After all these years and all these Holocaust stories (in books and lectures, and on radio, stage and screen), we think we know “the facts,” but the truth is we have still only scratched the surface. There are still so many stories to be told and each one brings up fascinating new questions never fully asked before.
Nicky’s Family, first released by Slovak filmmaker Matej Minac as Nickyho rodina in 2011, will open this weekend in New York after great success on the Jewish Film Festival circuit (winning awards in Atlanta, Charlotte, Dayton, Denver, Hartford, Houston, Palm Beach, Pittsburgh, Scottsdale, Seattle, and Sedona).
It’s not hard to see why: Nicky’s Family is the uplifting story of one seemingly ordinary man who committed himself to a difficult task and ultimately triumphed over impossible odds. Can one individual really make a difference in this world? The story told in Nicky’s Family proves that sometimes the answer really can be yes!
In 1938, Nicholas Winton, a British-born London stockbroker, decided to forego a skiing holiday in Switzerland and traveled to Prague instead. A friend involved in Jewish refugee work had reached out to him, and Winton, still aghast at the recent news about Kristallnacht, agreed to help. The organization he established, called the Czech Kindertransport, ultimately saved 669 children by placing them in British homes, hostels, and schools on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
Minac weaves four narrative threads together in Nicky’s Family:
* photos, letters and documentary evidence from the 30s,
* reenactments of scenes from the 30s (using actors in key roles),
* scenes of Winton and others talking about what they remember from the 30s & 40s, as well as what they have learn about this time in the intervening years, and
* scenes of those who have been inspired by Winton’s story since he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2002 and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the Czech government in 2008.
I’m usually skeptical about reenactments, but in Nicky’s Family Minac does a great job of capturing the horrifying dimensions of this transaction. On the one hand, Jewish parents are sending their children off on trains in care of people they barely know, with the understanding that at some point–should all go well–they will be turned over to total strangers. On the other hand, people in England are looking through photo boards and picture books, choosing one child over another as if sorting tomatoes in a bin.
Can you imagine how desperate a Jewish mother must have been to agree to this? Some of these children are very young and clearly terrified by their first separation. Can you imagine how committed a British mother must have been to cope with the very real–and likely traumatized–child who eventually arrived on her doorstep?
Of course Nicholas Winton had no part in any of this. His job was to manage the mechanics which enabled 669 children to get from Point A (where their future looked bleak) to Point B (where their future at least looked possible). By all accounts, he did his job superbly, but as soon as WWII began, this phase was over for him. Winton joined the RAF, eventually rising to the rank of “flying officer;” decades later he still retains the honorary rank of RAF “flight lieutenant.”
And that was the end of it… until Winton’s wife found some dusty old papers in the attic, and a new phase began. In 1988, at the age of 79, Nicholas Winton became a hero. But more important for the purposes of Nicky’s Family, the media blitz surrounding the discovery of “Winton’s List” enabled people to locate almost one third of “the children” (now adults living in Israel, America, and all around the British Commonwealth).
They all have stories too: the stories of the families they left behind and the stories of the families they joined. Very few of the Czech Jews survived. All of the mothers who placed their children in “Winton’s Trains” were lost in the Holocaust, most transported on other trains, trains that went East towards horror rather than West towards hope. Yet most of the British mothers seem to have held up their end, even though they were now at war, facing the Blitz on the home front and losing loved ones of their own overseas.
Taken as a whole, this is truly an incredible story, and although Nicky’s Family is not a perfect film, I’m definitely glad I saw it. Sometimes a film can have a tear-jerker ending that is genuinely well-earned!
Photos in color come from the reenactments, but the B&W above is an actual photo of Nicholas Winton with one of Prague children he relocated in 1939. All photos courtesy of Menemsha Films. Click HERE for more information about Nicky’s Family on the Menemsha Films website.