Dave Lux remembers that he lived with his family in an isolated rural area in Slovakia near the Hungarian border, and that his father was a baker in a nearby village. He also recalls that his parents fled with him and his older brother the day after some soldiers came to their house in spring 1939.
They ended up being held by the authorities with other families in a building, where a blonde woman came to convince parents to give up their children for their safety.
“My parents were the only parents that agreed to let their children go with her,” Lux, 80, says. “I remember that when it came time for us to leave, my mother was crying hysterically and asking us over and over if we were sure we wanted to go. We said yes, since we thought we were just going for an outing.”
For most of his life, Lux, who used to be Isidor Pinkasovic, had no idea who that blonde woman was, or who had sent her.
By now, many people know who Nicholas Winton is. But for 50 years, virtually no one was aware that he had saved the lives of 669 Jewish Czech and Slovak children on the eve of World War II.
Winton, then a young British stockbroker, dropped everything in early 1939, set up a refugee committee operation in Prague, and worked tirelessly to get Jewish children out on kindertransports to England and Sweden. No one knew what he had done because the children were either unaware of who had saved them, or were too young to remember. Winton himself went on to serve in the Royal Air Force and later to marry and start a family, never mentioning his act of heroic kindness to anyone.
“As my father himself says, ‘It’s not that I kept it a secret, I just didn’t talk about it.’ I guess that is common with many who were involved in World War II. They played their part, the war ended and they got on with their lives,” supposes Nick Winton, Winton’s son.
Winton’s story was revealed in the 1980s thanks to the British “That’s Life” television program, which not only reported on what he had done, but also arranged for a surprise meeting between him and some of the people who owed their lives to him. The television show would never had been made had Winton’s wife not by chance found an old scrapbook containing documents and memorabilia pertaining to the rescue.
The story of this “British Schindler” has traveled far beyond the UK, thanks, in large part, to Slovak film director Matej Minac. He has made three films about Winton, with the latest, “Nicky’s Family,” set to be released in New York and Los Angeles on July 19. While Minac’s first Winton film, “All My Loved Ones” (1999) is a dramatic feature, this new film, like the Emmy Award-winning “Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good” (2002), is a documentary.
After hearing about Winton (who is still alive at 104 and has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth) and seeking him out in 1998, Minac decided he had to tell the world what Winton had done. “I made a commitment that he would be rightly rewarded for what he did. And instead of one film, I have made three,” the director says.
‘I made a commitment that he would be rightly rewarded for what he did. And instead of one film, I have made three’
The impetus for “Nicky’s Family” was mainly the philanthropic projects and good deeds done by young people all over the world inspired by “The Power of Good” and a companion book titled “Nicholas Winton’s Lottery of Life.”
In the meantime, the stories of more of the rescued children have come to light, and several more reunions of Winton and the “kinder” also taken place. So, in 2006, Minac set about making a third film weaving Winton’s rescue operation together with the ripple effect it has had even seven decades later.
“Nicky’s Family” is packed with a variety of filmmaking techniques, including dramatic reenactments, archival footage, contemporary news footage, and interviews with rescued children. There’s also reporting on service projects and philanthropy by young people today, and scenes of Winton meeting or being feted by young admirers. Layered on top of all this is narration by Canadian television journalist Joe Schlesinger, who himself was rescued by Winton. It packs an emotional punch, albeit one of more of the educational than artistic variety.
Not only the 669 people Winton saved from the Nazis, but also their approximately 6,000 descendants, owe their lives to him.
“Due to the fact that most of the children lost their parents during the war, today Winton has become for them an honorary father, and for their children and grandchildren an honorary grandfather,” Minac explains.
“A number of the kinder have become close friends with my father,” Nick Winton concurs. “Many are regular visitors to him at home and we often meet up at events locally and occasionally overseas, although my father’s traveling is much curtailed these days. The children of kinder are also now part of our circle of friends and acquaintances.”
Eva Fleischmann Paddock was only three when her mother handed her and her older sister Milena over to Winton’s care. Paddock, 78, has been living in Cambridge, Mass. since the 1960s, but has met with Winton many times since learning he was her rescuer. Her sister, who has remained in England, has been instrumental in organizing celebrations for Winton’s 100th and 104th birthdays.
The sisters were two of a limited number of the rescued children who were reunited with their parents. Their father, an influential editor active in political causes (he helped get writer Thomas Mann out of Germany to Switzerland in 1933), left Prague in March 1939 and managed to reach England via Berlin and Brussels. Their physician mother heard about the kindertransports and succeeded in getting her daughters selected for them. She herself escaped to Britain via Norway in 1940.
“I don’t consciously remember anything about the journey to England, other than that I was seasick on the Channel and someone gave me a banana,” Paddock shares. She has been able to recover in recent years more of the traumatizing experience through therapy and writing.
She does, however, have fond memories of living with Mummy and Daddy Radcliffe, the British couple that fostered the girls for nine months, keeping them together during the trying period. After the Fleischmann family was reunited, the Radcliffes helped them get settled and remained close.
Lux, went on Youth Aliyah to Israel in the late 1940s after living for seven years in a home for Jewish boys in the north of England and then for a while in London. Ten years later, he moved to the United States, settling in southern California. When he first met Winton, he asked him why he did what he did.
“He told me he saw the panic of the people trying to get out and felt compelled to do something to get the children out,” Lux says.
He has a theory as to why Winton never spoke about his heroic act. It has to do with a kindertransport scheduled to leave Prague on September 1, 1939 with 250 children aboard. The war broke out on that day and the train never departed.
“He must have had such a guilty feeling about what happened to those 250 kids that he didn’t want to brag,” Lux posits.
Efforts are underway in the Czech Republic to nominate Winton for a Nobel Peace Prize, but the rescuer’s family is not in favor. “My sister and I don’t feel that my father’s work saving children before the war is something that should be recognized by the Nobel Committee,” Nick Winton says.
“While a noble act, it is hardly a world-changing episode. However, it is encouraging to see how the message that ‘one person can make a difference’ resonates so well in contemporary society.”