Nicky & Vera: A Qui­et Hero of the Holo­caust and the Chil­dren He Rescued

  • Review
By – April 12, 2021

Many read­ers may not be famil­iar with the sto­ry of Nicholas Win­ton (19092015). Born into a Jew­ish fam­i­ly in Britain — although his par­ents con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty — Win­ton became a per­sis­tent advo­cate for Jew­ish chil­dren trapped in Prague by the Nazis. After World War II end­ed, Win­ton returned to qui­et anonymi­ty, pre­fer­ring not to pub­li­cize his hero­ic actions, which were brought to light lat­er by some of those whom he had res­cued. World-acclaimed artist and illus­tra­tor Peter Sís make’s Winton’s sto­ry acces­si­ble to young read­ers, with care­ful expla­na­tions and images glow­ing with the com­bi­na­tion of fact and fan­ta­sy which char­ac­ter­ize his work. The result is an astound­ing­ly beau­ti­ful trib­ute to one brave indi­vid­ual, as well as to the ideals of self­less­ness and courage in the face of tyranny.

One of the impor­tant aspects of Sís’s approach is his seam­less com­bi­na­tion of artis­tic sophis­ti­ca­tion and effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion to chil­dren. Win­ton first appears as a young boy attend­ing school, drawn to the every­day pur­suits of math­e­mat­ics, stamp col­lect­ing, pho­tog­ra­phy, and fenc­ing.” Even if most read­ers will not rec­og­nize fenc­ing as a typ­i­cal hob­by, the pic­ture of young Win­ton dressed in pre­tend armor while rid­ing a fan­tas­tic bird evokes every child’s imag­i­na­tive play, as well as fore­shad­ow­ing the Don Quixote-like com­mit­ment which Win­ton will embody lat­er in life.

Sís is an expert at depict­ing the role of place in his­to­ry. Here there are maps of Europe adorned with fig­ures which per­son­al­ize events, giv­en fur­ther con­text by text: Nicky and his friends talked about politics…In Ger­many, the Nazi Par­ty, led by Adolf Hitler, was build­ing an army.” Rather than empha­siz­ing the loom­ing ter­ror in words, Sís focus­es on the con­crete detail of grow­ing mil­i­tary strength, pic­tur­ing the sense of fear as a gray shad­ow, with a fea­ture­less fig­ure rais­ing his hand in the Nazi salute, loom­ing over the map. Oth­er loca­tions are not lit­er­al maps, but visu­al images of imag­i­na­tive land­scapes. The tit­u­lar Vera Giss­ing is a ten-year-old Jew­ish girl in Czecho­slo­va­kia who, along with many oth­ers, will be res­cued by Win­ton on a trans­port to Eng­land. Sís presents Vera’s own vision of her small town near Prague as a secure enclo­sure sur­round­ed by small and del­i­cate build­ings. Inside the cir­cle, ven­dors sell food, a band plays in the cen­ter, and a parade of cats fol­lows a young girl. This is a child’s per­cep­tion of com­mu­ni­ty and it is about to be shat­tered by world events.

Every­where, Sís explores the impact of his­to­ry on indi­vid­u­als. He draws the Ger­man inva­sion of Vera’s coun­try as a series of col­li­sions between sep­a­rate and pre­vi­ous­ly secure worlds. A twist­ing line of refugees pass­es Vera’s cir­cu­lar town and the cel­lar of her house, where there was sud­den­ly extra food and cloth­ing, just in case.’” In the low­er-right cor­ner of the scene, a fam­i­ly cel­e­brates Hanukkah, indi­cat­ed by a meno­rah in the cen­ter of a table, while the flee­ing res­i­dents exit through the walls of the city. Read­ers who look care­ful­ly will find many small visu­al details embed­ded in this poignant scene.

As Win­ton involves him­self in an order­ly attempt to res­cue as many Jews as pos­si­ble, Sís’s pic­tures become more doc­u­men­tary, blue and gray scenes of his hard work orga­niz­ing papers and con­vinc­ing bureau­crats to sup­port his efforts. Yet at the same time, a pic­ture of the young armor-clad Nicky Win­ton reminds read­ers that the imag­i­na­tive boy has become a ded­i­cat­ed leader who has not for­got­ten the dreams of his child­hood. Vera leaves her fam­i­ly behind, one of sev­en­ty-six chil­dren brought to safe­ty in Eng­land in the first of sev­er­al trans­ports. The fright­ened chil­dren sit apart from one anoth­er on the train, each iso­lat­ed in his fear, although a styl­ized cat with its back to the read­er enter­tains them by nar­rat­ing their own pasts: So they told sto­ries about the lives they left behind.”

Sís does not avoid tragedy; when Vera vis­its her home after the war, the cir­cles pre­vi­ous­ly hum­ming with activ­i­ty are emp­ty and silent. Her fam­i­ly gone, Vera only found the daugh­ter of one of her old cats.” There is deep sad­ness and she returns to Britain, cap­tured in the com­fort­ing image of a dou­ble-deck­er Lon­don bus and red tele­phone booth. Most impor­tant­ly, life con­tin­ues: She got mar­ried and had a fam­i­ly.” Win­ton, too, resumes his life before the war, even­tu­al­ly receiv­ing acco­lades for his unselfish hero­ism. Sís’s book is an incom­pa­ra­ble homage both to Winton’s life and to the pow­er of pic­ture book art in com­mu­ni­cat­ing with children.

The book includes an infor­ma­tive Author’s Note” with back­ground information.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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