Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD). This is the day chose to commemorate those who died in the Holocaust and other genocides that have taken place. The date is chosen because on 27th January 1945 Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp was liberated by the Red Army.
One of the things I have developed in my teaching career is a love of writing and presenting assemblies to pupils. Because of my love of History (even though I am a mathematics teacher) I always do the remembrance assemblies and the HMD assembly at my school. I had the honour of presenting assemblies to the five houses that make up my school last week.
Each year HMD has a theme and this years is Don’t Stand By. As soon as a saw this the realisation of what I was going to do (I never re-use an assembly from year to year – I may ‘borrow’ things from previous years but always like the assembly as a whole to be fresh) to get this message across.
In an age of 15 minute celebrity where it seems celebrity status is piled on someone just because of the way they look, talk or by virtue of appearing on a ‘reality’ show, the word celebrity is over-used and rarely deserved. However my focus for my assemblies is so amazing that these morons who populate Celebrity Big Brothers and I’m a Celebrity trash TV shows aren’t fit to lick his shoes. The problem is not many people have heard of him.
As soon as I saw the theme Nicholas Winton came into my mind. Many reading this post will have never heard of him. Some will but suspect you will be in the minority. I want to use this post to briefly tell the story of Nicholas Winton and I’m sure you agree by anyone’s definition of celebrity, in fact I’d go further and say HERO, Nicholas Winton would tick every single box.
The location is Prague in the winter of 1938. The Nazi’s had taken control of the Sudetenland and everyone knew they had designs on the rest of Czechoslovakia. The refugee camps in and around Prague were full of mainly Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution. All around the borders were closed to them. No-one wanted them. The parallels between the Jews in 1938 and the Libyan and Syrian refugees of 2016 are stark and clear. Nicholas Winton was a stockbroker from London and had been invited to Prague by a friend who worked in the British embassy there. He saw the conditions in the camps and was particularly taken by the effects it was having on the children in the camps.
At this point, Nicholas Winton had two choices. He could sympathise but go home to the safety of England, after all it didn’t affect him or his family. Or he could try and do something to help. He decided on the latter course of action and decided to try and do his best to get as many of the children to relative safety as he could.
Using a combination of hard work, guile, intuition, forgery and bribery he managed to organise a series of train transports that would allow transport of some of the children, through Nazi Germany and Holland and then on to England. The US government point blank refused to take any of the children. The British agreed provided a payment of £50 for each child was made (no small sum in 1938) and a family was found, in advance, for each child. Nicholas Winton managed to do this.
Over the coming months he managed to transport 669 children to safety. His largest transport so far, some 250 children, was due to leave Prague station on 1st September 1939. Unfortunately this was the day the war began and the train could not depart. Virtually all the 250 children due to travel on this train perished in the Holocaust.
What makes this story so remarkable (if it wasn’t already!) was the fact that for 50 years what Nicholas Winton did remained a secret. Even the children didn’t know the name of their saviour. Fast forward to 1988 and a chance find of a scrapbook by Nicholas’ wife in their attic. The book contained photo’s, documents, letters and the names of the children who Nicholas Winton had managed to save.
Nicholas Winton was confronted with this on the BBC That’s Life programme. He was brought to the show under false pretences. Esther Rantzen, the presenter, talked about the discovery of the scrapbook and focused on one particular child Vera Diamont who became Vera Gissing. (I may have spelled these names incorrectly – forgive me). That child was in the studio and was sat next to Nicholas Winton. The reaction is unbelievable. Later Esther Rantzen asks if there is anyone else present who owes their life to Nicholas Winton. A large number of people stand up who had been sat around Nicholas Winton – until this moment, Nicholas Winton had no idea.
Forgive me but my explanation does not do this particular scene credit. Please watch this short 4 minute YouTube video, which I used in my assembly, which shows excerpts from the show and I dare you not to cry. I’ve seen this clip so many times and my eyes fill up and I get incredibly emotional every time I see it.
Tomorrow evening (Wednesday 27th January) there is a documentary on BBC 1 at 10.45pm telling the story of Nicholas Winton. His is a story which must NEVER be forgotton.