Feb 2010 Journal

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A moving experience: The Winton Train journey from a daughter’s perspective

Last September, I was one of 40 second-generation family members accompanying the 22 ‘Kinder’ who were recreating their 1939 journeys from Prague to London on board the ‘Winton Train’. Among them were my mother, Josephine Knight, and my aunt, Alice Masters.

Like many in the second generation, I grew up in England keenly aware that our lives had been shaped in a particularly painful way. My parents and their friends spoke with Continental accents and cooked wonderful Continental food, but there was no getting away from it - we were different. As a child, I wondered why we had so little actual family and yet so many ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ from so many countries. As I grew older, I learned more about our history, but I believe I held back from asking too many probing questions, intuitively aware perhaps of the pain such questions might bring. Being a passenger on the Winton Train brought an extraordinary opportunity to close that gap and to step into my mother’s past in a way I would never have thought possible.

Flying with us to Prague, about to start a term studying there and curious to know more about her family’s past, was my 19-year-old daughter Joelle. She was deeply moved by the ceremonies and performance of Brundibar at the National Museum on the evening prior to the train’s departure; it was no small thing to be standing beside her grandmother and great-aunt in an ornate hall in which their history of being uprooted at such a tender age was being commemorated. The next morning she came to see us off at Wilsonova station. A BBC cameraman caught our tearful farewells on camera. As the train pulled out of the station, whistle blowing, belching clouds of steam, the irony of the moment wasn’t lost on any of us: 70 years ago a train just like this one carried my mother and her sisters away from their parents, family, friends and homeland. This time we represented a story of renewal and survival.

On board the train it was thrilling and deeply comforting to talk with other second-generation family members and to find out that we had shared such similar childhoods. As we talked, I discovered that I wasn’t alone in my reluctance to travel through what is still perceived by many of the second generation as hostile territory; memories of childhood nightmares we could only partly understand had clearly not been dispelled with the passing of time.

We second-generation travellers felt the enormous weight of our parents’ pasts. We had all worried about the physical and emotional demands the trip would place upon them. We needn’t have been concerned. Our 22 Kinder, survivors through and through, took it all in their stride, earning the admiration and respect of all on board. They displayed resilience, grace and patience. They told their stories and showed their photographs and documents repeatedly to reporters, TV crews and government officials in the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK.

In addition to the news coverage, the Kinder were summoned to the original 1930s carriage at the rear of the train by director Matej Minac in order to film scenes for his film Nicky’s Family, due to be released in 2010. Undeterred by the bouncing, jolting train, our intrepid travellers made their way there, jostled precariously from side to side, passing from carriage to carriage on the sliding metal platforms. They told us about their feelings on their original journey, when they sat nervously together in the sealed carriage, armed German soldiers keeping watch. They commented that there were no people standing in fields and at small stations en route to cheer them on, take photos and wave, as there were now.

As they told their stories, I was so impressed by their approachability, intelligence and strength of character. I understood with a new sense of clarity how important it was to them to know that their story was being heard – and deeply listened to – once again, this time by a new generation. And I believe that it was the respect that was paid to them at every stage of the journey that helped them to navigate through the experience.

I remembered my mother always telling me that arriving at the Hook of Holland was the first time she and her sisters, coming from landlocked Czechoslovakia, had ever seen the sea. Even in 2009, I was overwhelmed with relief on coming to the coast. Holland, from what I had understood from my mother’s stories, had brought memories of windows opened at last, kind Dutch ladies on station platforms with hot chocolate and bread, and no more soldiers menacing them.

Arriving in England the following morning, I understood at last how strange this new land must have seemed: its language, its landscapes, its soft, white bread. It is hard to describe the emotions experienced as we arrived at Liverpool Street Station and watched our parents stride along the platform to greet Sir Nicholas.

The second-generation family members were asked to walk as a group behind the Kinder. As had been the case for much of the journey, we were invisible to the media but, had anyone asked, we would have had much to say about our own complex emotions: joy and sadness, a renewed sense of loss and life, a greater understanding of what they had been through, and a greater understanding of what it means to be a child of a survivor. As the cameras rolled, and the Kinder greeted Sir Nicholas, I had the unspoken sense that we were all grateful to the Czech Railways executive whose idea this journey was, the Winton Train organisers, the film-makers, TV crews and reporters, for giving our parents this gift of recognition. It was a joy to see them being so honoured.

My daughter has been inspired to use her time in the Czech Republic to do research on Jewish community life before and after the war, with particular emphasis on our own family history. She has travelled back to her grandmother’s village in Slovakia’s Tatra Mountains. There, she visited the gymnasium, a new school built only a stone’s throw from what was once her great-grandparents’ house: the students and teachers are all familiar with it. Close by is the former synagogue, now used as a shoe shop, but recently repainted. For the first time, a plaque has been placed on the front of the synagogue, in memory of the Jewish citizens of the town. It was the result of a recent initiative by the history teacher and students at the school.

Two of the teachers assisted my daughter in visiting the town hall and regional archives. A student assigned to be her guide took it upon herself to go in search of people who might remember our family and succeeded in finding two elderly ladies who had many memories to share. In addition, my daughter was invited to speak to two classes at the gymnasium and was shown photo-essays done by the students cataloguing the homes and businesses of Jewish community members before the war. She has been promised that they will continue to share the results of their research with our family.

We are much comforted by the knowledge that the torch has been passed to the third generation and that our story continues …

Vera Sklaar (née Knight)

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