You wouldn’t be alone if you didn’t know the larger-than-life story of Sir Nicholas Winton, nicknamed the “British Schindler” for his rescue of 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia just before the outbreak of World War II. And that is the group for whom “Nicky’s Family” makes a good, if not great, introduction.
The documentary recounts, through interviews, reenactments, archival and stock footage, the story of Winton, who was a young British stockbroker in 1939 when he traveled to Czechoslovakia just before Hitler invaded. Sensing impending disaster and with little help, Winton engineered the children’s escape, arranging their paperwork and train transportation and finding new homes for them with families in Great Britain. Most of the youngsters did lose their biological parents in the Holocaust but are alive today to tell their stories. Winton, who turns 104 on May 19 (a CNN interview with him is scheduled to air on that date), is modest, thoughtful, and unassuming about his moral courage and its lasting legacy: Those he helped save, known as Winton’s “children,” include Canadian journalist Joe Schlesinger, who is interviewed extensively in the film.
Winton’s inspiring story deserves greater attention but this film isn’t the best representation of it. Czech filmmaker Matej Minac has covered Winton before, in the 2002 television documentary “Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good” and the 1999 drama “All My Loved Ones” starring Rupert Graves. Winton also appears in Mark Jonathan Harris’s 2000 Oscar winner, “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport,” about the 10,000 children who were rescued from around Europe and brought to safety in England. “Nicky’s Family” is compelling in parts but not consistently. Potentially fascinating details, such as his relationship with a woman alleged to be a Swedish spy, are under-explored. Scenes of parents who made a “Sophie’s Choice”-like sacrifice and put their young children on trains in the hope of saving them are heartbreaking. The interviews with the now elderly children are powerful, but more details about what it was like to live out the war in a strange country among foster families would have added to the drama. The last section of the film attempts to convey Winton’s legacy of humanitarianism but often feels like an educational film, with clips of children listening to Winton in classrooms and students carrying on his good works by helping the disadvantaged in Cambodia and elsewhere.
It wasn’t until Winton’s wife found a scrapbook filled with details about his efforts that his heroics came to light nearly 50 years after the war. He had made no effort to publicize what he did, which is one of the reasons so many are eager to celebrate him. The survivors interviewed in the film bear articulate and moving witness to the Talmud quote made famous in “Schindler’s List” that “whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”
One of Winton’s “children,” Boston resident Eva Paddock, appears in the film and will be at the West Newton Cinema to answer questions after screenings on May 17 at 6:05 p.m. and May 19 at 3:35 p.m. More information at www.westnewtoncinema.com.
Loren King can be reached at