Review of “Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued” by Peter Sís

International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, 2023, is an excellent time to read this outstanding book.

In his inimitable style, Czechoslovakian émigré Peter Sís relates, as well as illustrates, the story of the Englishman Nicholas Winton, called Nicky, who helped almost 700 children escape from the Nazi juggernaut in 1938.

Winton was born in 1909 to German-Jewish parents who had emigrated to Britain at the beginning of the 20th century and converted to Christianity [in a commonplace, but ultimately fruitless, attempt to survive and thrive in the antisemitic climate]. As a young man he traveled all over Europe, and was planning to take a ski vacation in December 1938 – he was then 29 – when a friend who worked with the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia called and urged him to come to Prague and help out. Winton, although having embarked on a career in banking, was an ardent socialist and was part of a left-wing circle opposed to appeasement and alert to the dangers posed by the Nazis.

In October of 1938, the German army had annexed the Sudetenland. This was the historic German name for the northern, southern, and western areas of former Czechoslovakia which were inhabited primarily by Sudeten Germans (ethnic Germans living in the Czech lands of the Bohemian Crown, which later became an integral part of Czechoslovakia). Germans insisted they were trying to establish a more appropriate homeland for these Germans, but they actually were lured even more by the chemical and coal mines in the Sudetenland. [If this sounds a lot like Russia’s interest in Ukraine, that’s because the analogy is a very close fit.]

In Prague, Winton devoted himself to his friend’s mission, helping to compile a list of children needing rescue and collecting applications from desperate parents. Returning to Britain, he worked to fulfill the legal requirements of bringing the children to Britain and finding homes and sponsors for them. Sís adds in his Note that when the British government was slow to issue entry permits for the children, Winton forged them.

Vera Diamantova (later Gissing) was then a ten-year-old Jewish girl living in Prague. When Vera’s parents heard that an Englishman was helping children leave Czechoslovakia and escape the Nazis, they wanted her and her sister Eva to have that chance for survival.

In March 1939, the Germans invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia. But Vera and Eva were able to leave on a train along with 75 other children. The girls left on July 1, 1939, three days before Vera’s 11th birthday. Vera’s parents encouraged her to keep a diary so she would not forget anything. After three days and nights, the children arrived in London.

Sís reports that eight trains left Prague in the spring and summer of 1939; 669 children of all ages reached London safely. A ninth train was not allowed to leave because Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and the borders closed. Sís writes “It is believed that only two children from that train survived the war.” In all, only about 100 of the 15,000 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia interned in concentration camps survived World War II.

When the war was over, Vera went back to her town, but the members of her immediate and extended family were gone, killed in the Nazi death camps. She returned to England, got married, and had a family.

Nicky also got married, founded an old people’s home, and never told anyone about the children. But after 50 years, Nicky’s wife found his records and started calling people in secret. She arranged for him to appear in 1988 on a BBC television program called “That’s Life!. As the Washington Post tells the story:

“Unbeknown to him, Winton was surrounded in the TV studio by the children he had saved. At one point, the host, Esther Rantzen, turned to Mrs. Gissing and announced, ‘I should tell you that you are actually sitting next to Nicholas Winton.’

‘Hello,’ Mrs. Gissing whispered, cradling his hand in hers as Winton wiped tears from his eyes.

Rantzen then addressed the entire studio. ‘May I ask,’ she said, ‘is there anyone in our audience tonight who owes their life to Nicholas Winton? If so, could you stand up, please.’

Everyone around him rose.”

Nicholas Winton, who became known as “Britain’s Schindler,” with one of the hundreds of Jewish children whose lives he saved during the war.Credit…Press Association, via Associated Press (NYTimes)

Sís ends by writing:

“669 children would not have survived if not for Nicky, who went to Prague and saved their lives. I was not a hero, Nicky said. I did not face any danger, as real heroes do. I only saw what needed to be done.”

The book concludes with an Author’s Note giving more background about Nicholas Winton and also about Vera, who wrote a book based on the remembrances in her diary, Pearls of Childhood, which Sís cites as the inspiration for the story he told in this book. He adds:

“Among the others of Winton’s Children are film director Karel Reisz; Hugo Marom, a founder of the Israeli Air Force; geneticist Renata Laxova; poet Gerda Mayer; Milena Grenfell-Baines; and the politician Alfred Dubs. As a member of the British Parliament, Dubs advocated and sponsored legislation to protect and provide for migrant children during the European refugee crisis of 2015-16.”

Evaluation: It is unlikely any readers will fail to be moved by this story of bravery and resistance, and above all, kindness. It should be a part of all school libraries, unless of course, it seems too “woke.” Aside from the story, though, the detailed, clever, and often whimsical illustrations by Sís are always a wonder, and not to be missed.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Norton Young Readers, an imprint of W.W. Norton & Company, 2021

Vera Gissing (then Vera Diamantova) in 1934. Credit…via Gissing family (NYTimes)

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2 Responses to Review of “Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued” by Peter Sís

  1. sagustocox says:

    I absolutely love Sís and his illustrations. Definitely all kids should read this book.

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