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War drama

January 25, 2011

A documentary about the rescue of 669 Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia by a British man has premiered in Prague.

Sir Nicholas Winton
Winton had a bad feeling about the Nazis' aims regarding JewsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

It has already been the subject of a film, an award-winning documentary and several books, but the story of Sir Nicholas Winton - the British man who saved hundreds of Jewish children from Czechoslovakia in 1939 - has now been turned into a new drama documentary titled "Nicky's Family."

Winton has been called the "English Schindler" in reference to Oskar Schindler, whose rescue of hundreds of Jews in wartime Poland was portrayed in Steven Spielberg's film "Schindler's List."

The premiere of "Nicky's Family" - directed by Slovak director Matej Minac - was attended by Winton, now 101 years old.

Acting on a gut feeling

Winton was 29 years old when he came to Prague in 1938, at the invitation of a friend. He was shocked by what he saw: thousands of refugees from Germany and the Sudetenland, recently annexed by Hitler, crowded into camps. He was especially touched by the plight of so many Jewish children, convinced that the Nazis were about to gobble up what remained of Czechoslovakia and had sinister plans for its Jewish population.

Some of the children saved by Nicholas Winton pose next to the newly unveiled statue of him at the main train station in Prague, Czech Republic on Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Over 600 Czechoslovakian Jews owe their lives to WintonImage: AP

"When I arrived in Prague, I pretty well knew what to expect," Winton told Deutsche Welle. "When I saw what was happening to a lot of the anti-Hitler people, including the Jews - that they were losing their jobs, that the doctors weren't allowed to practice, that children weren't allowed to go to school anymore - I knew what it meant."

Winton, himself the son of German-Jewish immigrants to Britain who later converted to Christianity, decided to act. He formed a committee to get the children out of Czechoslovakia, finding British foster families willing to pay 50 pounds to cover the expenses of transporting them by train to England. A total of eight trains left Prague in 1939, carrying 669 children. Among them was a nine-year-old girl called Milena - now Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines.

"My little sister was sitting on my knee and she was clutching me around my neck and she was saying, 'I'm not going to cry, I'm not going to cry,'" Grenfell-Baines told Deutsche Welle. "And my little cousin, who was two and a half […] - I said to her, 'Don’t cry and go to sleep'"

New families in Britain

Grenfell-Baines - a distinguished woman with an accent reflecting her adopted home of Lancashire - was among two dozen "Winton children" in Prague to watch the new documentary. With her was her little sister, Eva Paddock, who had traveled from Cambridge, Massachusetts to be here.

"We had been chosen to be fostered by a wonderful couple in Lancashire, called Mr. and Mrs. Radcliffe, whom we then always called Mummy and Daddy Radcliffe," Paddock told Deutsche Welle. "We were very fortunate in that eventually both our parents did escape and we were reunited with them. But we were raised in Lancashire."

The main gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp
Millions of Jews died in Nazi concentration campsImage: AP

Paddock and Grenfell-Baines, along with many other Czechoslovak Jewish children, made the 1,300-kilometer (808-mile) journey from Prague, through Nazi Germany, to the Hook of Holland and by steamship across the Channel to England. Their strongest first impressions seem to be tea with milk, which they threw away, and English white bread - so different from Central European rye. Arriving at Liverpool Street station in London, they were whisked away by their foster families.

Few of the "Winton children" realized they would never see their parents again. And they could not possibly have imagined the horrific way in which their parents would meet their end at various concentration camps.

A modest hero

For fifty years, Winton's story remained untold. Winton told nobody about what he had done, until his wife discovered an old scrapbook in his attic with photographs of the children. Today, Sir Nicholas is treated like a star whenever he arrives in Prague. However, he admits that he is getting weary of constantly being asked about the past.

"All this business of regurgitating the past - which is what I’m usually asked to speak about - to me is absolutely useless," said Winton. "I mean it's not the past that's important. We've never learned from the past."

The filmmakers produced 500 hours of film material and visited 20 countries to talk to the "Winton children." Up to now, 261 of the 669 have been traced. The post-war fates of over 400 are still unknown.

Author: Rob Cameron
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn