the exodus of the winton children -- 10/26/16

Today's selection -- from Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright. On the eve of World War II, many Jews and antifascists tried to escape the rising danger in Czechoslovakia by fleeing to London. The British accepted only a limited number of adults, but accepted all children under the age of seventeen as long as a local family agreed to host them. A stockbroker from New York named Nicholas Winton organized one such flight of children, which was referred to as a kindertransport. He placed photographs in a newspaper called the Picture Post, asking families to host them. Despite his appeals to politicians in the United States, including President Roosevelt, he managed to get only Sweden and Britain to accept these children:

"Nicholas Winton, a British stockbroker who had visited Prague at the invitation of a friend, encountered German thugs everywhere, and returned home determined to save whomever he could, especially children. 'I wasn't allowed to bring anybody in until I had a family and guarantors that would look after them,' Winton recalled, 'and it wasn't always easy to get people to make that commitment because some were very, very young.' To place more youngsters, he made repeated appeals to the United States, but no help was forthcoming. Of the roughly six thousand children whose names were on Winton's list, only one in ten reached England.

Statue at Prague main railway station, by Flor Kent
unveiled on 1 September 2009

"Among those who did was my cousin Dása Deimlová, then eleven, the daughter of my father's sister. She was aboard the second of the four Winton trains, departing Prague at the end of June. Aside from a small suitcase, she carried only a tiny doll: around her neck was a cardboard sign bearing the number 298. There were six in her compartment, all girls, ranging in age from two to fifteen. Dása quickly introduced herself to a child with the same first name as her seven-year-old sister, Milena. As the locomotive pulled out of the station, leaving behind parents and friends, the two girls closed their eyes, held hands, and promised each other, 'We will not cry.' When they reached the German border, the train halted for almost five hours. There had been a mix-up with the paperwork, and proper documents had to be fetched from Prague. The youthful pas­sengers sat, peering anxiously through the windows as Nazis with their fearsome-looking rifles and bayonets marched along the platform. Fi­nally the train resumed its journey westward, passing through Dresden, Frankfurt, and Cologne. The incessant motion upset Dása's stomach; she accepted an older boy's offer of alcohol, the imbibing of which upset her even more. Not until they reached Holland were the children allowed to stretch their legs, given postcards to send home, and treated by the Red Cross to bananas and cocoa.

"From there the children took a ferry to Harwich; most then contin­ued on by rail to Liverpool Street Station. Like her companions, Dása experienced the trauma of sudden separation from parents and home­land. Unlike many, she was old enough to comprehend the reason for leaving and had 'the comfort of a familiar set of faces at her journey's end. Her sister had been on the list to come, too, but their parents had had a last-minute change of heart, thinking Milena too young. Fifty­-seven years later, Dása told a reporter from the Washington Post that the reason Milena had not been on the train was that she had a broken arm. That wasn't true. At the time Dása did not wish to admit, as she did later to me, that she had never forgiven her parents for their fateful decision; many children younger than Milena had been on the train leaving Prague. The unbearable irony is that my little cousin would have her life cut short not because of her parents' indifference but be­cause of the intensity of their desire to protect her.

"My father met Dása in Harwich and brought her to our apartment. 'We took her over in good shape,' my father wrote to her parents, Rudolf and Greta. 'She was one of the few who was not tired .... In a few days we will take her to school... Do not worry, we will take good care of her, and besides I can see that she is a very reasonable little girl.'
He added:

Perhaps I will soon learn if it will work ... it is now harder, be­cause you did not send Milenka. With Canada, Rudo do not have illusions. Kisses -- we have not heard from Mother in 2. weeks.

"Deciphering those words now, I believe that my father was trying to use whatever connections he had to help Dása's parents leave Czecho­slovakia. He worried that their decision to keep Milena might compli­cate the matter and was unsure he would succeed.

"In the summer of 2009, the exodus of the Winton children was reenacted, using the same locomotive and taking the identical route between Prague and London. Among the passengers were Dása, then eighty-one, and her old seatmate. Milena Grenfell-Baines. A young girl, dressed in the style of the 1930s (hat, simple coat and frock) was
also aboard, representing the travelers from long ago. Around the girl's neck was the number 298, Dása's number, on the very piece of card­board that my cousin had worn years before. Waiting to greet them in London was a friend celebrating his one hundredth birthday, Nicholas Winton, the man who -- when others had merely shrugged -- had acted just in time to save their lives.



Madeleine Albright


Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948


Harper Perennial


Copyright 2012 by madeleine Albright


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