In this Special, we pay tribute to Sir Nicholas Winton, the Briton who helped save the lives of 669 children by arranging their evacuation from Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia. Sir Nicholas died on Wednesday at his home in the UK at the age of 106. The original story was produced by Rosie Johnston in 2009, when the journey of the original kinderstransports from Prague to London was re-enacted.
The usual station announcements boom out of the loudspeakers at London’s Liverpool Street Station on Friday but, if you listen hard enough, you can hear some of the tens of extra policemen drafted on special duty, and the hiss of a steam engine that’s just arrived at platform 10. The Winton Train set out from Prague on September 1, transporting some of the Czech and German Jewish children saved from the Holocaust by Sir Nicholas Winton back along the route they traveled to safety in 1939. On Friday, the train arrived in London, and was greeted by Sir Nicholas himself:
“Seventy years ago, it was a question of getting a lot of little children together with the families who were going to look after them, and with the 200 children and the 200 people who were going to look after them all surrounding the station here, it was quite difficult to get them together. And, of course, every child had to be signed for. Anyway, it all worked out very well, and it is wonderful that it did work out so well, because, after all, history could have made it very different.”
All in all, Sir Nicholas Winton, who is now 100 years old, saved 669 children, organising them transport out of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and finding them homes in the United Kingdom. Last week, a number of the ‘Winton children’, as they are called, decided to make the journey again on a steam train commissioned in Winton’s honour. Susanne Medas was one of them:
“I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but when I got onto the platform and I saw this train I started to cry. And I didn’t think I would be sentimental at all, because I was a teenager traveling with friends of my own age, we were hiking. I don’t even remember if my own mother came to see me off. It wasn’t a big deal, you know. It must have been terrible for the little ones, because they couldn’t understand why their parents were sending them away.”
One such younger passenger was Lisa Midwinter, whose name sounded a lot more Czech in 1939:
“I’m Lisa Dašová, and I was born in Teplitz. When the Munich Agreement was made we came to Prague, my mother and father, my brother and myself. And we were put on the train in May. I came with my brother on this train. And then, I was one of the very lucky ones, my father came out in July, and my mother came on the next and the last train out. So, we then went to live in England in Stoke on Trent, and they ran an orphanage for Czech children from Teplice, Janov. And I met yesterday one of the ladies who I haven’t seen for 50 years.
“I was so little, but I just remember a blue train, and looking up, I thought the drivers were dressed in blue. But, having looked at it now, it’s blue, which is amazing that I remember that. Because I’m 74 now, so I remember that from 70 years ago! It is incredible!”
Do you remember anything else from the journey?
“I don’t remember the journey, but I remember the station. I thought I saw people crying, adults crying, and white being waved, which must have been white handkerchiefs. And I don’t know, but I think they were singing ‘Kde domov můj?’ - the national anthem - but whether they did or not… I just have that in my memory.
“I remember arriving, and all I remember was feeling totally alone with a piece of string that hurt my neck and a great big card. And I was just totally alone, because my brother went somewhere else, he went to a boarding school, and I went up to the Midlands, to stay with a family, but they couldn’t deal with me, so I was sent down to Stoke on Trent to stay with a German family.”
Have you been back to Prague, and to this station since, or is this the first time in 70 years?
“No, no. I came back. We first came back in 1948, because we were going to come back here. But it was all too much for my mother. She had heart problems from the age of 40 due to all this. So, my father decided we would stay in England. But I’ve been back five or six times. Because I’ve got a cousin who lives here, and I went to Teplice, because I wanted to see where I was born with my brother. That was about ten years ago now.”
“My name is Peter Miles, Doctor Peter Miles, and I was on the kindertransport to England in July 1939. I was 13 years old, and my name in those days was Petr Bedrich Meisl. Meisl is a very famous name in Prague, because on of my ancestors was the financial advisor to the emperor Rudolf II, and he owned most of the Jewish quarter of Prague.”
So you come from an old Prague family which found itself in a tight situation in 1939?
“Well, I was lucky insofar as I had an uncle in England. So although I traveled on the kindertransport, I was received by my uncle there, so Mr Winton didn’t have to look for a parent for me in England.
“I remember the journey very well. My parents said goodbye to me and more or less told me ‘you’re going on a holiday, we’ll see you soon’. And what was interesting was that one of the girls I was traveling with, a young girl, had swallowed some of the jewellery of her parents in order to bring it out at the other end, you see.”
And did you see you parents again?
“I studied in England, and my parents and my brother went to Terezín and to Auschwitz. My father died in Auschwitz, but my mother and my brother actually survived, and in 1945 they came back. I managed to bring them out of Czechoslovakia to England, and my mother then lived in Vienna with me for a while.”
Sir Nicholas Winton organized a number of kindertransports to bring Jewish children to safety. His last, and biggest, transport never got through. It was scheduled to leave Prague on September 3, 1939, with 250 children on board, but when war broke out, the train was called off. It is thought that none of the children who were supposed to be on board survived.
On the Winton Train itself last week, Eve Leadbeater told me she was on one of the last kindertransports out:
“I came in July 1939. I have only very, very vague memories, because I was only eight. And when I arrived in England, I didn’t see anybody else from Czechoslovakia for, I think, it was 50 years, really, until we had the kindertransport reunion. So I had nobody to remind me of what happened. Plus the fact that something like that you push to the back of your mind to get on with your life. So, to be honest, the memory of waving goodbye to my parents, I’m not sure if it is mine or if I got it from other people.”
Did you see them again after the war?
Where were you from in the former Czechoslovakia?
“I actually hesitated, because I knew it would be painful in parts, but I just thought it would be a kind of neat end, and a kind of act of gratitude to my parents and to Nicholas Winton.”
You said that you hadn’t met Czechs in Britain for 50 years, and anyway, you pushed these things to the back of your mind, does that mean that this morning coming back to Prague and getting on this train was particularly emotional?
“It was pretty emotional, I think, yes. Because I was just thinking of my parents sacrifice and my brother who didn’t make it. He was due to come on September 1 and didn’t make it.”
What do you think of Nicholas Winton and everything that he has done?
“I think that he is an example to us all, and a wonderful man, and I just want to say thank you.”
The episode featured today was first broadcast on September 8, 2009.
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