Page last updated at 01:40 GMT, Monday, 31 August 2009 02:40 UK

Retracing a life-saving journey

Nicholas Winton and a refugee child

By Robert Hall
BBC News

At home in London, Lisa Midwinter packs for a journey into her past. Four days during which she, her son, and her granddaughter will relive her childhood experiences. Four days to retrace her route out of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, and to meet the man whose actions saved her life.

In 1938, Nicholas Winton, then a young stockbroker, was due to go skiing with friends in Switzerland when he received a phone call urging him to change his plans and visit Prague, where an emergency was unfolding.

Sir Nicholas Winton
I think there is nothing that can't be done if it is fundamentally reasonable

The caller was his friend Martin Blake, a master at Westminster School and an ambassador for the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, which was helping adults escape.

Two months earlier, Hitler's troops had occupied the disputed territory of Sudetenland, on Czechoslovakia's border with Germany, driving thousands from their homes.

In other countries, refugee organisations had begun organising the "Kindertransports" - a series of trains carrying thousands of Jewish children out of central Europe. But no such plan existed in Czechoslovakia.

After visiting refugee camps outside Prague, Winton realised he had to act quickly.

"I found out the children of refugees and other groups of people who were enemies of Hitler weren't being looked after. I decided to try to get permits to Britain for them.


"Everybody in Prague said, 'Look, there is no organisation in Prague to deal with refugee children, nobody will let the children go on their own, but if you want to have a go, have a go'.

"And I think there is nothing that can't be done if it is fundamentally reasonable."

Concentration camps

After recruiting a team to organise a new series of trains, Winton returned to the UK to find homes for as many children as possible.

Between March and August 1939, eight Winton trains carried 669 children to safety; the last train, with 250 children on board, was due to leave on 1 September - the day war broke out.

At the last minute, German troops intervened; the children were never seen again. They, and most of the families left behind, were transported east to the concentration camps.

Vera Gissing's two cousins were on that train but instead of England, they ended up in Belsen. They, along with her mother, never made it out of the camp.

The 10-year-old ended up in Bootle, Lancashire, while her sister Eva was sent to a boarding school in Bournemouth.

Their parents tried to keep smiling as the train pulled out, and she can remember shouting: "See you again in a free Czechoslovakia".

Lisa Midwinter
I remember this feeling of being all alone in a totally foreign place

Alf Dubs, a former minister in the Blair cabinet, was another of "Winton's children". The six-year-old was met at Liverpool Street train station by his father, who had left Prague the day the Nazis arrived.

Lord Dubs said Winton, who is now Sir Nicholas, was a " phenomenal individual, one of the really great human beings".

"Without any doubt I owe my life to him. I think my chance of surviving and that of the others would have been pretty slim."

'Why me?'

Lisa Midwinter, originally Lisa Dasch, was three when she made the journey to England with her brother.

Born in Teplice, near the German border, the well-heeled family were on holiday when they received word not to return home but head straight to Prague.

"I remember this great big black object as high as you could see. I remember figures in blue, which must have been the train driver, singing and handkerchiefs, and terrific noise.

 Nazi cavalry parade in Prague in April 1939
Germany invaded Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939

"I remember handkerchiefs being waved and crying, and seeing grown-ups crying."

At the end of the journey, Ms Midwinter said she felt "totally desolate with a card on the front me".

"I remember this feeling of being all alone in a totally foreign place."

She was initially taken to stay with a dentist's family in Manchester but they could not cope with her because she was in "such a state".

A friend of her mother's in Stoke-on-Trent agreed to take her in, and Ms Midwinter's first happy memories of England involve "being picked up to post letters through a red letter box".

Her story has a happy ending as her parents made it out and settled in Stoke-on-Trent, where they acted as surrogate parents for many Czech children.

Like many of the evacuees, Ms Midwinter only learned about Sir Nicholas many years later through a television programme. When she met him, she naturally asked '"Why me?"

"He said because you'd have been the first to go... that we were a middle class Jewish family and the Germans would have got rid of us first."


Marian Simo of Czech Railways gives a tour around the train the Winton children are retracing their journey on

This week she will board a train to meet old friends and face her memories.

More than 100 people will travel between Prague and London; among them 20 of Winton's children, now with children and grandchildren of their own.

Ms Midwinter is determined that her family should understand how much they owe to Sir Nicholas, and gain a glimpse of the agony faced by Czech parents who knew they were seeing their children for the last time.

But above all that they should understand they are part of an extraordinary worldwide family which owes its existence to the man who, at the age of 100, will once again stand on the platform at Liverpool Street to welcome them.

1938: Germany annexes Austria in March and takes over the Sudetenland in October, following the Munich Agreement
1939: Czechoslovakia is invaded - Bohemia and Moravia become a German protectorate, Slovakia becomes a client state

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