The incredible true story of English stockbroker, Sir Nicholas Winton, known as Nicky, came to Southampton last month in its first screening at a UK university. The documentary film depicted the story of the rescue of 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia in 1939 and was narrated by one of the rescued children, Canadian broadcaster Joe Schlesinger.
On a visit to Czechoslovakia at the end of 1938, Nicky saw for himself the plight of Czech Jews trapped in refugee camps awaiting the inevitable arrival of the Nazis. He vowed to do something to at least evacuate the children, of whom there were more than 2,000. Through his tenacity he was able to establish a system to bring out children on trains across Europe and to England, the only country to accept Jewish refugees at this time. Nicky approached many other countries but all doors were closed except those to his own country.
Nicky, with the help of others, managed to successfully evacuate eight trains with 669 children on board but his ninth and largest train, carrying 250 children, was tragically prevented from leaving Prague station by the Nazi’s on September 1st 1939 – it was the day the Second World War broke out. Almost all of those children sadly perished during the war.
The film spanned the years 1939-2010 and cleverly blended original film footage from 1939, together with photographs and dialogue from rescued children and some of the families who ‘adopted’ them. In between there were short dramatisations that added to the poignancy of the story.
However, what is truly amazing is that Winton kept details of his rescue mission a secret for more than fifty years, keeping the documents about the children hidden away in his attic until 1988, when his Danish wife, Grete, discovered them by chance. One of his rescued children declares during the film that Nicky has accepted the role of honorary father and grandfather to probably the largest family in the world – the 669 rescued children from 1939 have now become almost 6,000 and become ‘Nicky’s Family‘.
Nicky has used the publicity surrounding his rescue mission to highlight the need for humanitarianism in a busy world where people can easily forget those in need. Although he has been knighted by the Queen (2003), honoured in the Czech Republic and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Nicky remains a modest man of now 104 years, who is humbled by all the attention.
The film drew to a close with a montage of present efforts by people from around the world who have been inspired by him to help children and others in need. It ended with a quote from Nicky which sums up an admirable attitude to life:
“Anything that is not actually impossible can be done, if one really sets ones mind to do it and is determined that it shall be done.”
The screening of ‘Nicky’s Family’ was a collaborative effort, organised by third-year student David Minac, whose father directed the film; Southampton Hub, which promotes volunteering and social action on social and environmental issues among students; and, Union Films. David approached Southampton Hub to help him arrange the screening and raise awareness of the event on campus, and on the night there was an excellent turnout.
Catherine Mitchell, the Campaigns Officer for Southampton Hub, said:
“The screening of ‘Nicky’s Family’ was a great event to run as the film showed just how much difference an individual can make when they identify a need to act – Winton’s actions were truly inspirational and we had some interesting chats after the screening about the different kinds of action students are already taking part in here at Southampton. It was a fantastic end to the term and we are really looking forward to continuing our ‘Series’ events this semester, with our first one coming up on Thursday 6th February 2014.”
Following the film, David Minac introduced Kayleigh Ramchand, who sang a haunting song in Czech, titled ‘Wiegala’, without any musical accompaniment. The songwriter was the mother of one of the children rescued by Winton. Many Jews sang the song in their last moments in the gas chambers because the act of singing was known to help induce a speedier death. It was undoubtedly a very moving experience to hear it and gave those in the audience time to reflect on the extraordinary film they had just seen.