Holocaust
2:06 pm
Wed January 22, 2014

Film Documents Children's Rescue From the Nazis -- and One Lives in Hartford

Next Monday marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Next week in Woodbridge and Madison, there will be two screenings of the film "Nicky’s Family," a Czech documentary that tells the nearly-forgotten story of Sir Nicholas Winton, a British stockbroker who organized the rescue of 669 children just before start of World War II. 

"It was not exactly fear, but it was an awareness that there was danger lurking all around."
Ivan Backer

"Nicky's Family" uses newsreel footage, interviews, and dramatic re-enactments to tell how Winton organized what are known as the "Kindertransports" to England. There, the children were saved from near-certain death by the Nazis and placed with host families.

At 104 years old, Winton is still alive, and lives in England. He is interviewed in the film. 

Nicholas Winton rescuing children in 1939, captured in footage  discovered at the Federal Archives in Washington, D.C.
Nicholas Winton rescuing children in 1939, captured in footage discovered at the Federal Archives in Washington, D.C.
Credit Menemsha Films

"I have a motto," Winton said, "that if something isn't blatantly impossible, there must be a way of doing it."

For more than 50 years, Winton told no one, not even his wife, what he’d done. In the late 1980s, she found a scrapbook in their attic with photos of the children and Winton’s transport plans.

WNPR’s Diane Orson spoke with Ivan Backer, 84, a Hartford resident, and one of the children whose life was saved by Winton. Backer said his life was happy and uneventful growing up in Prague, until March 15, 1939, when German troops marched into the city. 

Ivan Backer: I remember that day very vividly because I went to school. On the main street of our neighborhood, I saw the troops riding in, [on] their motorcycles, often with a sidearm, and people on the streets crying. And I soon understood why they were, because our country had lost its freedom.

"We live in an age where so many of us feel helpless, and what can I as an individual do? Well, he was an individual."
Ivan Backer
Ivan Backer as a young child.
Ivan Backer as a young child.
Credit Ivan Backer
Ivan Backer as a young man.
Ivan Backer as a young man.
Credit Ivan Backer

Diane Orson: So about how old were you then? 

I was ten years old.

How did your parents arrange for you to become one of the children on the transport?

I’m not sure, and I’ve often wondered about that. My father left for London on a business trip the day before the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia. My brother had already been accepted at a college in Margate, England. So that meant two of us were out. And at some point, my mother must have gotten to Nicholas Winton and arranged for me to be on the Kindertransport.

Do you have memories of the trip?

I remember the train went north from Prague, and then through Germany all night. And I vividly remember that I felt, here I am in the heart of my enemy’s country. And it was not exactly fear, but it was an awareness that there was danger lurking all around. But on the trip as a whole, I just thought it was a great adventure to go on a train and go to a new country, just like a 10 year old kid would, I think.

When you were growing up, were you aware of the role that Sir Nicholas Winton played in your leaving Czechoslovakia?

I had no knowledge of it at all. Of course he never told anybody as you may know from the film, until 1987 when his wife discovered this scrapbook in his attic and asked him what all this meant. Of course since then, I’ve become intimately acquainted with the amazing story how essentially a British well-to-do stockbroker playboy came to this awareness that there was nobody helping the children in Czechoslovakia to get out and so he took it upon himself to do so.

Now that this film is being screened around the country and in other countries, what do you hope that people will take away from it?

Mainly, that one individual can make a difference. You know, we live in an age where so many of us feel helpless, and what can I as an individual do? Well, he was an individual. He had no organizational support. And yet he saved the lives of 669 children. It’s amazing the energy that must have gone into that. He had to find British families to become sponsors. He had to deal with the Nazis who were always wanting more money. But he persisted.

And then his main regret was that the last transport, which was scheduled to leave on September 1, the day the invasion of Poland began -- and it was his biggest transport; it had 250 kids on it -- did not get out of Prague, because war had just broken out. Some of us think that may be the reason he never spoke publicly about it, because he was so devastated that those 250 children never made it.

As you reflect back on your life, now that this story has come out: is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Two things. One, that I was just tremendously lucky. I keep thinking, I did nothing to deserve being saved. If I hadn’t left, the probability is that I would have perished at Auschwitz.

The second thing is, I’ve written a poem I’d like to read.

"Trains"

Memories distant, yet fresh, of trains from Prague
to visit grandparents and sled down long hills.
Train from Czechoslovakia, longest and scariest,
with other Kindertransport young ones through heart of Third Reich.

Arrive Victoria Station. Happy seeing my father.
But foster family, Orthodox Jews, strange to me.

War erupts. Another train.
London School of Children evacuated to Midlands for safety.
A new family home.

Attend two boarding schools. One Czech. The other English.
Longer train rides ensue, bring sense of independence.

Wartime voyage across Atlantic. Convoy zigzags two perilous weeks.
Thrills me. Exciting adventure.

Land in Canada. Overnight train to Montreal.
Enter United States. Arrive Grand Central Station.
Discover World’s Largest City.

'Til now, each train met by someone known or unfamiliar.

Next train to college. No one waits.
Now completely on my own.

The station in Pennsylvania recalls
Victoria Station five years earlier.
Nervous and scared, before seeing father and new family.

Years later, the SHOAH film.
Holocaust victims, in cattle cars destined for gas chambers, recalled my escape.

Trains brought death to some.
For me, life.
Saved from extinction.

The question still haunts me.
Why was I spared?
No explanation.

Blind chance or hidden design?
No answer satisfies.
I am forever grateful.

I strive for a life of purpose.

Struggle for social justice answers my search
for meaning, becomes my North Star.

If you plan to attend:

The film "Nicky's Family" will be screened at the JCC Vine Auditorium in Woodbridge on Monday, January 27, at 6:30 pm. It will also be screened at Polson Middle School in Madison on Thursday, January 30, at 6:30 pm.