analysing Prague in the way how so many different things could happen.
“And sometimes I feel… again if I were living in Prague I maybe wouldn’t notice.
“But I went to the park where people were coming when they were waiting for [Nazi] transports – it’s a small place that now doesn’t exist, it’s [now] a hotel in Prague 7, before you get to Park kultury [Communist-era name for Výstaviště], to Stromovka...
“That was a place where people had to register. They were told for instance, Come Friday, 10 o’clock.
“Or all of a sudden you come to the place where Heydrich was assassinated.
“Or now you come to the Hotel Europa on Wenceslas Square, and you go, this is where Winton set up his office.
“And I know I don’t know all the details – I know there were many more people who were helping him.
“One thing is to show really… that was the main discussion with my son: If you can make a difference, if you can do something in some moment – can you do it?
“Because I feel guilty… as a child the Communists would say, Let’s say No to Uncle Sam.
“As a child you’re part of the crowd and you go, Yes, let’s condemn this.
“And all of a sudden you have a man who has nothing to do with Prague, who is passing through Prague, and he says, Wait a minute – these children are in danger, I will help them.
“And everybody says, Oh no, they are not in danger – it’s OK. And he still does it.
“So that was the main lesson, I think.
“The other lesson was the connections which I can draw, even if I mention it just a little bit with the Nazi rallies or Kristallnacht, or how there were all these signs which we now know from history.
“It’s the same like what’s happening here now.
“You have all these signs and you go, Oh, these are just crazy people, they’re dressed up like comic book characters and so what they got inside some government building.
“But then in 10 years this could be, like, step number three of whatever.
“I didn’t want to overdo it, so I think everybody who wants to know what the Munich Agreement was can look the details up.
“That was another thing that I thought about, with the attitude towards England and France in Czechoslovakia after Munich – that you have these children going to England, which saves them.
“It was hard to tell the neighbours that they were going to England, after what England did.
“Another thing was with the trains, that the trains were not used yet to ship people to the East, so these are sort of 'friendly trains'.
“How did he manage to get these trains through Nazi Germany and Holland?
“So there are little things. For me it’s like there are little snippets which are, I think, in a way educational. Or historical.
“And if you put it together it can have meaning for you.
“If not, then I just… I tried.”