A documentary film about a few out of 669 children rescued by Sir Nicholas Winton from the hands of the Nazis


       An interview with Matej Mináč, director of the film

In 1998 when I had started the making of the feature film All My Loved Ones based on the story of my mother from her prewar childhood, I by pure chance came across the book Pearls of Childhood by Vera Gissing.

She recalls her unexpected journey to England as an eleven-year-old child, organized by a Briton - Nicholas 

Winton, which saved her life. Her parents died in concentration camps. In England she was adopted by an English family and went to school at the Czechoslovak school in Wales. All of a sudden I got goose bumps all over my body. I immediately started to include this theme into my original concept of the feature film.

At that time Nicholas Winton was totally unknown. By chance I acquired Mr. Winton´s telephone number and address and in February 1998 I went to visit him in his house in Maidenhead near London for the first time. I remember that I had the jitters. Never before had I seen a real hero with my own eyes, I knew them only from films or literature. Then the door opened and I was welcomed by a quite ordinary man who didn´t look as if he had already celebrated his ninetieth birthday. 

We talked for a long time. I liked him very much; he had exactly what we here call dry English humour. Already at our first meeting it was clear to me that there would not only be a feature film. My “documentary heart” made itself heard and suggested that I also make a documentary film.

When I told my friend, editor and producer Patrik Pass about it, there was something that really astounded him. Nicholas Winton had also rescued the British film director Karel Reisz who directed The French Lieutenant´s Woman with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. Patrik hardly believed me and checked up on whether the man who wrote the most famous book on film editing was really Winton´s rescued child.  After reading his textbook on editing many years ago Patrik decided to become a film producer and editor. I showed him also the emotional BBC show of Winton´s first meeting with rescued children in 1988. This really deeply affected him and I was glad because I had suddenly won the best working partner for my projects.

First of all it was not our intention to make a film for young people. At that time we had only one aim - as long as Mr. Winton was alive to tell his story and perhaps make the world thank him. We said to ourselves that it would be unfair for such an unique deed to disappear through the trapdoor of memories, because at that time only very few people knew about it. There was not even a mention of Mr. Winton on internet. But what started to happen after All My Loved Ones and the Power of Good were released was astounding.

But all this was nothing compared with the reaction of children, of young people. The film was seen by literally millions of children from Asia to America, in places where no one had ever heard about "a Hitler" or World War II. Despite that they were all deeply moved. Influenced by this film, many of them started to do good deeds. Apparently there are some mysterious ingredients in the Winton story, that result in what we call the “Winton virus of good”. But we were lucky too. We received the award bestowed in television production in the USA - the International Emmy Award for the best foreign documentary, and quite amusing is that with HBO, as our American co-producer we got among the last four nominees for News and Documentary EMMY – this time as the American documentary.

In response to our film, The Power of Good, several educational programs were started. The film and the book, The Lottery of Life, about Winton and "his" children were both distributed to ten thousand British schools and the same was done in the USA, Germany, France, Canada, New Zealand and Slovakia. At present an educational program is being started in Denmark. Amazing is that this project is running in as far places as the Dominican Republic, in a total of fifteen countries. And from everywhere we receive reports of the good deeds students are doing, little and great ones.

Personally I always wanted to make comedies like Woody Allen and Winton story was somehow only a sidestep from what is my life´s main ambition – to make amusing, intelligent comedies. But a chain of events changed my plans. New, unbelievable stories came to light; dozens of Winton children were discovered recently and young people, influenced by this story started to do good deeds, modern "Wintons" made their appearance. Moreover, Nicholas Winton himself, at that time 100 years old, could tell his reaction to all this.

So we plunged into making this documentary with feature reenactments Nicky´s Family for theatres. We wish to give a definitive picture of everything that happened using the results of the latest discoveries.Personally I always wanted to make comedies like Woody Allen and Winton story was somehow only a sidestep from what is my life´s main ambition – to make amusing, intelligent comedies. But a chain of events changed my plans. New, unbelievable stories came to light; dozens of Winton children were discovered recently and young people, influenced by this story started to do good deeds, modern "Wintons" made their appearance. Moreover, Nicholas Winton himself, at that time 100 years old, could tell his reaction to all this.

Discovering things is always an adventure. But here you don´t deal with heroes long dead, here many of them are alive, what makes it even more exciting. When a new rescued child is found this is generally followed by a meeting with Mr. Winton. Due to the fact that most of the children lost their parents during the war, the today 104 years old Winton has become for them an honorary father and for their children and grandchildren an honorary grandfather. This sometimes bothers Mr. Winton. He has often told me: "Matej, since it is your fault that so many people know me now, keep on writing to me when their grandchildren are born, when they have problems, when their children marry… you should arrange for me a secretary who would attend to this extensive correspondence". So we really had to help him with this. I believe that deep inside it is a great joy to him to have such a big family.

We only co-organized the Winton Train. The main credit for that is due to Mr. Zbynek Honys from Czech Railways. After he had seen the Power of Good he became so enthusiastic that together with his colleagues he started to prepare this journey of the commemorative steam period train which left Prague on the 1st of September 2009. Symbolically it was the date when 70 years ago the last Winton children´s train with already 250 children on board was cancelled because the WWII broke out. The Winton Train was a tribute to all those children as well as their parents who perished in WWII. The arrival of the train in London was wonderful - the railway station looked as if Michael Jackson was besieged by fans. All the main world media, television, hundreds of reporters covered this event. When I think that a few years ago Winton´s name was unknown, it was incredible.

When I was small I wanted to become an archeologist. Like Heinrich Schliemann I wanted to discover Troy. It is funny that film business somehow fulfilled my ambition. For me Winton´s story was like opening Tutankhamen’s tomb. And there are still so many mysteries, there are only 250 rescued children known from the Winton´s list of 669. Where are the 300-400 missing children?

I can recall the exact moment when a shiver ran down my spine. In September 2008 we were preparing to shoot feature reenactments of Nicky´ s Family. One of the crucial scenes takes place at the Wilson station in 1939 when the children took leave with their parents, not knowing that most of them forever. According to a legend one mother couldn´t bring herself to part with her weeping daughter and she pulled her out from the train, holding her tight and crying. At the last moment before departure she returned her into the compartment, and thus saved her life.

Three weeks before we were due to film this scene, I was in Washington DC recording the  story of the American "Winton child" Alice Masters. I was shocked to learn that this story was hers. She explained: "At the train station my mother pulled my younger weeping sister from the train through the window. My sister cried heavily and mother too. At that moment the dispatcher blew his whistle and the train started to move. My mother didn´t know what to do. She ran after the train with her daughter in her arms. She was desperate – keep the child or give her back?  And then, at the last moment, she returned my sister to our compartment through the window." You must understand, I shivered with excitement. The story, which I had hitherto known only as a legend, came alive and was even more dramatic. The mother´s decision acquired a downright apocalyptic dimension, because the train was moving and she was forced to make the final decision in no time. In many ways it reminded me of Sophie´s Choice. I immediately changed the whole filming of this scene according to what she said.

I remember another story which moved me deeply. The first 25 children flew to Sweden and so we looked for these Swedish rescued children. And I actually found one "Winton child" in Sweden - Hanus Weber. I was very excited. He agreed upon interview and Hanus told me about his mother, Ilse Weber, she was an excellent writer for children.

When she got with his younger brother to concentration camp in Terezin in 1942, she worked there as a nurse in the children´s department. Of course, they didn´t have any medicine to help sick Jewish children there, so she came up with the idea to relieve their suffering. She composed beautiful, melodic songs for them. When her children were put into a transport to Auschwitz she was so afraid for them that she took Hanus´s younger brother and went with them voluntarily. On arrival in Auschwitz they were immediately sent to the gas chamber. When they undressed a family friend, who was in the prison squad that was in charge of the removal of dead bodies, said to Mrs. Weber : "This is not a shower, but a gas chamber. But, if I can give you an advice, go inside with children, do not scare them. Sit down in the corner and sing. Because when you sing, you inhale the gas deeper and you die faster in less pain".

She followed his advice and she sang with children the lullaby Wiegala. After the war this composition was found in Terezin under dramatic circumstances. Hanus showed me his mother´s lullaby sung by Liv Migdal.  Then I lost control over my feelings, I couldn´t say a word and only tears remained. That lovely music and text was a real message from hell. I often thought how one can show this utter inhumanity of the concentration camp, suddenly I knew how.

The editing was really terrible work. If I hadn´t had a team of excellent editors, I would have drowned in that surplus of material. There is enough to make several more films about Winton´s children, about their experiences during communism, etc.

Let me give you some numbers: we filmed with interruptions for 6 years. In the editing room and sound production studio the film was processed an unbelievable 4000 hours.The editing was really terrible work. If I hadn´t had a team of excellent editors, I would have drowned in that surplus of material. There is enough to make several more films about Winton´s children, about their experiences during communism, etc.

I like everything I do, because otherwise I couldn´t stand a filmmaker´s life. You are constantly under great strain, you keep thinking that if there was more time for this or that, how much better you could do it. As a matter of fact, we filmmakers work under the constant pressure of an imaginary whip - the deadline for finishing the film. On the other hand we are grateful for it, otherwise maybe films would never be finished.

The original idea, which came to me in an airplane when, Patrik Pašš and I were returning from London after visiting Nicky as everyone calls Nicholas Winton, has in fact never changed.  From the beginning we wanted to show how tragic events of the past, forgotten for 50 years, can turn into an impressive story for present times and help people to create their future.

I rather wanted to cast unknown faces, so that when seeing Winton, the audience would believe that it was actually Winton, when seeing parents, they believed that they were really parents. In the case of the mother at the train station who was unable to decide till the very last moment whether to let her child go or not, I casted a famous Czech actress Klara Issova. To be honest I couldn´t imagine anybody in the Czech Republic who could do justice to this part with such brilliance.

I am in contact with about 50 of them and due to the work on the films I today know almost everything about their lives. We are happy every time a  new "child" appears.  One such case was very emotional. After the screening of my previous film at the festival in San Diego I had Q&A. One man said that as a six-months old baby he went by train to London in 1939 but did not know anything more about it. He asked me for my advice where to obtain more information. I told him that there was something we could find out on the spot. I opened Winton´s list and found his name on it, his date of birth, the address of his adoptive parents and some other information. After I had read it to him his face went red and he ran out of the place like a madman.

We met again the next day for lunch, he apologized for his behavior - because it had been so emotional to him and he hadn´t wanted to cry like a baby in front of the others. We called Nicky Winton and the man thanked him for his rescue - and the already large family increased again....

I don´t like words such as mission because it sounds very pathetic. Filmmakers often think more about the film´s message than the story itself. And I noticed that every good story carries its own message automatically. Look at the stories in the Bible, for instance, about Adam and Eve and about their sin. You can interpret it a thousand ways but the story is wonderful and will inspire people endlessly. So for me  Winton´s story is incredible, still alive today and sometimes motivates people in creating their future. And I am happy with it.

You know, good cannot be measured. If a little girl gives her hair to make a wig for a child with cancer, or young people save hundreds of children in the third world from certain death, what is more? Every good deed counts and fills you with the feeling that what you do makes sense.

I want to mention one other basic matter. When you watch the news on TV you are overwhelmed by negative information. From all sides you hear how the world is corrupt and everywhere bad people are.... I think that to a certain extent this is not a fare picture. Most people are good and they want to do good things. Most people will help you to get up if you fall on the street. Basically people are rather good than bad, but there is a certain problem with it. Due to the fact that young people constantly hear from the media that we are all thieves and rogues, they naturally lose their ideals, they are disgusted and don´t believe in anything. Therefore I think it is necessary to stand up to this trend. To make also films that don´t make you feel like committing suicide after watching them, but to make films that will strengthen us, fill us with hope and resolve.