Winton’s Children – Part 2
Evolve, Devolve, Revolve Competition Entry
… Continued from yesterday
‘There are two of you?’ she asked. She paused and then said: ‘I thought there would only be one. Never mind, we have a big farm and lots of space. We can find room for two. Do you like farms—Ruth is it?’
‘Yes, I’m Ruth’ I said nervously with a dry mouth, ‘and this is my brother Emil.’
‘Hello Emil,’ she gave us a big hug and told us we would be catching a train to Shropshire where her home was. Going to a farm, I thought, that sounds good—but yet more travelling! ‘Do you like farm animals,’ she asked with a twinkle in her eye?
We both said ‘Yes,’ together.
‘Well, we have chooks and chickens, turkeys, some cows, goats to make our cheese, pigs, a few ducks, two dogs, a cat and some canaries in a cage. You can help us feed some them if you like. But only if you want to.’ I was cheered by the thought of two dogs. Our family had never had a dog.
‘Uncle Jack’ met us at the station in the car, and we found Shrewsbury a pretty town as we drove through, the farm being a little outside town. There was the same confusion when two of us turned up instead of one, but pretty quickly we had a room each and they were lovely. When we found that our new Aunt was named Bridget we both smiled broadly and explained that we had another Aunt Brigitte and she owned a farm too, in Chemnitz.
Emil had no trouble starting school and made friends straight away, but being shy, I found it hard at first because my English was not very good. The teacher asked Sue to help me learn English quickly and we became fast friends. We loved our school, and I felt important for I could speak German, Czech and had a smattering of French and was forever being asked what this and that was in one of those languages and that made us all laugh.
Time passed quickly for us on the farm. We named all the chooks, chicks, ducks and turkeys, and enjoyed feeding them all, even the pigs. We kept writing letters home and to Aunt Brigitte, but no-one replied, and we supposed mail wasn’t getting through.
A year later we heard from our Uncle Dominik. He’d made it to England via Switzerland through a rescue line, but it had taken a long time. When he came down to see us it was at first such a happy thing. We all sat round the table and told how we’d each made the journey.
He hadn’t mentioned our parents and when we asked his face went white.
In tears, he held our hands as he told how the Germans took our parents away several days after we’d left and knew that they’d died in Dachau concentration camp.
‘Aunt Brigitte? She was adopted and Aryan so she’d be safe?’
‘No,’ my Uncle said, ‘her horrible neighbour’ (and we knew who it was) ‘informed the Germans that she’d married a Jew, and although he was long dead, she was taken into custody immediately.’ It was no surprise to find he now owned Brigitte’s small farm, and that was why he’d betrayed her. When his wife had been ill Brigitte had looked after her for many weeks for him, but he forgot all that, and we were all sickened to hear this.
One by one he told us of the cousins and relatives who’d all disappeared. Two of our cousins had been on the last of the rescue journeys that we’d used—the ninth. Two hundred and fifty children were aboard ready to start their journey on September third, but Britain declared war on Germany and all the borders were immediately shut. Within an hour the train was diverted to Belsen, and the children were never heard of again. There would have been two hundred and fifty foster-parents at the English end waiting for them in vain.
We all went into shock especially Emil and it took many months to recover from all this news. My Uncle asked if we might stay in Shropshire, for he only had a small one-roomed flat in London, but at least he’d found a job in a munitions factory. This seemed eminently reasonable to everyone.
We were still in Shropshire on May eighth 1945 when the war ended with great rejoicing. The time came for us to return to Czechoslovakia, using our bond of fifty pounds, but our foster-parents couldn’t bear the idea of our departure. Uncle Jack seemed to be the saddest. With no children of their own we knew we were loved and had become theirs absolutely when we found out we were orphans and they’d been so comforting.
They sat us down talking to us seriously; it was their wish to adopt us, and Uncle Dominik came down to help with the discussions. He told us that the Communist government in Czechoslovakia treated anyone with the slightest connection to England or America as suspicious, and we’d probably be in danger again. The logical thing was to go ahead and become British citizens so he was able to officially endorse the application as our only living relative.
It was not until 1988 that a BBC program told the story of the twenty-eight year old ‘British Schindler’, Sir Nicholas Winton, who had organised the exit route for 669 of we children through eight rescue journeys. He was the one with the spectacles who’d welcomed us at Liverpool Station all those years ago.
Before Christmas 1938, after the ‘Kristallnacht’ in Germany, he became alarmed at the Nazi intent to storm into countries. A friend of his was trying to organise some sort of rescue of Czechoslovakian-Jewish children because, although there were rescue operations covering other stricken countries, nothing was happening in Czechoslovakia and it was under direct threat of invasion.
In a flash he’d organised an office and recruited excellent volunteers in Prague, including the wonderful ‘Auntie Truus’, devolving to them all the arrangements to run things from the Prague end while he flew home to Britain. There he harried the government until they agreed to receive batches of children from infants to under seventeen-year-olds provided they had a foster home to go to and had paid a warranty of fifty pounds to cover their return journey at war’s end. This was the only rescue organisation that guaranteed housing on arrival in England. Others had lengthy stays in camps before settlement.
Offers poured in and the first train, our train, of over two hundred set off on March fourteenth, the day before the fall of Czechoslovakia into German hands. There were eight trainloads sent on their way between March and August until that fatal biggest batch of 250 children—the ninth collection of refugees on September third 1939.
Nicholas Winton rarely spoke of his achievements in the decades that followed believing his actions to be unremarkable, so no-one knew to whom they were indebted until he showed his scrapbook to a friend. It contained 669 photos and documents with all the names of the children he’d rescued. His friend showed it to a newspaper. In turn it was featured on the BBC program, ‘That’s Life’, run by Esther Ranzen, with Nicholas Winton present, unexpectedly in an audience of adults whom he’d previously rescued as children. A wonderful night! There have been reunions since.
Nicholas Winton is still alive, 105 years of age, and living in Maidenhead and one of his rescued children, now in her seventies, looks after him in his home. In February 2015 he received an award there for his work, but it was one of a multitude of awards received by this modest achiever, among them a knighthood, an MBE and a Freedom of the City of London to name just three.
There are life-sized group-sculptures of the children with their sad luggage, at the Vienna, Prague, and Liverpool Railway stations, and at the Hook of Holland.
Sir Nicholas’ mantra is: ‘I came to believe through my life that what is important is that we live by the common ethics of all religions—kindness, decency, love, respect, and honour for others—and not worry about the aspects within religion that divide us.’
How relevant in today’s world.
Bio: Shirley thinks the horrific events for children in those far off days must have left an indelible mark on them all. In comparison, Sir Nicholas Winton’s compassion burns brightly when the spotlight is put on it.