SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. And one of its goals is education. A new book by Peter Sis introduces the topic to children ages 6 to 9. The book "Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero Of The Holocaust And The Children He Rescued" tells the true story of the Englishman Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 children from the Nazis. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has the story.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: On the cover of "Nicky & Vera," a little girl stands alone on the platform of an enormous train station holding a little suitcase and a kitty cat stuffed animal. Vera loves cats. Inside the silhouette of the girl, Peter Sis drew colorful details of what she left behind - her mom and dad, her house, a galloping horse. At the beginning of the story, Vera is living a happy life in Czechoslovakia.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: They were one of the few Jewish families in town. It made no difference. They were all friends.
BLAIR: When Nicky Winton was a boy, he liked math, raising pigeons and fencing. Peter Sis' artwork blends the details of everyday life with imaginative, whimsical flourishes. Holding a sword dressed in knights' armor, little Nicky rides an enormous pigeon. When he grows up, he becomes a banker. The Nazis are swarming Europe. Winton sees the dangers and tries to help families in Czechoslovakia get their children to safety.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Nicky set up an office in a hotel in Prague. He made lists of children. He took their photographs. He found train connections. Spies kept watch.
BLAIR: Winton worked quickly to find foster families for hundreds of children, including Vera.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The day came for Vera to leave. She packed her clothes. She said goodbye to her grandparents. She said goodbye to her cousins, who were to follow her to England on a later train.
BLAIR: The train with Vera's cousins and 250 other children never made it. Her cousins and parents were sent to concentration camps.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When the war was over, Vera went back to her town. Her family who was gone.
BLAIR: Were you concerned that the subject matter would be too dark for small children?
PETER SIS: It was dark, it was. At some moments I didn't know how to go on.
BLAIR: Like Vera, Peter Sis is from Czechoslovakia. To help him in those dark moments and to keep the books suitable for young children, he focused on Nicholas Winton.
SIS: He was always trying to find some positive way how to approach life. And he did lots of good in the moment when he could do it. And he never talked about it.
BLAIR: For decades, Nicholas Winton didn't talk about the hundreds of children he saved, nor did the children know who was responsible for their survival until 1988. In a now famous broadcast, the BBC created a surprise reunion of sorts. Winton sits in the front row of a theatre full of people.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THAT'S LIFE")
ESTHER RANTZEN: Can I ask, is there anyone in our audience tonight who owes their life to Nicholas Winton? If so - could you stand up, please?
BLAIR: Everyone stands up, including Vera Gissing. Today, she is 92 years old with advanced stage dementia. After the war, she married and raised three children.
NICOLA GISSING: I wouldn't be here if it weren't for his actions.
BLAIR: Vera's daughter, Nicola Gissing, is delighted with what Peter Sis has done with the story. There are a number of books about Winton. But this is the first children's book to bring her mother's childhood in Czechoslovakia to life.
GISSING: And there's her parents. And there's her with the cats and how she loved the horses, and then the next page with her almost-blind grandmother. And these are all things I've been brought up with as well. And, you know, to see it illustrated is - it's making me very emotional but in a nice way.
BLAIR: Nicola Gissing says she also remembers being very young when her mother told her about some of the horrific things that happened to people during the Holocaust.
GISSING: I was always scared it might happen again because, you know, this happened because my grandparents were Jewish. Mum was Jewish. And I'm Jewish by birthright. So I actually had a bag of my own provisions hidden at the back of the airing cupboard in case the Nazis came. Mum didn't realize this until we were adults and I told her once. And she said, maybe she shouldn't have spoken so openly.
BLAIR: Gissing believes Peter Sis has done a good job keeping the Holocaust age appropriate, with details children can relate to and without making it too frightening. Dona Matthews (ph), a developmental psychologist, agrees.
DONA MATTHEWS: The focus of this story is on Nicky and on Vera, these two people, it's not on the horrors of the Holocaust. The Holocaust is a background for this story.
BLAIR: Matthews adds that "Nicky & Vera" is a good early entry point to the Holocaust for kids because it shows the importance of inclusion and respect for diverse others.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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