Nicholas Winton, left, in his 90s, and, right, at 29 with one of the 669 Czechoslovak Jewish children he saved.
photo: Courtesy Trigon Production
A successful London stock broker born in 1909, Winton visited Prague in 1938, where he met Jewish refugees who had fled Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland region after its annexation by Berlin. Sensing the inevitability of the second world war and aware of the Third Reich's fanatical anti-Semitism, Winton worked as a conduit between English families willing to adopt refugees and Czechoslovak Jews desperate to send their children out of the country. He also arranged the necessary paperwork with the English government and transportation by train and then boat from Czechoslovakia to England.
In all, 669 children made the trip in the first half of 1939. The start of the second world war in September ended plans to rescue thousands more.
None of the parents of the 669 children are known to have survived the ensuing Holocaust. Nor are the 250 children that were scheduled to leave in September 1939.
Director Mináč first used Winton's story in the fictional 1999 film Všichni moji blízcí (All My Loved Ones), which depicts a Jewish family's ordeals in Czechoslovakia in 1939. With Winton's aid, the parents send their only child to England before the outbreak of war.
Mináč was so affected by his research for Všichni moji blízcí that he spent the following two years shooting over 60 hours of interviews and collecting 30 hours of historical footage for the non-fictional Sila Ľudskosti.
"The drama of the story is like that of a Greek tragedy," he said. "The decision of parents, whether or not to release their children into the world knowing they may never see them again, is such a strong and deep theme."
Sila Ľudskosti begins with accounts of Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. Moderator Joe Schlesinger, a well-known Canadian war correspondent born in Bratislava, remembers the seeming harmony between the German, Hungarian, Slovak and Jewish populations in the current Slovak capital.
"It was a tolerant city. Everyone spoke three languages," said Schlesinger. "I remember going to cafes with my father and drinking hot chocolate. It was a pleasant life."
But the German occupation of the Sudetenland displaced thousands of Czech Jews and forebode greater tragedies for those throughout the federation. Winton said it was obvious to him in 1938 that something had to be done.
"Anyone in Prague in Christmas 1938 who had seen the Jewish refugees freezing in camps would have wanted to help," said Winton. "The Czech defences disappeared when they lost the Sudetenland. It was clear the Germans were hardly likely to stop."
What follows in Sila Ľudskosti are first-person accounts from the Jewish children, now adults, who were put on trains by parents they never saw again. Mináč creates an admirable mix of the heart-wrenching, such as the story of a mother who took her daughter on and off the train twice before finally saying goodbye, and the light-hearted, such as memories of the children, on their way to England, eating white bread for the first time.
Amazingly, Winton's heroism remained secret for 50 years. He became a pilot in the second world war and then took a job at the United Nations after it ended, never speaking about what he had done. Even those rescued did not know who was responsible.
Then in 1988, Winton's wife discovered a chest in the attic with old photos of Czechoslovak children. The story broke in the British media soon thereafter. In a tearful scene in Sila Ľudskosti taken from British television, Winton meets scores of those children, many now grandparents, for the first time.
Approximately 30% of the Jews Winton rescued were from Slovakia, said Mináč, although the film makes no mention of this. Slovak Jews on the whole were more religious than Czech Jews, he added, and many requested Jewish homes for their children in England. Many of those children ended up in Israel after the war.
Sila Ľudskosti does include a scene in which Winton recalls the complaint by some in England that Jewish children were being put into Christian homes. Finding families was imperative because the English government required that all children had guardians lined up before they processed their papers.
"I said: 'If you think it's better to for them to stay Jewish and die in Prague than to turn Christian and live in England that's your problem.'" he recalled.
The number of Czechoslovak Jews saved by Winton, when added to their descendants, is estimated at 5,000. After 50 years of relative anonymity, the British philanthropist is today compared to the late Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg.
Sila Ľudskosti will also be screened in the United States, France and Germany. Winton said that he had not yet decided whether to travel with Mináč to those countries. Sila Ľudskosti was shown on Slovak Television September 17 and may be released in Slovak theatres later this year.
24. Sep 2001 at 0:00 | Matthew J. Reynolds