Monday, 18 May, 2015

Milena and her sister Eva were amongst those who were rescued from certain death by the actions of a young British stockbroker, Sir Nicholas Winton. To mark his 106th birthday, Milena reflects on how his actions saved 669 children.

When you come out of the railway station there are always a few taxis waiting. You only have to say 'New Ditton'. 'Ah yes' the driver will reply, ‘Mr Winton?’

‘Yes, Sir Nicholas Winton.’

It was 40 years after the end of the Holocaust before I, and so many of the children I had come to England with, discovered who it was that organised the trains which brought us from Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia to safety in the United Kingdom.

Some will still remember the TV programme That's Life when Esther Ransen led a very unsuspecting Mr Winton into a BBC studio. She had a scrap book in her hand with pictures and letters telling the story of how he organised trains to save 669 children from certain death in the Holocaust. Esther had invited 'Nicky', as we now know him, on to the show, telling him she would like to tell his story. What she did not tell him was that she had also invited a number of the children, now all adults, that he had saved.

I was one of them and on that evening I met the man who saved mine and my sister’s lives.

I was born in Prague, the capital of the then Czechoslovakia. In my early years I lived in a small town where my mother was a doctor and my father an accountant and member of the town council. My father was a great admirer of the German author Thomas Mann who in the early 1930s was made stateless by Nazi Germany and was living in Switzerland without a passport, unable to travel. My father suggested that the town council offer Thomas Mann a domicile – making him an honorary citizen. President Benes agreed and sent my father to Switzerland to offer Thomas Mann and his family Czech passports. With these the Mann family first travelled to Czechoslovakia in 1937, coming to our small town to thank the council and then travelling onwards to the USA where they eventually settled.

The incorporation of the Sudetenland into Nazi Germany in September 1938 had made the remainder of the Czechoslovak Republic weak. On the evening of the 15 March 1939, Germany invaded the rest of the country. My father was warned by the Czech underground to leave the country immediately – because he was Jewish and a supporter of Thomas Mann, his name was on the Gestapo’s wanted list. He left via Berlin, of all places, where he was helped by a man who put him on a plane to Brussels. From Brussels he managed to travel to England. In 1959, through friends in Germany, he also managed to find the man who helped him, but that is another story.

My sister Eva was three and I was nine. We were living in Prague with our mother when she told us we were to go to England. Knowing that our father was there made it easier, though our mother knew he was ill and would probably not be able to take care of us. We were to go to an English family who had offered us a home.

My memory of the subsequent departure on what turned out to be the last train on 31 July is very hazy. These days, because of the past years talking about it with other 'children', it is difficult to know what I remember or whether I am using other people's memories. We travelled in a locked third class carriage, with enough food to last us until we reached Holland and on to England. At London Liverpool Street station we were met by a Mr Roland Radcliffe – soon to become Daddy Radcliffe.

The Radcliffes had a daughter called Mary who was 16, but they lived in a terrace house with only two bedrooms so they sent her to live with her grandmother so Eva and I could be together. Many of the siblings coming as refugees were separated as not many families were able to accept two children. We were lucky – the Radcliffes didn't stand by.

Don't stand by is the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2016, and Nicholas Winton was one man who did not stand by when help was needed in 1939, all those years ago.

After the invasion of the Sudetenland, the Nazis immediately began expelling all Jewish citizens from their homes. Jewish men, women and children were given 24 hours to leave with what little possessions they could carry. There was nowhere to go but east to Prague. Some 200,000 refugees were forced to camp on the outskirts of the city or stay with relatives where possible.

A British rescue committee existed to try and help the most endangered but it was obvious not all could be saved. There were parents who realised that if only they could send their children to safety, that would help. One of the British committee members, Martin Blake, had an idea. A friend of his, Nicholas Winton, was going on a skiing holiday. Martin knew Nicholas was a very good organiser and sent him a cable – 'cancel your holiday; I need your help in Prague!’

Nicholas Winton was 29 years old at the time. He travelled to Prague and saw the chaos of parents pleading with the refugee committee to rescue their children. Some organisations, such as the Quakers and the Barbican Mission, were already helping, but no one was officially in charge. He saw that something had to be done to get the children out. Nicky set up an office in a hotel in Prague and, within two days, queues of parents were forming to ask for their children's names to be put on the list. He spent three weeks in Prague, having taken an extra week off from work, before returning to London to embark on the process of finding homes, families, deposits and documents for the children.

Eventually he managed to rescue 669 of us. How he did is now told in a new biography called If it's Not Impossible, written by his daughter Barbara Winton.

Both father and daughter resist hero worship. The book's title is a nod to his often-repeated motto: ‘if it's not impossible, there must be a way to do it’. Speaking at his 105th birthday party last year, Nicky expressed his belief that goodness properly understood is not passive, but active – that the world requires individuals who not only refrain from harming others, but energetically seek out those in need of help. The remarkable story of his actions and their consequences provide an object lesson in how to go about it.

Today, some of the other rescued children and I have established a committee in Prague where we recently launched a competition for students in the Prague School of Applied Arts to design a valedictory memorial in honour of those selfless parents who let their children go. Nicky is our patron.

Tomorrow Sir Nicholas Winton will turn 106 years old.

Happy birthday Nicky.