Jan. 27, designated by The United Nations General Assembly as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, is the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. As a fitting memorial, today the Czech-American Peter Sis, a MacArthur Fellow and three-time Caldecott recipient, released a new book that honors a man who saved hundreds of children from Nazis persecution—yet never told anyone about his humanitarian deed.
Sis' Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued (Norton Young Readers/W.W. Norton & Co.) weaves together, in word and picture, the stories of 29-year-old English stockbroker Nicholas ("Nicky") Winton (1909–2015), who took 669 children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to England, with Vera Gissing, one of the children he saved (and the author of Nicholas Winton and the Rescued Generation: Save One Life, Save the World ). Nicky & Vera is Sis' impassioned tribute to a "humble man’s" courageous efforts to protect Europe’s most vulnerable.
In December 1938, Nicholas Winton (born Nicholas George Wertheim to German-Jewish parents who had converted to Christianity) was about to leave his London flat for a skiing holiday in Switzerland when he received a phone call from a friend asking him to cancel his holiday and immediately rush to Prague, which in March 1939 was destined to be occupied by the Germans. "I have a most-interesting assignment and I need your help," said the friend. "Don't bother bringing your skis." When "Nicky" arrived, he was asked to "help in the refugee camps," in which thousands "were living in appalling conditions," as quoted on a website devoted to Winton's heroism. He knew he had to act immediately.
In presenting this story, Sis employs his diminutive miniaturist, pen, ink and watercolor style, with a surrealistic quality that belies the danger that the so-called "Winton's children" faced. The first part of the book is about the rescue itself. The second addresses the revelation that it was actually accomplished and the children (all but one train car full) were saved. The finale takes place 50 years later, when Nicky (Sir Nicholas Winton) makes a guest appearance on a U.K. TV show, where he was surprised to learn the producers invited as many of the 669 now grown-up children that he had rescued and helped to financially support in England.
Below are some early sketches from his Sis' manuscript. I also spoke with him on why he used the picture-book format to tell this compelling tale.
What inspired you to make Nicky & Vera?
I put this story together from bits and pieces ever since I was a little boy in Prague. I knew a few Czechs who either grew up in England or spent time in the U.K. during the war. It made little sense until the story about Nicholas Winton and his BBC TV moment became public in 1988. The next year the Berlin Wall came down—Czechoslovakia was free. Czech President Havel awarded Winton with the Order of the White Lion. "Winton's Children" that survived celebrated him.
It was a great story but could it be a picture book? I did not think so. Here is a man who was a hero for a few months and then he doesn't tell anybody for 50 years. How do you draw that?
So, how did you solve that problem?
I have a film by Matej Minac from that time, very nicely done—the story worked as a film with reenactments and talking heads. But it was still not a book. Then I went to Prague with my 15 year old (at the time) son and we talked about heroes in life and about Winton, who was his celebrating his 100th birthday.
Heroes work well in children's books. But they are usually bigger-than-life—not stockbrokers. But you ultimately made it work.
Winton himself said, "I am not a hero. I did not face any danger, as real heroes do. I only saw what needed to be done." Again, I did not know how to deal with the story. Yet by pure chance I discovered the book by Vera Gissing about the experience and it all came together. I was hoping to meet Vera and other "Winton's Children" in the U.K. once the book was done. But the pandemic changed all that.
I learned about Nicholas Winton from a documentary on Netflix. How did you convince a kid's book publisher to do this?
As it happened, editor Simon Boughton, originally from the U.K., knows the story, loves it, and we had an incredible back and forth from the start. We had been circling around each other in children's book publishing for 29 years but never considered working together before. We decided that Winton's story was a perfect fit.
How do you think Nicky mustered up the courage to accomplish this act of selflessness?
He was young, he was daring, he was decent, but is that enough? He went to school in Stowe, which had the motto "Put the needs of others first." But is that enough? A few months before he went to Prague, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin sold Czechoslovakia to Hitler in Munich, declaring, "Why should we be fighting for people in a faraway country?" or something like that.
And why was it kept secret for so long?
There are are few theories why he kept it a secret. One is that he was a low-key man and nobody listened. When you see him in photos or films, he looks like he did not care for recognition or celebrity status. I do think he did what he did because, as he said: "It was the right thing to do!"