Kindertransport: what one man and history can teach us

3 09 2009

Today marks the 70th anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war against Germany. As a youngster discovering history I found this event endlessly fascinating and absorbing. I wanted to learn about it and, in my own way, try to understand it. Wrapping my head around its immensity, scale and impact was a challenge in itself; to this day I still find the facts, numbers and events involved mind-boggling.

The Second World War also threw up a paradox for me: as a youngster it felt both very distant in time and so therefore removed from my own generation and day-to-day existence, and yet it also felt very much a part of it. Both my Grandad and Nana had served in the forces during the war (British Royal Navy & the WAAF), and though my Grandad had since passed on, my Nana was a living reminder that this war was still as much a part of my generation as it had been for her generation and my that of my parents. There was still a very tangible link to Second World War. This was when I first realised that the events of history are as much a part of our present as the events that take place around us today.

There are too many people today who choose to either forget, disregard or just not acknowledge the events of the past. For whom the past offers nothing of interest or relevance. However it is precisely those events of the past that determine and define our present, and subsequently help shape our future. Nothing informs us about who we are, and what we can be, better than our past and where we’ve been and what we’ve done.

Over the last three days the BBC News Channel has been chronicling the journey of the Winton Train. This journey is being undertaken by the surviving children who were rescued from Czechoslovakia and taken to Britain as part of Kindertransport as war was breaking out. Tomorrow they’ll arrive in London and meet the man who organised the original rescue mission, Sir Nicholas Winton (MBE), who himslef turned 100 years old this year. That one man was capable of so much speaks volumes for the power of the individual and what humanity can achieve when we really try.  It is a history lesson worth learning. 

I’ll admit that this was not one of the stories of the Second World War that I was familiar with; as far as I can gather it wasn’t widely known until after 1988 when his wife found a scrapbook detailing the event. But watching the survivors, now 70 years older, sitting in the train with name-tags hanging round their necks like they did all those decades ago and hearing their stories has been very poignant, very moving.

All of this has led me to discover that I have been passing on a daily basis a commemoration to this very event. Outside Liverpool Street Station stands a bronze sculpture of a group of children standing with their suitcases and teddy bear looking slightly bewildered and in awe. While I had noticed it earlier, and surmised that it probably related to the various movements of children during World War II, I hadn’t (until now) been able to fully appreciate it. I think today, on my way home, I’ll forgo the rush and stop for a moment. I think that would be only right.

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