How old should kids be when they start learning about the Holocaust? While many educators believe the appropriate age is 10, a new book by Caldecott Honoree and MacArthur Fellow Peter Sís is recommended for children ages 6 to 9.
Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued tells the true story of the Englishman, Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 children from the Nazis including Vera Gissing.
Told with simple, direct language, readers get to know what Vera’s life was like in her small town near Prague before the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. They learn about Nicky’s hobbies before he grew up to be a banker (“mathematics, stamp collecting, photography, and fencing”).
Sís’ illustrations blend the details of everyday life with imaginative, whimsical flourishes. On the cover, little Vera stands alone on the platform of an enormous train station holding a small suitcase and a kitty cat stuffed animal.
“Vera was the Queen of Cats,” we learn. Inside the silhouette of the girl, Sís drew colorful details of the things and people she left behind: Her mom and dad. Her house. A galloping horse. Perhaps foreshadowing his good deeds, Sís draws young Nicky dressed in knight’s armor, brandishing a sword atop an enormous pigeon. As the Nazis swarm Europe, a friend asks Winton to come to Prague. Seeing the dangers, Winton tries to help families get their children to safety.
Nicky set up an office in a hotel in Prague.
He made lists of children.
He took their photographs.
He found train connections.
Spies kept watch.
Winton found foster families in England for hundreds of children, including Vera.
Sís does not recount the atrocities committed by the Nazis, nor does he shy away from the emotional pain Vera suffered. He explains that the train carrying her cousins and 250 other children were not allowed to leave Prague.
Her father and
Mother had died
in the Nazi camps.
Her cousins too.
Peter Sís, who was born and raised in Czechoslovakia, was awestruck by both Winton’s monumental achievement and the fact that he almost never talked about it, not even to his wife, for several decades after the war. Even the children didn’t know who was responsible for their survival.
That all changed in 1988 when the BBC created a surprise reunion of sorts. Winton sits in the front row of a theater full of people. Host Esther Rantzen asks, “Is there anyone in our audience who owed their life to Nicholas Winton? If so, could you stand up please.”
Everyone stands up, including Vera Gissing.
Sís has written and illustrated children’s books about Charles Darwin, Galileo Galilei and Mozart. “I’m always inspired by the people who are bigger than life, that they carry with them this amazing history of being so important,” he says. By all accounts, Nicholas Winton did not see himself that way. “He said, ‘I never was a hero because I never was in danger,'” Sís marvels, “He did lots of good in the moment when he could do it.”
Winton and Vera Gissing became good friends. Gissing wrote about her life in the book Pearls of Childhood. Today she is 92 with advanced stage dementia, according to her daughter Nicola Gissing. After the war, Vera married and raised three children in England. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for his actions,” says Nicola of Winton.
She is “delighted” with what Sís has done with the story. She says her mother was fiercely proud of her Czech roots so she’s doubly pleased that Sís shares her heritage. As she flips through the pages, Gissing is particularly moved to see her mother’s childhood in Czechoslovakia come to life.
“There’s her parents. That’s her with the cats and how she loved the horses and then the next page with her almost blind grandmother,” she says, “these are all things I’ve been brought up with and to see it illustrated is … it’s made me very emotional, but in a nice way.”
Nicola Gissing also remembers being very young when her mother told her about some of the horrific things that happened to people during the Holocaust.
“I was always scared it might happen again,” she remembers. “This happened because my grandparents were Jewish. Mom was Jewish, and I’m Jewish by birthright … So I actually had a bag of my own provisions hidden in the back of the … cupboard in case the Nazis came.” Gissing says her mother didn’t know about her survival plan until they were both adults. “I told her once and she said maybe she shouldn’t have spoken so openly,” she says.
Nicola Gissing believes Sís keeps the story of the Holocaust age appropriate by emphasizing details very young children can relate to and by not making Vera’s escape and the Nazi invasion too frightening.
Developmental psychologist Dona Matthews says Nicky and Vera is the first book she’s read that addresses the Holocaust for children so young. She recommends parents and caregivers read the story along with children. She applauds Sís for his approach with such an extraordinarily sensitive topic. “The focus of this story is on Nicky and Vera. It’s not on the horrors of the Holocaust,” says Matthews, “The story itself shows the importance of inclusion and respect for diverse others, which is a really good early entry to the Holocaust and other kinds of diversity understandings for kids.”
Winton’s daughter agrees. Barbara Winton has also written a book about her father’s life called If It’s Not Impossible…: The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton. She believes Nicky & Vera will empower children.
“Whatever age you may be, if you see something around you that you think is unsatisfactory or wrong, you know, like my father, find other people who agree with you and go out and have a go at doing something about it,” she says. “That, I think, is the message of this story.”
Peter Sís admits there were some “dark moments” writing and illustrating a history that caused so much pain and suffering. He credits his editor and his wife with helping him keep the story focused on Winton who Sís says, “was always trying to find some positive way how to approach life.”
Nicholas Winton died in 2016 at the age of 106. Many of the 669 children he saved went on to work in the arts, sciences, politics and human rights. Barbara Winton says her father was someone “who lived in the present.” She has been outspoken about the need to take care of today’s child refugees.
Nina Gregory edited this story.