Jewish Chronicle, 13 September 2002
Something uncommon in common
When Nick met Monica… no, they didn’t make a film about it, but the parallels in their lives were dramatic enough. Monica Porter relates how she and her partner discovered their shared, heroic antecedents
Nick and I met at a ’60s revival concert given by a clutch of ageing pop stars in — of all places — High Wycombe. It was three-and-a-half years ago, and we attended the concert with a couple who are mutual friends, in a sort of subtle, blind-date arrangement.
“I think you two will get on,” the friends told me beforehand. “You’ve got things in common.” I thought they must be referring to a shared weakness for Herman’s Hermits and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas.
It was a lively evening, we hit it off and started seeing each other. And we certainly did have things in common, as we soon found out.
For one thing, we were born a mere two days apart, which, I admit, made me the proverbial “older woman” — by 48 hours.
But there was a much more significant and extraordinary link between us. As we filled each other in about ourselves and our family backgrounds during those first intimate, candle-lit dinners, it emerged that we each had a parent who rescued Jews during the Holocaust and had belatedly received public recognition for their acts of compassion.
This would have been a rare enough coincidence. But in a further parallel, both Nick and I had discovered our parents’ amazing exploits only while in our 30s, after growing up ignorant of them. Like, I believe, most true heroes, neither my mother nor Nick’s father ever mentioned their heroic deeds. They simply did what they felt they had to do and, as far as they were concerned, it wasn’t about “heroism” at all.
My mother was Vali Racz, a Hungarian singer and actress who sheltered five Jewish friends in her villa in Budapest during the Nazi occupation in 1944. For eight months, they lived clandestinely in her basement rooms and somehow, despite the dire food shortages, my mother managed to feed them all without arousing suspicion.
As she well knew, the penalty for harbouring a Jew was summary execution. But, she felt, how could she not help when, out on the streets, the city’s Jews were being rounded up, deported, tortured or shot?
A secret compartment had been built into the wardrobe of her bedroom — a hiding-place in the event of a Gestapo raid. And sure enough, one cold November morning, that raid came. My mother had been inadvertently betrayed to the secret police. For hours, the policemen searched the house but, crowded into their unseen compartment hardly daring to breathe, the fugitives escaped detection.
My mother, on the other hand, was taken to a Gestapo prison and interrogated for two weeks. Through the intervention of an influential friend, and with timing which was nothing short of miraculous, she was released the day before the prison’s inmates were slaughtered.
All of “her” Jews survived the war. Some later emigrated to Israel. I met them in 1992, when I went with my mother to Yad Vashem, where she was named as one of the Righteous Among the Nations and a marble plaque was unveiled with her name engraved on it.
I had stumbled upon her wartime story a decade earlier, while in Budapest re-searching for my first book, and so it eventually became the subject of my second. I found it very satisfying that the book’s publication led to her being so highly honoured, a few years before she died.
Nick’s father’s story is different but equally remarkable. Nicholas Winton was a young English stockbroker on holiday in Czechoslovakia in December 1938. It was three months after the Nazis had seized the Sudetenland, and he saw the extreme danger this posed to the country, and in particular to its Jewish population.
With a prescience denied to most politicians, he predicted an imminent war, and he felt compelled to help in some way. It was the plight of the children, innocent hostages to fortune, which most moved him. Returning to his home in Hampstead, he launched an operation to bring to Britain those Czech children most at risk. Securing Home Office approval for his plan, he set about enlisting the support of charities and religious organisations, refugees’ aid groups and the press. An adoptive family had to be found for each child allowed into the country, as well as a guarantor prepared to pay the £50 bond for the child’s eventual return to Czechoslovakia. The first “Kindertransport” train from Prague arrived in March 1939. The last was scheduled for September 1 — the day the war broke out. The borders were sealed and the train never left Czechoslovakia.
In all, Nicholas Winton’s rescue mission saved the lives of nearly 700 — mostly Jewish — children whose families later perished in the camps.
As with my mother’s wartime deeds, the story of this audacious operation remained unsung for decades, a piece of forgotten history. Then, one day in 1987, while clearing out the attic, Nick’s mother, Grete, chanced upon the dusty file of documents and letters from 1939. And it all came out.
It was Elisabeth Maxwell, wife of the press tycoon, who first championed the reticent hero. A major article about him in her husband’s newspaper, the Mirror, was to kick-start an avalanche of publicity in the press and media, and later books and films, too. In 1998, Nicholas Winton returned to Prague, where Vaclav Havel presented him with the esteemed Tomas Masaryk Order. Earlier this year, the book “Nicholas Winton and the Rescued Generation,” by Muriel Emanuel and Vera Gissing, was published by Vallentine Mitchell.
So that was how Nick and I, at an age when we thought we knew all there was to know about our parents, suddenly found out we hadn’t really known them at all.
It makes you very proud to know that, at a time when so many were craven or apathetic or else actively participated in a vast evil, your parent stood out as a shining example of selflessness and virtue. I guess, for Nick and me, there’s a bit of basking in reflected glory. We sometimes muse together on how we’d have behaved in similar circumstances.
We’ve been living together for a year now and have grown ever closer during that time. And while, of all the many things we share, the knowledge of what our parents did 60 years ago is certainly not the most crucial, it does make for an uncommon bond between us. And one which will not lose its meaning with the passing of time… unlike the cornier ditties of Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas.