Sir Nicholas Winton and Portraits of Kindertransport Refugees
Sir Nicholas Winton (1909-2015) led a mission on the eve of the Second World War that rescued 669 predominantly Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. To coincide with the release of One Life, a film about Winton’s remarkable life and story, we have teamed up with Warner Bros. Pictures to spotlight new portraits by Simon Hill of 11 people who, as children, travelled on the Czech Kindertransport (children’s transport), organised by Winton and others including Trevor Chadwick (1907-1979) and Doreen Warriner (1904-1972). In spite of everything they were forced to leave behind, these individuals have gone on to lead full lives, enriching the UK in the fields of education, politics, medicine and the arts. They and the others who were rescued have become affectionately known as ‘Nicky’s Children’.
Accompanying this digital exhibition are filmed testimonies of some of the 11 individuals’ journeys and experiences of coming to the UK. A portrait of Sir Nicholas Winton by Henry Browne from the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection is also included, which captures Winton in his one hundredth year.
“The face of each survivor is all that is required to encapsulate a unique narrative that is testament to the triumph of the human spirit over the shadows of persecution.”
- Photographer Simon Hill
Sir Nicholas Winton was a stockbroker and humanitarian who, along with several others from the British Committee for Refugees, organised the Czech Kindertransport rescuing 669 children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War. His motto was ‘if something is not impossible, then there must be a way to do it’.
Winton’s heroic actions remained largely unknown until the 1980s, after which his story gained wider recognition, and he was able to connect with the people he rescued. In 2003, he was knighted for services to humanity.
Henry Browne photographed Winton in his Berkshire home in his one hundredth year. Winton died aged 106.
‘My mother took me there and I got into the train with my brother, who was told to look after me being a year older. As the train was leaving, a little baby was more or less thrown into the train, which landed onto my brother’s lap. That was the first thing I remember.’
Peter Schiller came to England on the Kindertransport in 1939, aged seven years old, with his older brother. He has described his life since as being ‘happy and successful’, but always held on to his identity as a ‘central European Jewish refugee’. He trained as a doctor in London and then as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist. He married and has three children, seven grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
‘My mother explained to me that I would be going to a family in England who would look after me until they could either come to England or join me. I was nine years old. I had no idea. I knew nothing. I really imagined that this was for a very short time.’
Born in Prague, Vera Schaufeld (born Lowyova) spent her childhood in the town Klatovy (now Czech Republic). Vera’s mother, Elsa, was the first woman in her town to become a doctor. Her father, Eugene, was a lawyer and prominent figure in the Jewish community. Concerned for Vera’s safety after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, they decided to send her to the UK. She was met at Liverpool Street train station by her foster parents, Leonard and Nancy Faires. She remembers their daughter, three years senior, as being very kind. After war was declared she lost contact with her parents. Vera learned later that her parents did not survive the Holocaust.
She met her future husband, Avram, a Holocaust survivor, in a kibbutz in Israel and they married in 1952. She trained as a teacher and worked with refugees with similar experiences to her. In 2018, she was awarded a MBE for services to Holocaust Education and in 2019 she received an honorary degree in education from the University of Roehampton.
‘We went to London and from there we were picked up by people who had offered to give home to children, any children. And I was lucky I went to a family, although they already had four children. But I kept on saying I was only coming for a holiday.’
Alexandra Greensted (born Pfeifer) escaped on the Czech Kindertransport when she was seven years old. She never saw any of her family again after leaving Prague in 1939, who all perished in the Holocaust. She was fostered by a loving family in Maidstone, Kent, and still lives in the town today. She worked for the local council for many years. Alexandra married and has two daughters and two grandchildren.
‘I can still see in my mind’s eye Prague station, my Mum looking very anxiously. A lot of anxious parents… When we got to the Dutch border 24 hours later, the older ones cheered, because we were out of reach of the Nazis.’
Lord Alfred Dubs was six years old when he travelled on the Kindertransport to England from Prague. He was reunited with his father upon arrival, who had fled to the UK before him in March 1939, and then his mother later joined them.
He went on to become a Labour politician and a leading human rights campaigner, advocating for refugee rights. He was MP for Battersea (1979-87) serving four years as shadow Home Office minister. He was Director of the Refugee Council and in 1994 became a Labour Life Peer. In 1997, he was appointed Minister in Northern Ireland where he served until the establishment of a newly devolved administration following the Good Friday Agreement. In 2016, he sponsored an amendment (later known as the ‘Dubs Amendment’) to the Immigration Act 2016, to offer some unaccompanied refugee children stranded in Europe safe passage to Britain, reflecting his own journey as a six-year-old child refugee to Britain.
Gerda Svarny (born Polenezer) was born into a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria. In 1938, she fled with her family to Czechoslovakia following the Anschluss (Nazi invasion of Austria). In 1939, aged 12, she was sent to the UK on the Czech Kindertransport. Her mother subsequently died in Auschwitz concentration camp.
In England, she lived first in a Czech children’s home and later in the Czech Refugee Hotel. She trained at the short-lived Czechoslovak School of Applied Arts in Chelsea. She returned to Prague and married Walter Svarny, a Czech businessman, in 1945. They then moved to London and had two children.
Svarny became an artist known for her colourful paintings ranging from figurative to abstract works. She had her first solo exhibition in 1984 at the United Nations International Maritime Organisation and has since exhibited widely. In 2007, to mark her 80th birthday, Alsergrund District Museum in Vienna held an exhibition of her work and in 2012 she had a further solo show at the Westbank Gallery, London.
‘I can remember going with both my parents to the main station in Prague. There were hundreds of parents and children milling around. A lot of tears and unhappiness and bewilderment. We all got on to the train. Eventually, the train left Prague and that was the last time I saw my parents.’
Lia Lesser (born Blum) was born in Teplice-Šanov, Czechoslovakia to parents Ida and Pavel. She was eight years old when she arrived in the UK from Prague on 1 July 1939. She was fostered by Miss Florence Hall, a schoolmistress from the Isle of Anglesey, north Wales. She described only ever being treated ‘as one of the family’ and is still close with her foster family today. She went to the Czechoslovak State School in Exile, which also provided Jewish education, to ensure she would not forget her heritage. Lia’s entire family were murdered in the Holocaust.
After training at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, she dedicated her career of 47 years to working as a nurse and midwife for the NHS. She married and has two children and two grandchildren.
‘I left Prague on the 11th of May, arrived in England on the 13th and had my fourth birthday on the 16th. So I was one of the youngest on the train.’
After Lisa Midwinter (born Dašová) arrived in the UK, aged three, on the Kindertransport she lived with a family in Manchester and then with a family friend in Stoke-on-Trent. She was one of the few children who were reunited with both her parents. Her family then set up an orphanage for Czech children in Stoke-on-Trent.
Lisa’s photograph appeared at the front of Sir Nicholas Winton’s scrapbook recording his humanitarian work in Czechoslovakia. She recalled: ‘I turned to him and said “why did you pick me out of the scrap book?” and he said “because you’d have been the first to go.” He was my saviour.’
‘I had chicken pox and a temperature of 104, but a friend of the family who was a doctor and putting her daughter on the train, she said to my mother, if I didn’t go on that train I would never go. And she was quite right because Sir Nicholas Winton’s next train in September didn’t leave.’
Renate Collins (born Kress) was born in Prague, the only child to Otto and Hilda. She escaped on the last Kindertransport leaving Czechoslovakia before the outbreak of the Second World War. She was five years old when she was brought to the UK knowing just two English words – ‘yes’ and ‘no’. She was fostered by a Welsh couple, Rev. Sidney and Arianwen Coplestone, who later adopted her after she became a naturalised British citizen in 1947. She never saw her parents again, who were murdered in the Holocaust, along with over 60 members of her extended family.
She studied Commerce and worked for BOAC, the forerunner of British Airways. She married in 1954 and moved to Cornwall. She has two sons and five grandchildren, and recently became a great-grandmother. In 2020, she was awarded a MBE for services to Holocaust Education.
Rev. John Fieldsend (born Hans Heinrich (Heini) Feige) grew up in Dresden, Germany. After the Nazis came to power in Germany, he fled to Czechoslovakia to stay with his grandparents. In June 1939, aged seven years old, he travelled on the Kindertransport to the UK with his brother. On arrival, John and his brother were separated, living with different foster families. John later discovered that his parents had died in the Holocaust. All that remained was a farewell letter from his parents that he received from the Red Cross and some photo albums.
He completed an Engineering degree at the University of Nottingham before joining the Royal Air Force as an Engineering Officer. He then studied Theology at King’s College London and in 1961 became an Anglican Church Minister. Since retiring, he has volunteered as a chaplain for Thames Valley Police. He has three children and nine grandchildren and great grandchildren – two of whom are named after Sir Nicholas Winton.
‘My name is Eva Paddock. I was born Fleischmann. I was on the last of the Winton trains in 1939 with my sister, Milena Grenfell-Baines… that’s how we came to be saved by Nicky on his trains.’
Eva Paddock (born Fleischmann) travelled on the last Winton train that left Prague in August 1939 with her sister, Milena. She was just three and half years old. The two sisters remained together and were fostered by a family in the north of England. She was reunited with her parents after they escaped to England in 1940.
Eva later became a teacher and school principal and continues to educate people about the Holocaust. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in America.
‘When we were leaving Prague, we held hands and we said: “We are not going to cry – Nebudeme plakat.” We remembered landing in Holland, being given hot chocolate to drink, and then getting on a big ship.’
Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines (born Fleischmann) left Prague on the last train organised by Sir Nicholas Winton in 1939. She arrived aged nine years old with her sister, who was just three and half years old. They remained together and a family in the north of England cared for them until they were reunited with their parents in 1940.
Milena lived in Preston, Lancashire and married the architect Sir George Grenfell-Baines. She is dedicated to Holocaust education and was chair of numerous charities including the British, Czech and Slovak Association and the Friends of Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
ONE LIFE is in UK cinemas from 1 January 2024.