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Robert Kopstein

Community Wide Kristallnacht Commemoration- Nicky's family and the heroism of Nicholas Winton, the British Schindler

by Robert Kopstein, November 13, 2012

On Thursday November 8th, Nicky’s Family, the 90 minute 2011 documentary film written by Czech writer Matej Minac and co-writer Pattik Pass, was screened before a full house at the Berney Theatre. Produced with the support of the government of the Czech Republic, the film was presented to this Winnipeg audience by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg for Kristallnacht commemmoration. The event, organized by Community Relations director, Shelly Faintuck, was opened with a clear contextual introduction by Federation’s Chair of Community Relations, Zane Tessler . The introduction was important because Ms Faintuch had arranged for the attendance of about 50 students from Sturgeon Heights Collegiate, and Booth College.

Nicholas Winton’s heroism is now well known. On going to Prague, at the request of a friend in 1938 he recognized the dire plight of those fleeing from the advance of Hitler’s army. The awful danger to the lives of many children became evident to him. He with other collaborators had, by September of 1939 arranged visas and transportation to England of 699, mostly Jewish children – in a kindertransport. It is made clear that no country among the free nations of the world, other than England, would give sanctuary to these children. In England families to take and care of the children were found. The film is short on details of how Winton (sometimes referred to as the British Schindler) was able to secure the visas and arrange for the transport out of the country known until 1993 Czechoslovakia.

A humourous scene in the film, however, portrays a re-enactment of an attempted seduction of Winton by a young and most beautiful Nazi spy; the object of the exercise was to ascertain for the Nazis, the details of his activities. The audience then is told by Winton, with a wink, that she didn’t get much information, but she helped him to rescue a number of children.

In the film, Winton, himself, at the age of 103, in 2011, is vital and astute. Of the 699 children saved by him on the eve of the WWII, the film’s producers were able to reach 250 of those rescued more than 70 earlier. One of the survivors, among them, perhaps, best known to Canadians, is Joe Schlesinger, who, is, in fact, the principal narrator of the film. But several others among "his children" would become world renowned in their different fields.

The charm, the vitality and the magic of the film lies in the personal informal comments of Nicky Winton himself and of several among those whom he saved, as well as the interaction between them. Several were able to attend for the making of the film along with Winton. In attendance were some of the children and grandchildren of those who were rescued. It is estimated that the families of the rescued children now number some 6000 people – people who would never been born had it not been for Winton. Clearly pleased and moved by the abundant thanks, hugs and kisses he received from "his children" Winton, remains gracious and modest, though not without a sense of humour.

His modesty is not surprising given that his story might never have been told, at least through him, had his wife not discovered a suitcase of memorabilia in the attic of their home, that Winton had saved from the period of the rescues. After the commencement of WWII, he joined the RAF and became a pilot. But when the facts became known, after the suitcase was found by his wife in 1988, Winton was recognized as a hero. He was knighted by the Queen, and otherwise widely recognized.

One of the legacies of the Nicky Winton story, is the inspiration it has fostered among young people to take up and engage in projects designed to help the less fortunate.

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