He Saved 669 Children From Nazis — A New Book Tells His Story To Kids

Jan 27, 2021
Originally published on January 27, 2021 6:04 pm

How old should kids be when they start learning about the Holocaust? While many educators believe the appropriate age is 10, a new book by Caldecott honoree and MacArthur fellow Peter Sís is recommended for children ages 6 to 9.

Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued tells the true story of the Englishman Nicholas "Nicky" Winton, who rescued 669 children from the Nazis, including Vera Gissing.

In this book told with simple, direct language, readers get to know what Vera's life was like in her small town near Prague before the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. They learn about Nicky's hobbies before he grew up to be a banker ("mathematics, stamp collecting, photography, and fencing").

Sís' illustrations blend the details of everyday life with imaginative, whimsical flourishes. On the cover, little Vera stands alone on the platform of an enormous train station holding a small suitcase and a kitty cat stuffed animal.

"Vera was the Queen of Cats," we learn. Inside the silhouette of the girl, Sís has drawn colorful details of the things and people she left behind: her mom and dad. Her house. A galloping horse. Perhaps foreshadowing Winton's good deeds, Sís draws young Nicky dressed in knight's armor, brandishing a sword atop an enormous pigeon. As the Nazis swarm Europe, a friend asks Winton to come to Prague. Seeing the dangers, Winton tries to help families get their children to safety.

Norton Young Readers

Nicky set up an office in a hotel in Prague.
He made lists of children.
He took their photographs.
He found train connections.
Spies kept watch.

Winton found foster families in England for hundreds of children, including Vera.

Sís does not recount the atrocities committed by the Nazis, nor does he shy away from the emotional pain Vera suffered. He explains that the train carrying her cousins and 250 other children were not allowed to leave Prague.

Her father and
Mother had died
in the Nazi camps.
Her cousins too.

Sís, who was born and raised in Czechoslovakia, was awestruck by both Winton's monumental achievement and the fact that he almost never talked about it, not even to his wife, for several decades after World War II. Even the children didn't know who was responsible for their survival.

Peter Sís/Norton Young Readers

That all changed in 1988 when the BBC created a surprise reunion of sorts. Winton sits in the front row of a theater full of people. Host Esther Rantzen asks, "Is there anyone in our audience who owed their life to Nicholas Winton? If so, could you stand up please?"

Everyone stands up, including Vera Gissing.

YouTube

Sís has written and illustrated children's books about Charles Darwin, Galileo Galilei and Mozart. "I'm always inspired by the people who are bigger than life, that they carry with them this amazing history of being so important," he says. By all accounts, Winton did not see himself that way. "He said, 'I never was a hero because I never was in danger,' " Sís marvels. "He did lots of good in the moment when he could do it."

Winton and Vera Gissing became good friends. Gissing wrote about her life in the book Pearls of Childhood. Today she is 92 with advanced-stage dementia, according to her daughter Nicola Gissing. After the war, Vera married and raised three children in England. "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for his actions," says Nicola of Winton.

She is "delighted" with what Sís has done with the story. She says her mother is fiercely proud of her Czech roots, so she's doubly pleased that Sís shares her heritage. As she flips through the pages, Gissing is particularly moved to see her mother's childhood in Czechoslovakia come to life.

Peter Sís/Norton Young Readers

"There's her parents. That's her with the cats and how she loved the horses and then the next page with her almost-blind grandmother," she says. "These are all things I've been brought up with, and to see it illustrated is ... it's made me very emotional, but in a nice way."

Nicola Gissing also remembers being very young when her mother told her about some of the horrific things that happened to people during the Holocaust.

Vera Gissing and Nicholas Winton
Joanna Richardson

"I was always scared it might happen again," she remembers. "This happened because my grandparents were Jewish. Mom was Jewish, and I'm Jewish by birthright. ... So I actually had a bag of my own provisions hidden in the back of the ... cupboard in case the Nazis came." Gissing says her mother didn't know about her survival plan until they were both adults. "I told her once, and she said maybe she shouldn't have spoken so openly," she says.

Nicola Gissing believes Sís keeps the story of the Holocaust age appropriate by emphasizing details very young children can relate to and by not making Vera's escape and the Nazi invasion too frightening.

Developmental psychologist Dona Matthews says Nicky and Vera is the first book she has read that addresses the Holocaust for children so young. She recommends parents and caregivers read the story along with children. She applauds Sís for his approach with such an extraordinarily sensitive topic. "The focus of this story is on Nicky and Vera. It's not on the horrors of the Holocaust," says Matthews. "The story itself shows the importance of inclusion and respect for diverse others, which is a really good early entry to the Holocaust and other kinds of diversity understandings for kids."

Peter Sís/Norton Young Readers

Winton's daughter agrees. Barbara Winton has written a book about her father's life called If It's Not Impossible...: The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton. She believes Nicky & Vera will empower children.

"Whatever age you may be, if you see something around you that you think is unsatisfactory or wrong, you know, like my father, find other people who agree with you, and go out and have a go at doing something about it," she says. "That, I think, is the message of this story."

Sís admits there were some "dark moments" when writing and illustrating a history that caused so much pain and suffering. He credits his editor and his wife with helping him keep the story focused on Winton, who, Sís says, "was always trying to find some positive way how to approach life."

Nicholas Winton died in 2015 at age 106. Many of the 669 children he saved went on to work in the arts, the sciences, politics and human rights. Barbara Winton says her father was someone "who lived in the present." She has been outspoken about the need to take care of today's child refugees.

Peter Sís/Norton Young Readers

Nina Gregory edited this story.

: 1/27/21

An earlier version of this story mistakenly said Nicholas Winton died in 2016. In fact, he died in 2015. Also, a previous summary of this story that appeared on the homepage mistakenly said the children escaped Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1938. In fact, the year was 1939.

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. And one of its goals is education. A new book by Peter Sis introduces the topic to children ages 6 to 9. The book "Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero Of The Holocaust And The Children He Rescued" tells the true story of the Englishman Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 children from the Nazis. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has the story.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: On the cover of "Nicky & Vera," a little girl stands alone on the platform of an enormous train station holding a little suitcase and a kitty cat stuffed animal. Vera loves cats. Inside the silhouette of the girl, Peter Sis drew colorful details of what she left behind - her mom and dad, her house, a galloping horse. At the beginning of the story, Vera is living a happy life in Czechoslovakia.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: They were one of the few Jewish families in town. It made no difference. They were all friends.

BLAIR: When Nicky Winton was a boy, he liked math, raising pigeons and fencing. Peter Sis' artwork blends the details of everyday life with imaginative, whimsical flourishes. Holding a sword dressed in knights' armor, little Nicky rides an enormous pigeon. When he grows up, he becomes a banker. The Nazis are swarming Europe. Winton sees the dangers and tries to help families in Czechoslovakia get their children to safety.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Nicky set up an office in a hotel in Prague. He made lists of children. He took their photographs. He found train connections. Spies kept watch.

BLAIR: Winton worked quickly to find foster families for hundreds of children, including Vera.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The day came for Vera to leave. She packed her clothes. She said goodbye to her grandparents. She said goodbye to her cousins, who were to follow her to England on a later train.

BLAIR: The train with Vera's cousins and 250 other children never made it. Her cousins and parents were sent to concentration camps.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When the war was over, Vera went back to her town. Her family who was gone.

BLAIR: Were you concerned that the subject matter would be too dark for small children?

PETER SIS: It was dark, it was. At some moments I didn't know how to go on.

BLAIR: Like Vera, Peter Sis is from Czechoslovakia. To help him in those dark moments and to keep the books suitable for young children, he focused on Nicholas Winton.

SIS: He was always trying to find some positive way how to approach life. And he did lots of good in the moment when he could do it. And he never talked about it.

BLAIR: For decades, Nicholas Winton didn't talk about the hundreds of children he saved, nor did the children know who was responsible for their survival until 1988. In a now famous broadcast, the BBC created a surprise reunion of sorts. Winton sits in the front row of a theatre full of people.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THAT'S LIFE")

ESTHER RANTZEN: Can I ask, is there anyone in our audience tonight who owes their life to Nicholas Winton? If so - could you stand up, please?

BLAIR: Everyone stands up, including Vera Gissing. Today, she is 92 years old with advanced stage dementia. After the war, she married and raised three children.

NICOLA GISSING: I wouldn't be here if it weren't for his actions.

BLAIR: Vera's daughter, Nicola Gissing, is delighted with what Peter Sis has done with the story. There are a number of books about Winton. But this is the first children's book to bring her mother's childhood in Czechoslovakia to life.

GISSING: And there's her parents. And there's her with the cats and how she loved the horses, and then the next page with her almost-blind grandmother. And these are all things I've been brought up with as well. And, you know, to see it illustrated is - it's making me very emotional but in a nice way.

BLAIR: Nicola Gissing says she also remembers being very young when her mother told her about some of the horrific things that happened to people during the Holocaust.

GISSING: I was always scared it might happen again because, you know, this happened because my grandparents were Jewish. Mum was Jewish. And I'm Jewish by birthright. So I actually had a bag of my own provisions hidden at the back of the airing cupboard in case the Nazis came. Mum didn't realize this until we were adults and I told her once. And she said, maybe she shouldn't have spoken so openly.

BLAIR: Gissing believes Peter Sis has done a good job keeping the Holocaust age appropriate, with details children can relate to and without making it too frightening. Dona Matthews (ph), a developmental psychologist, agrees.

DONA MATTHEWS: The focus of this story is on Nicky and on Vera, these two people, it's not on the horrors of the Holocaust. The Holocaust is a background for this story.

BLAIR: Matthews adds that "Nicky & Vera" is a good early entry point to the Holocaust for kids because it shows the importance of inclusion and respect for diverse others.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.