Remembering the Helping Hands of a Hero
Most people wouldn’t think about visiting a train station for any other reason than travel. But Prague’s Hlavní nádraží has an unexpected and important story to tell.
Just a few months before the outbreak of World War Two, an unlikely hero with extraordinary determination arrived in Prague. His name was Sir Nicholas Winton — the Englishman who arranged the evacuation of 669 mostly Jewish children to safety by sending them on trains from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to London, placing them in foster families. England, at the time, was the only country to accept unaccompanied children. The so-called “Kindertransport” began in the spring of 1939, with the last of the total eight trains departing 80 years ago to this month.
What better place to pay tribute than in the very station from which Winton’s operation took place? Standing on platform 1 is a bronze statue of the man. He carries a boy in his right arm and stands beside a young girl, a piece of luggage resting below his feet. While the statue is a notable presence to travelers, there is a second, lesser-known memorial dwelling below what was once the original Art Nouveau entrance hall of the station.
What would it have been like to put your 7-year-old on a train, sending them to a foreign country, to strangers they had never met, speaking a language they didn’t understand? This is one of the questions that The Farewell Memorial evokes. Unveiled in the spring of 2017, the artistic tribute honors the courage and sacrifice parents had to make bidding farewell to their children, knowing they would probably never see them again. It is a replica of one of the 1939 train doors behind which the children were transported to safety. Designed by Czech glassmaker Jan Hunat, the glass panel shows the engraved hands of the children on one side and those of parents on the other — representing what was an unimaginable parting. The two pairs of adult hands belong to saved children Lady Milena-Grenfell Baines and Zuzana Marešova, both of whom helped initiate the memorial’s construction. The imprinted hands on the inside of the door were those of their own grandchildren.
With no signage, little direction, and a personal encounter with an uninformed Czech Railway employee, I am not surprised that it remains hidden amidst the hustle and bustle of commuters.
I asked Sir Nicholas’ son, Nick Winton, what he thought his father’s impression of The Farewell Memorial would be.
“Of the memorial, he would think it a very fitting tribute to the courage of the parents,” says Winton Jr. “I think he’d be rather dismissive of his own statue. He wasn’t interested in having his face put around as a role model.”
But his achievements — and the over 6,000 descendants of the children he saved — would suggest otherwise. Winton’s efforts only surfaced 50 years later, when his wife discovered a dusty scrapbook containing pictures and records of the children, hidden in the attic of their Maidenhead home (near London). The story garnered public recognition for the first time in 1988 when Winton appeared on the BBC Show “That’s Life” where he was honored with a surprise reunion of some of his rescued children. After decades of silence, the world could finally put a face to a man’s selfless act of compassion.
Since then, Winton’s efforts have been lauded worldwide. He received Czech accolades, including the order of T.G. Masaryk in 1998 by then President Václav Havel and the Order of the White Lion in 2014 — the highest honor given by the Czech state. His recognition continued: He was praised in a U.S. congressional resolution; his story was made into an international Emmy-award-winning documentary called The Power of Good; he received a Hero of the Holocaust medal and he was knighted by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.
Winton died at the impressive age of 106 — by coincidence on the anniversary of the departing 1939 train that carried the largest number of children: 241.
His humility and wisdom lives on, even in the UK’s current political climate. In former Prime Minister Theresa May’s resignation speech, she recalled a piece of advice Winton gave to her before his death.
“He said, ‘Never forget that compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise.’ He was right. As we strive to find the compromises we need in our politics…we must remember what brought us here.”
And so must we remember the devoted individual who instilled hope in parents and the promise of a future life for their children.
Train stations often feel frenetic and discordant. But here, in the crossroads of Central Europe, there is a reason to slow down, to reflect upon courage, tolerance, and the power of good.
Ileana Lobkowicz grew up in Prague. She was managing editor of The Gavel, Boston College’s online student publication, volunteered at a magazine written by Boston’s homeless community, and has published marketing content for two travel service companies and a non-profit organization. She is on a quest to share the hidden stories of Prague.