Thursday, 22 January 2015


"Sir Nicholas Winton" - I was half listening to BBC Radio 4's Midweek when I heard his name.  His daughter, Barbara, was speaking about her biography of her father If It's Not Impossible.

I did a quick mental calculation - he's 105!  I heard about Nicholas Winton in 2010 on my first visit to Prague (where he is held in great esteem).  A few months before my visit his statue had been unveiled in the city.  Last October he flew to Prague for the award of the Order of the White Lion (the Czech Republic's highest civilian honour) by the President at Prague Castle.

Nicholas Winton was only 29 and was working as a broker in the City of London when he organised the Czech Kindertransports to evacuate mainly Jewish children from Prague.  Also on the Radio 4 programme was Lord Alf Dubs who, at the age of 6, had been on one of those trains.  He had found it a confusing and bewildering experience but he remembered the older children cheering when the train crossed the border from Germany to Holland.  He arrived in London with his rucksack on his back - just like W G Sebald's Austerlitz.

Later in the day I picked up a leaflet at the library for Holocaust Memorial Day (next Tuesday 27 January - the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz).  The leaflet is a reminder not only of the Holocaust and the Nazi atrocities but also of the genocides in Cambodia in the 1970s, Rwanda in 1994 and Bosnia in 1995.  (By coincidence I've just finished reading the novel The Last Hundred Days by poet Patrick McGuinness about the fall of the Ceausescu regime in Romania in which he describes a visit by a Bosnian Serb delegation from a Yugoslavia on the point of collapse.)  Most chilling of all the accounts in the booklet was the page headed "Genocide in Darfur 2003 - Present".  No end date.

There are other places in the world today where people are persecuted for being from the "wrong" race or tribe or religion, or the "wrong" branch of the same religion.  The message of the booklet is that we must remember the past and speak out in the present.

On the day (23 July 2008) Radovan Karadzic was arrested for the massacre of at least 7500 Bosnian Muslims in the forest of Srebrenica I wrote a poem called "As the grass of the field"  I couldn't get the news out of my head.  I watched a contractor cut round and round the hay field next to my garden.  I seemed to be watching an allegory.   I wrote

   " ... a crow scans the long grass under siege
    the tractor advances swathe
    by felled swathe
    on the field's bestiary ... "

The small creatures of the field have no escape from destruction.

    " ... all I can think of are the places
    (mute on my atlas
    - sixty miles to the inch)
    snared between capital letters
    of non-existent states ... "

When Nicholas Winton saw persecution (and feared worse) he decided to do something.  There was "no permission from the British government and they had no financial means to get out the children.  So I merely said if it was possible I would do it."

(The title of this post "The Power of Good" is taken from the 2002 Czech-Slovak film on Nicholas Winton and the Prague Kindertransports)

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