TORONTO — In a sombre ceremony at the University of Toronto, the Czech Republic recently marked the 70th anniversary of two separate – but ultimately related – events.
On March 14, 1939, the first rescue train of Jewish children, known as the kindertransport, pulled out of Prague, bound for Britain.
One day later, the German army marched into Prague, the Czech capital, transforming a democratic nation into a pro-tectorate of Nazi Germany and doom-ing its Jewish population.
“We’re here to commemorate evil and praise good,” a Czech consulate general official said, launching the March 26 even-ing of remembrance, How We Escaped Hitler, hosted by Prague-born Canadian television personality Hana Gartner.
For the next two hours, these historical events were the subject of an informal discussion by two Czech-born journalists, Pe-ter Newman and Joe Schles-inger, and of an Emmy Award-winning documentary film about the British man who organized the kindertransport, Nich-olas Win-ton.
The meeting was sponsored by the Czech Republic in co-operation with the British consulate in Toronto.
Before it ended, Czech diplomats conferred Order of Tomas Masaryk sil-ver medals – one of the country’s highest honours – upon Gartner, Newman and Schlesinger.
Newman, an author and former editor of the Toronto Star and Maclean’s magazine, recalled that his father, a wealthy industrialist, cried after his homeland was invaded by Germany.
Newman witnessed the triumphant entry of German troops into Prague, and, looking back, he said quietly, “Czechoslovakia was dying.” (In 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully split into the Czech and Slovak republics).
“It was a surrender,” said New-man, whose family was permitted to immigrate to Canada as barley farmers, but only in the guise of Catholics.
“The Munich Pact took away our defences,” he said in a reference to the infamous agreement that enabled Germany to grab some of Czechoslovakia’s terri-tory. “We had only 20 years of freedom, from 1918 to 1938.”
Newman speculated that the Czech army could have inflicted horrendous casualties on the German army had it chosen to challenge Germany’s invasion.
Schlesinger, a retired CBC TV foreign correspondent and one of the 669 Jewish children saved by Winton, described Czechoslovakia as a bastion of democracy, multiculturalism and tolerance before it was swallowed up by Germany.
His parents, having signed him up for the kindertransport, thought he would be back soon.
Their assumption seemed reasonable.
“In Jewish history, there were good periods and bad periods,” noted Schles-inger, whose dusky voice accompanied hundreds of first-hand reports from areas of conflict.
For decades, Schlesinger had no idea that his guardian angel had been Winton, a London stockbroker of Jewish origin whose pa-rents had him baptized when he was a child.
All in all, Winton, a humanitarian in the finest sense of the word, organized eight transports from Prague to London and arranged for British foster families to care for the children.
Winton’s ninth transport never reach-ed its destination, having been interrupted by the outbreak of World War II.
For years, Winton kept his exploits secret, not even telling his wife, Greta. But in 1988, the story came to light after she found a scrapbook of his activities in their attic.
Winton, nominated for the 2008 No-bel Peace Prize by the Czech government, will celebrate his 100th birthday on May 19.
Matej Minac’s film about him, Nich-olas Winton: The Power of Good, narra-ted by Schlesinger, was screened after Newman and Schlesinger finished their recollections.
The program was augmented by Yuri Dojc’s photographic exhibition, What Remain-ed, about the Jewish past in the Slovak Republic.