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Arts & Culture After 60 Years, Film Shows Heroics of Man Who Saved Czech Children

September 26, 2002
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Nicholas Winton tends to his affairs like he tends to his garden — with quiet diligence.

That’s not to say that the 93-year old Londoner isn’t a passionate man. But in model English form, he masks his emotions with wit and nonchalance.

Winton is so unassuming, in fact, that he never told anyone about the time he singlehandedly rescued 669 children, nearly all of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia just before the outbreak of World War II.

No one knew that Winton, then a 29-year old London stockbroker, spent his evenings coordinating a mass exodus of children from parents desperate to secure their children’s safety to foster homes in Britain.

No one knew about the phony refugee organization Winton concocted, the forged documentation he arranged, the reams of photos of children and babies he collected and shipped to people willing to take them in.

No one knew: Not the rescued children, not even Winton’s wife — until she was rummaging through their attic one day in May 1988.

That was when Grete Winton uncovered a scrapbook listing, in Winton’s handwriting, hundreds of children retrieved from prewar Czechoslovakia — and containing photos of her future husband with unknown children.

When his wife asked him, Winton downplayed his heroism and said there had been just a few children. But Grete Winton was determined to publicize her husband’s story.

Grete Winton surprised her husband with an emotional reunion of about 100 of the children, by now grown adults, on a BBC talk show called “That’s Life!” in October 1988.

Since then, Winton’s story has been covered in the British, American, Israeli and Czech media.

It’s also the subject of a new documentary, “The Power of Good,” that premiered last week in New York and featured a question-and-answer session with Winton and several of those he saved.

Directed by Czech filmmaker Matej Minac, the son of an Auschwitz survivor, the film is a finalist in the 2002 International Emmy Awards to be held Nov. 25.

The film, which took four years to make, recounts Winton’s rescue operation through live interviews with Winton and those he saved. Deliberately uplifting, it emphasizes how a single individual can effect vast change.

“Every individual has the power to do something positive,” director Minac said.

People too often give up or say it’s not possible to do something that seems too difficult, Minac said. “The Power of Good,” however, shows viewers that even in the face of great challenge, “don’t wait to do something yourself.”

The story begins in the winter of 1938 when a friend of Winton diverted their annual Swiss ski trip to Prague to visit an elderly relative in a refugee camp.

After Germany’s takeover of the Sudetenland, many Austrians and Germans fled to refugee camps erected by Czechoslovakia.

Accompanying his friend to Prague, Winton found there were no efforts under way to help the refugee children, so he launched his own.

During the course of regular visits, Winton set up shop at a table in the coffeehouse of Hotel Srobek in Wenceslas Square in downtown Prague. In hushed tones to avoid detection by Gestapo spies, Winton met parents, more than 90 percent of them Jewish, who begged him to rescue their children.

Winton, who had seen a secret German map that revealed Hitler’s desire to conquer all of Europe, realized he had to rescue as many children as possible, and quickly.

Winton first rescued refugee children and, later, Czech children after Germany invaded Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939.

The operation continued until war broke out on Sept. 1. The last train, which left that very day carrying 251 children, disappeared.

The film features archival footage, including a heart-wrenching scene at the Prague train depot of doomed parents waving goodbye to frightened children.

Later in the film, the now-grown children recall the freedom they felt on crossing the Germany-Holland border, and — accustomed to dark, Central European bread — tasting Dutch white bread and cocoa.

The children were then taken by ship to the United Kingdom, and recount the happy childhoods they had there.

“The Power of Good” received consulting and promotional services from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which is credited by historians with saving more than 400,000 Jews from Nazi-occupied territories during World War II.

At the film’s Sept. 18 New York premiere, which it sponsored, the JDC gave Winton its Ma’asim Tovim award, which means good deeds in Hebrew. The prize is rarely awarded and historically honors those involved in Holocaust rescue efforts.

Winton also was recognized in 1989 by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, where his scrapbook is now stored.

However, Yad Vashem does not recognize Winton as a Righteous Gentile: Though he was raised as an Anglican, Winton was born to Jewish parents.

Winton also has received accolades from Czech President Vaclav Havel, who awarded him the T.G. Masaryk Order, the country’s highest honor.

At the British premiere of “The Power of Good” on Sept. 25, Winton was slated to receive a letter of recognition from Britain’s prime minister and foreign minister.

All the fuss is “embarrassing,” Winton said. But at least the publicity has reconnected him to those he saved so long ago.

Winton thought of the children often in the years since the rescue, yet says he wouldn’t have known how to find the grown children today.

Now he is in touch with about 130 of the “children,” as Winton still calls them, though the age between them is indistinguishable. And many appear more feeble than Winton himself.

Touring for the film keeps him occupied, said Winton, — his wife died three years ago.

As for the reunited children, “it is like we have never parted,” said Alice Masters, 77, who attended the New York premiere.

Watching closely for footage of herself, her parents or friends, Masters spotted her two sisters behind Winton in the “That’s Life” reunion and saw their names and her own in the scrapbook.

Masters, who lives in Bethesda, Md., after a career with the International Monetary Fund, praised the film and the recognition it garnered for Winton.

“He is a delightful man, and we love to see him,” she said. “We are all very thrilled to have found out who was responsible for saving the children.”

In an interview in his New York hotel suite, surrounded by several of his “children,” Winton told JTA why he kept the secret for so many years.

“What do you say to somebody?” Winton said. “It wasn’t a conversation item really.”

Winton also couldn’t explain why he downplayed the rescue operation to Grete when she found the scrapbook; perhaps the memories it evoked were too intense.

Asked why he had gone to such lengths to save the children, Winton reacted as if the answer were glaring: It was just something that had to be done.

“If somebody falls in the river, you jump” in to help, he said. “I just happen to be one of those people that likes jumping.”

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