‘Nicky and Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued’ by Peter Sís is the powerful story of Nicholas (Nicky) Winton who organised for 669 children to safely leave Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia to live with foster families in England. This is a story of one remarkable man seeing a desperate need and responding, despite all of the obstacles in his path; it is a remarkable story about making a difference and it is a story filled with heart, courage and hope.
This picture book begins with an exploration of Nicky’s early years; it goes on to discuss his schooling and later his early adult life. Together with his story there are two other stories that unfold, one is about the events in Prague in 1938 and the other story is about Vera, a ten year old girl Jewish who lived near Prague. The intricate details and nuance in the illustrations add yet another layer to this story.
In October 1938 Germany had occupied the border region of Czechoslovakia, known as Sudetenland. The following month, the homes and businesses belonging to Jews were attacked and looted, this became known as Kristallnacht also referred to as the “Night of Broken Glass”. By December, Prague had 250 000 Czech and Jewish refugees living in harsh freezing conditions with minimal supplies. Nicky wanted to help as he saw desperate parents wanting to get their children to safety. He set about organising a way for children to be placed with foster families in England. This involved meticulous planning, organising the transport, visas, sourcing funds to pay for this (some of which Nicky paid out of his own pocket) and at times forging documents and bribing officials. Nicky organised nine trains carrying children to leave Prague, eight left, one did not. The final train was set to depart on September 1, the day the Nazis attack Poland, it was carrying 250 children, and this train was unable to leave. Once the the war had broken out, Nicky was unable to rescue any more children. All of the documents and records Nicky collected were boxed up. He served in the war as an ambulance driver. After the war Nicky opened a school, got married and never mentioned a word to anyone about the children.
One of the children on board one of the trains was Vera, a ten year old Jewish girl, who enjoyed an idyllic childhood and had a particular fondness for cats. Her cousins were set to follow her on the next train to England. Vera boarded the train with seventy-six other children and travelled for three days until arriving at their destination, London. The final train that was scheduled to leave Prague, with 250 children on board, including Vera’s cousin, never left because the war broke out.
Almost fifty years later, Nicky’s wife found the cardboard box where he had stored all of the documents about the refugee children he had saved. His wife sensed they were important records and sought expert advice from a researcher writing about the Holocaust. Nicky’s wife and the author worked together to contact the children. Two hundred children responded to them. Shortly after this, Nicky was invited to appear on a television program under the pretence of talking about the old people’s homes he established. Unbeknownst to Nicky he was actually invited to talk about his actions during the war. Nicky wasn’t the only person invited to this show, so were many of the children he rescued. This was the first time the children came face to face with the man that saved them. The television host told Vera’s story. Vera was sitting next to Nicky. All of the children that Nicky rescued and were in the audience stood up.
The illustrations are captivating and steeped in details that stir the soul, it is impossible not to pour over them. So many of the illustrations caused me to pause and soak in more details of the story – the double page spread on the inky blue background featuring a train travelling on both pages. Around the train there are constellations where the twinkling stars shine bright and form pictures of the children’s dreams. Then there is the double page spread at the end of the story where all of the children stood up and met Nicky, this is so poignant. All of the adults have drawing of children inside them. The last page has another moving black and white illustration with Nicky, Vera and a tree filled with hearts instead of leaves. The tree is symbolic of the children that are here today because their parents, the ones Nicky saved, had their lives spared because of his actions. The final endpaper, in all its colourful glory is another striking image depicting the far reaching intergenerational impact of Nicky Winton’s actions. Contrasting colours are used to reflect the different characters and their stories too – blues and yellow for Nicky and a colourful palette for Vera until she boards the train.
At the end of the story Peter Sís has included an Author Note detailing more information about how he came to tell this story, further facts about Nicholas Winton and one of “Winton’s Children”, Veruška (Vera) Diamontova
Nicolas Winton never considered himself a hero, as he believed he did what needed to be done. This act of love carried out with the utmost compassion and without ever expecting anything in return serves as a shining example of how to act when there is a blatant need to be addressed. Nicky’s actions also highlight how to be a voice for those who have been robbed of theirs and to serve through actions in times of need.