Around 10,000 children, mostly Jews, were rescued from Nazi Germany and central Europe and put into British foster homes in what became known as the kindertransport.
Among them were almost 700 Czech and Slovak children rescued by the efforts of one “British Schindler,” Sir Nicholas Winton, whose feat is explored in the documentary Nicky’s Family, by Matej Minac and Patrick Pass.
The film, narrated by CBC correspondent Joe Schlesinger, one of the children rescued by Winton, opens Dec. 20 at the Kingsway Theatre, 3030 Bloor St. W. in Toronto.
What is amazing about Winton’s story is that he kept quiet about these events for more than half a century and they would probably remain unknown had his wife not discovered a suitcase with a scrapbook and other documents from that time.
The story is told through dramatization plus interviews with several survivors, now scattered all over the world, which includes teachers, engineers, hoteliers, dentists, one member of the House of Lords and a pastor. It also has several scenes with Winton himself, who is 104.
In 1938, Winton was an otherwise normal London stockbroker who loved the good life including skiing and travelling. Instead of going on a ski vacation that year, however, he decided to visit Prague and saw first-hand the plight of Jewish refugees. He became concerned for them when he saw that they lived in terrible conditions.
Realizing they had nobody to help them, he thought the least he could do is try to save the children. “If something isn’t blatantly impossible, there must be a way to do it,” he says.
He started a letter-writing campaign, even addressing one to U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt, but his efforts didn’t bear much fruit. He compiled a list of 2,000 children who he hoped to rescue.
As word of his campaign to save the children spread, he drew the attention of Nazi intelligence agents who, in a twist that could be from an Alan Furst spy novel, used the lure of a beautiful woman to seduce him for information, pretending to be the Prague representative of the Swedish Red Cross.
With war approaching, Winton tried even harder to save the children, and eventually, the British Home Office told him that if he could find a family for each child, they would give them visas.
Back in England, he opened an office and looked for foster homes. Eventually trainloads of children left Czechoslovakia and got to Britain through Germany, the Netherlands and the English Channel.
The documentary shows the recent reunion of survivors as they took that same journey once again.
After the war, Winton moved on, and wasn’t in touch with any of them, although he remains philanthropic to this day. When his wife found the scrapbook in an attic 50 years later, he finally told her about his pre-wartime deeds. His wife gave the scrapbook to a historian and his story was finally made public.
In the most emotional part of the movie, we see Winton on a BBC show, That’s Life, in 1988. He was unaware that he was sitting in a studio full of his rescued children. “They got me there… under false pretences,” he says. As they each stand up and applaud him, he is moved to tears, the results of his efforts finally obvious. The families of Winton’s children have now grown to almost 6,000 people.
What’s even more remarkable, as the film shows, is that his legacy continues. Today, thousands of young people all over the world, inspired by him, have taken part in a program to create various charity projects mostly for children worldwide. Around 3,000 students have taken part in the Nicholas Winton program.
It is Winton’s legacy and its hopeful message that make this documentary stand out in a crowd of similar films.