31 August 2009

Leaving Prague: Retracing her steps

In 1938, Sudetenland was occupied by Hitler's troops. On the border with Czechoslovakia, thousands were driven from their homes. In other countries, "kindertransports" were organized to save Jewish children by sending them out of central Europe, but no plan had been created in Czechoslovakia.

Two months later, a young British stockbroker - today Sir Nicholas Winton - was planning to go skiing in Switzerland when he received a phone call from a Westminster School teacher Martin Blake, also an ambassador for the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. Blake asked Winton to make an emergency visit to Prague.

After visiting refugee camps outside Prague, Winton realised he had to act quickly.

"I found out the children of refugees and other groups of people who were enemies of Hitler weren't being looked after. I decided to try to get permits to Britain for them.

"Everybody in Prague said, 'Look, there is no organisation in Prague to deal with refugee children, nobody will let the children go on their own, but if you want to have a go, have a go'.

"And I think there is nothing that can't be done if it is fundamentally reasonable."
Winton recruited a team to organize a series of trains, while he returned to the UK to find homes for the children.

From March-August 1939, eight trains saved 669 children. The last train, with 250 on board, was to leave September 1 - the day the war began. German troops stopped the train, the children and families left behind were deported to concentration camps.

Born Lisa Dasch, Lisa Midwinter was 3 when she traveled to England with her brother. They were born in Teplice, near the German border to a wealthy family who were vacationing when they received word not to go home but to go to Prague. Of the journey to the UK, she says:
"I remember this great big black object as high as you could see. I remember figures in blue, which must have been the train driver, singing and handkerchiefs, and terrific noise.

"I remember handkerchiefs being waved and crying, and seeing grown-ups crying."

At the end of the journey, Ms Midwinter said she felt "totally desolate with a card on the front of me".

"I remember this feeling of being all alone in a totally foreign place."
The story describes how Midwinter, a Londoner, is preparing for a trip back into her past. The four-day journey with her son and granddaughter will retrace her childhood experience and to meet the man who saved her.

Her first home was with a dentist's family in Manchester but they could not cope with the traumatized child, who was taken in by a friend of her mother's. Fortunately, Midwinter's story ended happily as her parents made it out and settled in Stoke-on-Trent, and also served as surrogate parents for many Czech children.

More than 100 people will join with Midwinter on the trip between Prague and London; 20 of them are Winton's "children," with their own children and grandchildren.

Midwinter is determined that her family should understand how much they owe to Sir Nicholas, and gain a glimpse of the agony faced by Czech parents who knew they were seeing their children for the last time.

But above all that they should understand they are part of an extraordinary worldwide family which owes its existence to the man who, at the age of 100, will once again stand on the platform at Liverpool Street to welcome them.
Read the complete story here. And for much more about Winton (Thanks, Judith!), click here. That article reveals that "Winton was born to Jewish parents that converted and baptized him."

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