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A very attractive actress portrays my grandmother in a movie, which is odd because I don’t think my grandmother ever saw a movie in her life.
Her name was Sidonia, and she lived with my grandfather Salamon in the remote mountain village of Trstena, then part of Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia). They had three little girls, among them my mother, Alice. For most of my mother’s childhood, they lived in a couple of rooms in a house with no electricity or running water. For news, the town relied on a man who appeared twice a day, beat a drum and gave an update.
My mother remembers an idyllic childhood despite the simplicity of their lives, their total lack of modern conveniences. The family was strictly religious but not orthodox: Salamon didn’t wear a beard, and Sidonia didn’t cover her head or wear long sleeves. There weren’t many Jews in Trstena, but my mother and her sisters say they mostly were oblivious to anti-Semitism. They played with gentile friends, though my aunt tells me some of their parents told dark tales — “horrific stories of what the Jews did — killed a child at Passover, drank the blood and — such horrible things! It showed later, when the Nazis came around. Our great friends … turned against all of us.”
In the movie Nicky’s Family, which opens in New York and Los Angeles and is available on-demand July 19, Sidonia is played by a famous Czech actress, Klara Issova. This is a coifed and stylish Sidonia; my grandmother wouldn’t recognize herself. But in creating re-enactments for his documentary, Czech filmmaker Matej Minac has taken a few liberties.
In the film, as the Nazi threat draws closer, this fetching Sidonia meets in Prague with a young British stockbroker named Nicholas Winton to plead for her children’s lives. In reality, Sidonia never met Winton and probably never had heard of him. But he did save her girls. Nicky’s Family tells how, through determination and ingenuity, Winton rescued hundreds of children, who now have more than 6,000 descendants around the world — including, of course, me.
In the winter of 1938, the then-29-year-old Winton decided to forgo a planned ski trip to Switzerland and instead traveled to Prague to help a friend who was assisting Jewish refugees fleeing the advancing Nazis. Winton could see that it only was a matter of a few short weeks before the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, which they did in March 1939. In an astonishing act of enterprise and courage, he set about arranging kindertransports — trains filled with Jewish children fleeing almost certain death. He set up an office at his hotel in Prague, and parents did, in fact, stand in line to plead with him to save their children. He compiled lists of names and photographs of boys and girls. Imagine the desperation that these mothers and fathers must have felt, begging to send even infants to a foreign country to live with strangers who did not even speak their language.
The greatest challenge was finding a country willing to accept unaccompanied children. Many refused, including the U.S. Back in London, Winton worked tirelessly to find guardians willing to accept responsibility for each child, possibly for years to come, and to put up a guarantee of £50 — no small sum in those days. Winton was relentless and cunning. As he recounts in Nicky’s Family, he invented an official-sounding office and forged documents to spirit children out of Czechoslovakia. He presented willing families in Britain with photographs of children and told them to take their pick. He saved 669, including my mother, who was 14 at the time, and her sisters Josi, then 15, and Elli, then 10.
Sidonia never visited with Winton but knew of the kindertransport from her brother, who worked as a representative for one of the grand spas of Eastern Europe. He had been in Berlin and seen the brutality of the Nazis firsthand. He wrote to his sister in Trstena, urging her at all costs to escape or at least arrange an escape for the three girls. Sidonia and Salamon managed to get their daughters on Winton’s list.
Sidonia “started to sew and prepare all the clothes for us,” my mother, now 88, remembers. “She just sat at that sewing machine and sewed and sewed.” My mother still has her flowered orange dress, an embroidered nightgown and a pair of pajamas with the letter A, for Alice, on the breast pocket. Sidonia took pains to ensure that her girls would look well on their journey. She knew that this might be the last motherly act that she could perform for them.
When the day of departure arrived, my aunt says the tension was obvious. “In the bedroom, our father was sitting on the edge of the bed and he was crying,” she remembers. “I had never seen him cry before.” Most of the villagers had disparaged the idea of sending the children away, but my grandparents took their girls to Bratislava and put them on the train. Sidonia, naturally, was distraught. “We kept on saying, ‘Take Elli off the train,’ ” my mother recalls. “We said, ‘Keep her! Keep her!’ ” And Sidonia almost succumbed — taking the 10-year-old off the train before finally putting her back on. It was the last time my grandparents would ever see their daughters. Where they died is unclear — the Slovaks were not immaculate record-keepers like the Germans. We are told that they were deported, probably to the Sobibor death camp.
The train carrying my mother and her sisters left in June 1939. At the beginning of September, the British entered the war; the Nazis did not permit Winton’s ninth transport to leave Prague, dooming the 250 children on board.
The scene of Sidonia putting little Elli on and off the train is depicted in Nicky’s Family. What filmmaker could resist it? (My grandfather is nowhere to be seen, and one of the children also has vanished.) A sobbing Sidonia runs frantically after the departing train; my mother rolls her eyes a bit at that flourish. But certainly she approves of dramatic devices to tell what is a true dramatic story — the story of a man who has been called the British Schindler and who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2002.
Winton’s story was forgotten after the war, and my mother and her sisters knew nothing of his existence for 50 years. It wasn’t until 1988 that he first encountered some of those whom he had saved. The setting was a British television program called That’s Life. With Winton in the audience, the host displayed one of his scrapbooks filled with photos of rescued children and pointed to the woman seated beside him. This was one of those who had been saved thanks to the kindertransport, she explained. The woman beside Winton embraced him; he wiped away a tear. Then the host asked: “Is there anyone in our audience tonight who owes their life to Nicholas Winton? If so, could you stand up, please?” The entire audience rose. Just behind Winton stood my aunts, Elli and Josi.
A few years ago, I went with my mother and daughter, who was 10 years old at the time, to visit Sir Nicholas, who late into his 90s was living on his own outside Maidenhead, some 20 miles west of London. He was charming, witty and unpretentious despite the photographs of him with British royalty and American presidents. I thanked him for making our lives possible and told him, “We’re all your children.” But he declined to be sentimental. To some degree, he said, too much had been made of his efforts. What seemed to him like a brief interlude in his life has overshadowed everything else. You can see him telling his story with a characteristic blend of humor and modesty in Nicky’s Family.
Last month, my mother, now living in Washington, D.C., went to London to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the kindertransports. The group was greeted by Prince Charles. Remarkably, Sir Nicholas was there for the entire day’s events. In May, he turned 104 and was interviewed on CNN to mark the occasion. “It’s very gratifying to know that what I did was successful,” he said then. “But if other countries had participated, we could have saved many more.” Having lost a train with 250 children on board, his regret is understandable. But as Nicky’s Family abundantly illustrates, Winton’s accomplishments are a dramatic testament to the power of good.
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