NOVEMBER 10, 1938 – Vienna, Austria
“Do it! It’s what we’ve all been commanded to do, isn’t it? So go on. Pull the trigger!” Shouts a stormtrooper proudly, clad in brown shirt and black pants with black boots reaching up to his knees, flaunting the Nazi’s swastika symbol on a red band worn on his left arm. The troopers are spread across the entire area. Something’s about to happen. And in a split second, another trooper pulls the trigger, and the bullet hits the window pane of a Jewish owned shop, shattering the glass into a million pieces. And something inside me says that life will never be normal again.
The troopers start to open fire blindly, which creates commotion in the area. The Jews, my people, start running aimlessly in an attempt to save their lives. I freeze and stand there deadlocked, struggling to process what’s happening all of a sudden. They begin to destroy the Jewish apartments and shops, mostly setting them on fire. There’s a lot of noise, of people falling down, shouting and crying, which is painful to the ears. I don’t want to be here. And when my brain finally restarts after the shock that shut it down for a second there, I begin to run as fast as I can, with my heavily loaded school bag still hanging on my back. The terror fills me up and consumes me, and I run towards home, not daring to stop and look back. Maybe I’m dreaming all this. I’ll wake up in a moment and see it for myself. I try to give myself the most suitable explanation I can come up with, and at the same time, running as fast as humanly possible. I can hear the troopers screaming “When Jewish blood sprays from our knives, things go twice as well!”, and laughing like psychopaths. Oh dear.
All of a sudden, someone falls right in front of me, which brings me to a halt. My shivering frame refuses to cooperate with my will to keep running, and I fall down on my knees, panting. The person right in front of me is a local candy shop owner, and I know him due to my frequent visits to his shop. He starts crying and begging in front of that Nazi man in uniform, who has his shoes on his chest and his rifle pointed at his head. In a second, he shoots him on his head, and I witness something that would probably haunt me till I’m alive. I don’t cry, I’m not able to. The Nazi army man immediately runs to some other direction to hit the next target, perhaps. I struggle to get up, and covering my face partially with my hands to try not to look at him again, run a little forward, and throw up, badly. Tears prick my eyes, as creeping cold terror grips my heart. They don’t seem to notice me that much, probably because I’m still just a 10 years old girl. I turn back one last time, only to witness a horrible view of destruction and massacre, something that I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” My mom questions my dad in a low voice, who is lifelessly fiddling with the fork and food on the dining table. He looks back at her, with a puzzled expression on his face, taking his own sweet time to process what my mom meant to say.
“Yeah, yes. Things have gone out of control now. We don’t know what tomorrow might bring to us. We’re not safe. Our children are not safe.” He says and gulps.
I can see the mental stress printed on their faces, who are staring at their plates. The incident that I narrated has killed their will to swallow food, just like with me. My 8 years old sister, on the other hand, has no idea of what’s happening, and instead of stressing herself out to decode the possible situation, she decides to relinquish the home-made food.
“We need to send our kids to Britain.” My mom says firmly, pushing her plate away and breaking the 5 minutes long silence. I stare at her in surprise. Britain? Wow! But why?
“Yes, I guess it’s about time to let them go. We must hand over our kids to him. He’ll know what to do.” Who’s he? My dad continues in a low voice. “As a matter of fact, he has finished all the paperwork and will be arranging for the transportation, so everything will be ready in few days.” They both look at me and my sister, with tears in their eyes.
“Everything will be fine, girls.” My dad says reassuringly. I have no idea why this is happening. I look at my sister, whose face has lit up in the name of Britain.
“We’ll leave for Czechoslovakia soon. We must start packing up.” Says dad and my parents exit the room after few minutes of silence, leaving me alone to struggle with the thoughts of what future has in store for us.
DECEMBER 2, 1938- Czechoslovakia Station
“Take these, darlings. Whenever you feel lonely, homesick or happy, write in it, so that when you come back home, we can all sit together and read your diaries.” My dad says while we’re cutting the crowd on the railway station. He hands me one and the other to my sister, who gets extremely excited.
“Are we going on some adventure trip?” She exclaims. “Yes dear, sure.” And he smiles back.
It isn’t an adventure trip, of course, it’s our freedom trip. It’s a chance for us to escape persecution. It’s a chance at life. I hold the diary tightly in my hand and keep walking.
The platform is filled with anxious parents, who are similarly here to bid their kids goodbye. Who knows when we’ll get to see them again? The thought alone is so unsettling, and dreadful thoughts begin to crowd my mind. Will they be okay here? Will we even be in touch with them? They think I’m too young and immature to understand what’s going on, which is why I’m constantly being kept in the bubble of mortal hope which I’m afraid may burst anytime now.
We stop at an area where the train is expected to stop. “Now listen to me, sweethearts”, my mom bends on her knees to talk to me and my sister. “We both love you the most in this world, always remember that. There will be times when we’ll miss each other, and won’t be able to talk to each other no matter how desperate we get. So let the stars and the sun be the messengers. When we’ll miss each other, we’ll look at them instead and convey what we really want to say, and in this way, we’ll always remain close.” And she kisses us both.
And this is it, the breaking point. Unable to hold back anymore, I start crying. I cover my face with my hands, and she cries back too. We hug each other as tightly as we can, not ready to let go. My sister finally realizes that things are not as merry as they sound.
The train stamps in, and we don’t have much time. I’m holding my sister’s hands, who is busy ringing a bell in her other hand. She remains silent the entire time, and the same goes with me as well. We move forward with our parents behind. I feel homesick already. We both get on our coach and sit on the first empty seats we can find, and press our noses to the glass window to see our parents, like hundreds of other kids. I feel like crying again. There are hundreds of parents at the platform, crying, waving and smiling at their kids on the train. After a couple of minutes, the train gives a parting whistle and starts to move. My parents start running with the moving train to catch our every possible glimpse. They are crying, like everyone else there.
“See you soon”, are their last words to both of us. This is it. The parting has taken place. I’m sitting there, still. What did we do to deserve all this?
My sister’s hand touches mine, and I look at her. “You always have me, don’t worry”, she says, and I’m happy that I have her. We came to the station as children, and are leaving as adults because we are responsible for our own lives now.
Few hours have passed, and we look at the night sky through the window. We look at the starts, and one of them shines brighter compared to the rest. “Maybe, that one is a messenger sent by mom”, my sister says in a happy tone, her eyes shining as brightly as that star, and her mouth wide open with excitement. “Yes, it is. I think so too.” And suddenly, it lifts up our moods. Suddenly, we don’t feel abandoned anymore.
52 YEARS LATER
DECEMBER 15, 1990
Today is the day I’ve been waiting for so many years. I finally get to meet him today- the person who I owe my life to, the person whom I trusted no matter what, the person who humbly kept his efforts a secret for more than 50 years. I am what I am today, all because of him. You know who I’m talking about, right? It’s time to give him a tribute and disclose the secret to the world. It’s time to get his work recognized and acknowledged by every individual who survived the world war.
See you soon,
I’m sitting in the front row in an auditorium. The recording of the event is about to start. There’s light hustle and bustle everywhere as people start to settle down. Meanwhile, I’m constantly searching for him. I don’t know how he looks after all these years, and he doesn’t know me as well.
“Would you mind if I sit next to you?” An old man with spectacles and a somewhat drowsy frame breaks my train of thoughts.
“Ah, yes. Sure. Please have a seat.” I say, politely. He seems to me like a good man after all.
The programme starts finally- The Holocaust Memorial Service. The programme goes the usual way for a decent duration – remembering the people who became victims of the massacre and praying for their souls to rest in peace. And then, the host finally picks up the topic we all have been waiting for since all these years.
“Today, we have someone here amongst us, whose work has been a secret for over 50 years, and I’d like to use this opportunity to share that with you all. During the second world war, when he heard about the infamous ‘Kristallnacht’ riots in November 1938, he summoned a small group of people to organize a rescue operation. He established a ‘Children’s Section’ and opened an office in Prague. Soon, as his operation expanded, thousands of parents lined up outside of his Children Section’s office seeking a safe haven for their children. He raised money to fund the transports of the children and the 50 pounds per child guarantee demanded by the British Government to give place to these children in their country.
He’s the person responsible for rescuing 669 children who were destined for death camps from the Nazis, from Czechoslovakia to Britain via eight evacuations during the second world war. He transported the kids to Britain safely, by a train which we now call ‘Czech Kindertransport’, and also found homes for those children there. I’m extremely delighted to have with us this unsung hero- Sir Nicholas George Winton.”
I look around, and at the back. Where’s he?
The host continues in her shrill voice. “Apparently, even his wife didn’t know about his heroic activities for several decades and came to know about it when she stumbled upon a scrapbook with the photographs of all the children he had rescued. And I have this scrapbook with me.” She opens up the scrapbook and unfolds the lists present inside. “Here is the list of all the children. This is Vera Gissing, on this list. Yes, we did find your name on this list.” She says, turning towards me. My heart skips a beat.
“Vera Gissing is here with us tonight. Hello Vera.” She says with a grin on her face. I nod and grin back at her.
“Ms. Vera I’d like to tell you that you’re actually sitting next to Sir Nicholas Winton.”
Oh my god, he’s the same old man. How didn’t I recognize him? He looks at me, and tears fill up my eyes. He’s the man who saved my life. I hold his hands and begin to cry. “Thank you”, is all I can mutter with my chocked voice. I hug him, and he hugs me back. The audience keeps clapping. “Thank you,” I say and cry again, not letting go of his hands. The feeling is so wonderful, so terribly touching, the deepness of which is inexplicable. He doesn’t say a single word and only manages to wipe the tear behind his spectacles. I still don’t let go of his hands, and look at him again. “Thank you,” I say again, and he humbly keeps his head low, trying to hold back his tears.
The host continues. “Is there anyone in this room who owes his life to Sir Nicholas Winton? If yes, could you stand up please?”
And every individual in the room gets up in an attempt to honor this noble soul. The auditorium is filled with all the children he had saved 50 years back from the Holocaust. He gets the surprise of his life today. As everybody gets up, he takes his own time to process what’s happening, gets up slowly and turns back to see each one of us standing up in his honor. He smiles and gives a nod of acknowledgment, too shocked and emotional to speak anything. We all clap for him, and he just manages to wipe his tears behind his spectacles.
“Here’s thanks from your worldwide family, Sir.” Says the host.
“In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.”
(Based on a partially true story)