Finding A Hero Amid Fading Memories In 1938, Nicholas Winton was set to go on a ski vacation when a friend called and asked him to help Jewish children flee the Nazis. The young stockbroker saved 660 children, including the mother and aunts of NPR reporter Kim Masters. Masters visits the 99-year-old Winton, who offers a lesson on memory.

Finding A Hero Amid Fading Memories

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, the Downtown Gypsy Queen.

But first, this week Jews around the world have finished observing the holiest of holidays, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Time to look forward to the new Jewish New Year just starting, and reflect upon the one that recently passed.

NPR's Kim Masters has a story about her Jewish family and remembrance. Nearly 70 years ago, Kim's mother and aunts were young girls. They were bundled onto a train in Czechoslovakia to flee the Nazis. As Kim recently discovered after all this time, the memories of the two surviving sisters may not always agree, but together they tell an important story.

KIM MASTERS: We were gathered in London, my mother, my daughter and I, to celebrate my Aunt Josi's birthday.

Unidentified Man: Lights off. Lights off.

MASTERS: At 85, Josi is a force of nature. She's still strong, but her health has faltered lately. I don't want to miss this party.

Unidentified Men, Women and Children: (Singing) Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you...

MASTERS: My Aunt Josi, my late Aunt Elli, and my mother Alice were born in were born in Trestena, a village in a remote spot in the mountainous region of what was then Czechoslovakia. Josi, the oldest of the three, has fading memories of their childhood home.

JOSI: Strangely enough, I don't remember that terribly much.

MASTERS: The three little girls left home in 1939 on a special train, a kindertransport, arranged to protect children from the advancing Nazis. Seventy years later, Aunt Josi recalls a happy childhood, and so does my mother, now 83.

ALICE: In the winter we skated on the river and we skied and sledded. In the summertime, we went to the woods and picked berries, and it was a very beautiful life.

MASTERS: My grandmother sewed clothes for her girls and they say she was a wonderful cook, but their memories divert.

ALICE: I remember very well how we had to feed the geese.

JOSI: Our maid used to actually feed the geese.

ALICE: And laundry - it was taken to the river to be rinsed.

JOSI: I don't remember ever anybody taking things to the river.

ALICE: It was a small village, very small village.

JOSI: It wasn't such a small village.

MASTERS: There weren't many Jews but the children were mostly oblivious to anti-Semitism. They played with Catholic friends, though my aunt says some gentile parents told dark tales.

JOSI: Horrific stories of what the Jews did: killed a child at Passover, drank the blood and such horrible things. It showed later when the Nazis came around. Our great friends have turned against all of us.

MASTERS: Still, even as the Nazis drew near, the children were not really aware of the threat. But their parents had been warned by a relative living abroad, and they decided to get their children out of Czechoslovakia.

JOSI: My mother started to sew and prepare all the clothes for us. She just sat at that sewing machine and sewed and sewed.

MASTERS: When the day of departure arrived, my aunt says the tension was obvious.

JOSI: In the bedroom, our father was sitting on the edge of the bed and he was crying. And I have never seen him cry before.

MASTERS: Most of the villagers had disparaged the idea of sending the children away. But my grandparents took their girls to Bratislava and put them on the train. Josi was 15, my mother had just turned 14, and the youngest, Elli, was 10. My grandmother, naturally, was distraught.

ALICE: We kept on saying, take Elli off the train, my little sister. And I said, keep her. We said, keep her, keep her. And she took her off, and then she put her back on again.

MASTERS: The train was only there because of a young British stockbroker named Nicholas Winton, 29 years old at the time. He'd been planning to go on a ski trip to Switzerland when a friend asked him to come to Prague instead to help refugees fleeing Hitler's advancing army. Winton went and became alarmed about the fate of Jewish children if the Nazis invaded. He set to work organizing the kindertransport and ultimately saved more than 650 children, including my mother and her sisters. Nearly 70 years have passed since then. Many of those who were rescued have grown old and died, but Nicholas Winton is still alive.

Mr. NICHOLAS WINTON: Come in, come in.

MASTERS: Winton is 99 years old, living on his own in a snug house with a lush garden in Maidenhead, west of London. His living room is filled with photographs. There he is with Prince Charles and there with President Clinton. Winton has given up needlepoint in the past couple of years, but he still enjoys bridge. And he gets around.

Mr. WINTON: I drive. I've got a driving permit to last till I'm 101.

MASTERS: Winton is Sir Nicholas now. He was knighted in 2002. As we settle in his living room, I ask Sir Nicholas what made him undertake a project as daunting as resettling unaccompanied children in a foreign country.

Mr. WINTON: Nobody had tried to do anything for the children because everybody had said, no country is going to allow the children in without their parents. But nobody had tried.

MASTERS: Winton says the first challenge was finding countries willing to help.

Mr. WINTON: America was the one hope I had of taking a lot, and they didn't take any.

MASTERS: England opened its doors as long as Winton and fellow volunteers could find guardians for each child. Hundreds were rescued, though Winton didn't meet them, not for 50 years. It wasn't until 1988 that Winton had his first encounter with some of those who he saved.

(Soundbite of British TV program "That's Life")

Unidentified Woman (Host, "That's Life"): Back here is the list of all the children...

MASTERS: The setting was a British television program called "That's Life." The host displayed a scrapbook that lists the names of the rescued children.

(Soundbite of British TV program "That's Life")

Unidentified Woman: Vera Gissing is with us here tonight. Hello there. And I should tell you that you are actually sitting next to Nicholas Winton.

(Soundbite of audience applause)

MASTERS: The woman beside Winton embraced him. He wiped away a tear.

(Soundbite of British TV program "That's Life")

Unidentified Woman: Is there anyone in our audience tonight who owes their life to Nicholas Winton? If so, could you stand up, please?

MASTERS: The entire audience rose. Just behind Winton stood my aunts, Elli and Josi.

JOSI: And then he got up and he looked around absolutely - absolutely amazed.

MASTERS: When I ask Winton about this moment, he declines to be sentimental. To some degree, Winton feels that too much has been made of his efforts. What seemed to him like a brief interlude in his life has overshadowed everything else, and Winton feels his story has been exaggerated in the retelling. Maybe that's because people so desperately need heroes.

Mr. WINTON: It's nothing I can do about it. What you and the press make of it and all this is something quite outside my life.

MASTERS: For example, one often-repeated aspect of the story is that Winton was so modest that he never told anyone of his work on the kindertransport, that it only came to light when his wife discovered a cache of papers in the attic. But Winton says he did try to interest several institutions in his papers and finally gave up.

Mr. WINTON: It becomes very difficult at times because every time the newspapers say anything, they add a little bit of their own. It makes me completely disbelieve in history. Si non e vero, e ben travato, as Mother used to say. If it's not true, it's a damn good story.

MASTERS: Winton's saga has become as hazy in some details as the memories that my mother and her sister have of their childhood. But one thing is clear to me. If it weren't for this man, none of us would be here. Not my mother, not my daughter, not me.

She's a child, and I'm a grandchild. And that's your great-grandchild.

Mr. WINTON: Yes, I know.

MASTERS: In fact, Winton says with his contemporaries gone, he gets solace from these children. As for my mother and my aunt, they take comfort in the fact that their parents knew they had saved their children as they were deported to a concentration camp in 1942.

JOSI: I'm sure when they were taken away, they must have thought, what a great thing they did to part, you know, with the children, and save their lives.

MASTERS: That comes through as my mother reads from the last letter she received from her father.

ALICE: (Reading) I am happy you are over there because for us it is not good any more. We will come through and you mustn't worry about us. But I am very happy that you are not here. If you were, I would have many more worries. God keep you well and I always pray that in the next New Year, we should be happier.

MASTERS: We don't know exactly where or how my grandparents died. That knowledge is lost forever. Only a drop in the ocean of losses - of family and memory and stories from that era. Kim Masters, NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.