May 24, 2016

Sir Nicholas Winton memorial held in London

The Memorial service for Sir Nicholas Winton MBE was held at the Guildhall, London on 19th Mary 2016, the day which would have been Sir Nicky’s 107th birthday but he passed away on 1st July 2015. The Guildhall is a historic building situated in the City of London and dates back to the 12th century although the current building was begun in 1411.  The building is the venue for many state events and celebrations.  Approximately 400 people were in attendance.

The service was opened by Barbara Winton, daughter of Sir Nicky.  She spoke briefly about her father’s early life, his parents and his marriage to her mother. She also described the discovery of his briefcase in the attic which held documents pertaining to the 669 children for whom he arranged transport by train from Prague in 1938, shortly after the annexation of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany. The documents had lain undisturbed and unknown in the attic for decades. The family decided that these documents were important, not least to the children who were transported as they form part of their personal history.

The second speaker was himself on that train as a young boy of six.

Following these two speakers there was a musical interlude with Fiona MacDonald and Melinda Hughes performing “Evening Prayer” from “Hansel and Gretel” by Englebert Humperdinck.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the service took place when Esther Rantzen, a well-known British celebrity who presented a programme called “That’s Life” for some 21 years. The programme itself was largely concerned with consumer affairs and amusing anecdotes from ordinary life.  But one episode of the programme was memorable for “outing” Sir Nicholas Winton as the saviour of 669 Czechoslovakian Jewish children before the advent of World War Two.  This part of the programme can be found here .  It was the first occasion that the country, and thus the world, learned of Nicholas Winton and his Czech kindertransport. Esther then asked those people in the congregation who owed their lives to Nicholas Winton.  Around sixty people, young and older, stood, reminding everyone that not only the 669 owe their lives to him, but their descendants also. There were many moving moments in the service, but this perhaps had the greatest impact.

After describing this scene from her programme, Esther Rantzen introduced four passengers on the kindertransport: Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines (UK); Alice Masters (USA); Ruth Halova (Czech Republic); Hugo Marom (Israel).

Each was given the opportunity to describe their journey and what Nicky Winton had done for them. The accounts were touching as the former passengers described the bewilderment of leaving their home which seemed relatively peaceful at the time because they were unaware of the dark shadow stretching over Europe at that time. Lady Grenfell-Baines talked of the sacrifice their parents made by sending them to safety, in many cases never to see them again. She also announced that a fund had been established to erect a statue in honour of those parents. To lighten the mood, she also described an outing she had with Sir Nicky which involved a flight during which he was offered the controls.  For half an hour, she recalled, she was painfully aware that she was being flown around by a 104 year old.  Sir Nicky reassured her, saying that just as you do not forget how to ride a bike, you don’t forget how to fly a plane.

Sir Nicky’s son, also named Nicholas gave a very amusing account of the rest of his father’s life including the reason why he took fencing (to avoid playing cricket at school) and his love of fencing at which he became very proficient.

Michael Zantovsky, director of the Vaclav Havel Library in Prague, until recently the Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the UK, who spoke about Sir Nicky’s visit to Prague.

Melinda Hughes then sang “O mio babbino caro” by Puccini.

The Memorial ended with the uplifting “Ode to Joy”, Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 in D Minor (also the anthem of the European Union). The themes of the Memorial, although tinged with sadness at the loss of this extraordinary individual, the agony of parents saying Goodbye to their children and the journey into the unknown of the children themselves, were also those of hope and possibility. Two messages came over, that there are still child refugees in need of help and that one person can indeed make a significant difference to the lives of others.

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