Mar 2003 Journal

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Esther Rantzen relives journey of Czech children on TV: AJR phones jammed with calls

Following the broadcast on Carlton Television of Winton’s Children, a moving documentary produced and reported by Esther Rantzen, the AJR received well over 100 enquiries.

Prompted by the AJR’s telephone number, which was given at the end of the programme, the largest category of enquirers were non-Jewish people who recalled friendships with children who came to Britain as German-speaking Jewish refugees, whom they had lodged, gone to school with, or just befriended. The passage of time meant the friends had lost contact, but the programme had re-awakened a desire to renew their former relationships.

Many others were keen to trace lost relatives. Those with a Czech connection were directed to the archives of the Czech Jewish community shown in the film. Sadly, other enquirers sought to establish the fate of relatives who had perished in Auschwitz or in another death camp. Most encouraging was a call from a lady who, having recognised a photograph of her elder brother, deduced that the picture of a four-month-old baby which accompanied it was of herself!

Following three weeks in Prague, in which he worked from a hotel bedroom on his self-imposed task to save as many children as possible, Sir Nicholas returned to London where he worked late every night to find homes and the £50 required to fund each child’s entry. The popular photographic magazine Picture Post, founded by the Hungarian-born German Jewish refugee Stefan Lorant, published Sir Nicholas’s letters seeking assistance.

Among the children who gave their recollections to Esther Rantzen were Lord Alf Dubs, Vera Schaufeld, Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines, Käthe Strenitz (last month’s AJR Journal profilee), Vera Gissing and Rudy Wessely, a 77-year-old retired university lecturer with whom Esther returned to Prague, a city he had last seen at the age of 14.

At the Pinchas Synagogue (now a museum), with the names of 80,000 victims of the Nazis inscribed on its walls, most of the victims taken to Theresienstadt then transported to Auschwitz, Rudy pointed out his parents’ names, remarking how fortunate he was not to have been similarly commemorated. Rudy and Esther stood together on the station platforms from where most of the children had bid their parents a final goodbye, before travelling on through Dresden into Holland. Here they were given a warm greeting and good food, and then taken from the Hook of Holland by ferry to Harwich and train to Liverpool Street Station, where, amid scenes of ‘chaos’ - freely admitted to by Sir Nicholas - children were matched up with their sponsors.

Sitting with Esther in the Wessely family’s former flat, in which he had spent his last day with his parents, Rudy confessed that there were memories too much to bear and “too many ghosts” for him to return to Prague once again. From the Czech Jewish community’s archives he learned that his father, a judge who was imprisoned in the small fortress in Theresienstadt, and his mother, had been reunited for their final journey to Auschwitz.

“It defies all understanding,” said Esther Rantzen.
Ronald Channing

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