Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, February 11, 2021

From The Courage Of One . . .

Throughout human history, during the worst of times the best kind of individual will step forward to make every effort possible to fight against evil.  Sometimes this individual will shout from the rooftops rallying others to resist the attacks on fundamental human rights.  There are other people who work with more discretion.  While their efforts are not unknown by those they help, they accomplish great things in relative silence.  

One of these people was Nicholas Winton.  One of the people he helped was a child, Veruska Diamantova.  Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued (Norton Young Readers, an imprint of W. W. Norton & Company, January 26, 2021) written and illustrated by Peter Sis is their story.  It is a story of service and survival during the darkness of World War Two.

Nicky was born in 1909,
into a century full of promise. . . .

In 1938, Vera was ten years old.
She lived with her family in a small town near the big city of Prague.

Nineteen years separated the ages of these two people.  Nicky attended a school with students encouraged to pursue their wide range of interests.  As he grew up, Nicky was involved in banking.  He learned German and French and how to navigate multiple modes of transportation.  Nicky and his friends were concerned about the political climate in the late 1930s in Europe.  In December 1938, Nicky went to Prague to visit with a friend. 

Vera's family was Jewish, but in her small community all people were friends.  Her family spoke the Czech language.  In October 1938, the Nazis invaded Sudetenland, along the Czechoslovakian border.  Vera's parents heard of a man in Prague who was helping children escape from the Germans.  That man, an Englishman, was Nicky.

In England, children were welcome as refugees if they were under seventeen years old, had a family to care for them, and had transportation.  In Prague, from a hotel room, Nicky started his operation, taking pictures of children and keeping lists of their information.  He located trains.  Then he returned to London in January 1939.  He found families and prepared the necessary documentation.  In March 1939, the country of Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Germans.  It was time for Vera to leave.

It took three full days for the train to arrive in London carrying those seventy-six children.  Eight trains in total journeyed from Prague.  

Six hundred sixty-nine children of all ages reached London safely.

There was a ninth train set to leave Prague, but the Germans stormed into Poland.  That train with 250 children did not leave Prague.  Vera's cousins were on that train.  During the war Nicky was an ambulance driver.  Vera wrote in her diary.  After the war they both married and had families.  They both lived in England.  As Nicky aged, a discovery was made.  Fifty years had come and gone, but two separated by nineteen years in their ages were no longer apart on one important day.

As only a master wordsmith can, Peter Sis takes the two strands of the lives of Nicholas Winton and Veruska Diamantova and weaves them beautifully together.  Through meticulous research and superb pacing, we move from one to other as he recounts personal information about their lives.  Peter Sis makes a single statement reinforcing it with additional details.  Selected historical facts build toward the horrific situation in Czechoslovakia as the Germans advanced, adding urgency to Nicky's endeavors and the fate of Vera's life.  Here are two passages, one for Nicky and one for Vera.

Seventy-six children got on the train.
Vera tried not to cry.
She and the other children
did not know what lay ahead.
So they told stories
about the lives they left behind.

Nicky was out of time.
He put away his records.

Blue, a cool color, but also a color of calm creates an atmosphere on the front of the dust jacket.  Can you see Nicky framed by the trains and Big Ben?  Warmth is found in the outline of Vera and the pictures within that outline.  We see representations of her love of cats, her parents she never saw again, and the horse used in her parents work that she enjoyed feeding.  

To the left of the spine, on the back, is introductory text about the book.  In the middle, between the words, is the outline of a single face, Nicholas Winton's face.  Within that face are pictures of some of the children he saved.  On the cloth, textured book case in tan is a single element. A train locomotive is embossed in the lower, right-hand corner.  The opening and closing endpapers are a shade of tan.  On the title page is a map of Europe with a line drawn from London to Prague.

The exquisite, intricate images in each illustration by Peter Sis are remarkable.  Every one contributes to a stunning whole.  Each time you read this book you see something new, something valuable, something essential.  Each of these aspects widens the narrative.  There are pictures within pictures within pictures fashioning a sensory and private perspective.  On a single page, the illustration for the text noted above about Vera is set on a grid of six squares, fine blue lines on cream.  It is loosely circular.  Around the circle are tiny figures representing the children.  Inside the circle are five children.  On benches are four, seated two to a bench.  Vera, her back to us, is telling them a story.  On the top of her head are cat ears.  A cat tail extends from the back of her clothing. 

One of my many, many favorite illustrations is the second double-page picture in this book.  Across the top we see a building representing Nicky's school.  A large oval path across and around both pages shows various children walking with their pets.  Seven pigeons fly around a large depiction of Nicky in the center lawn area.  (He raised pigeons.)  Nicky is astride a large pigeon.  He is wearing clothing like a knight.  In his hand is a fencing sword.  He wears a helmet.  There are tiny portraits on his clothing.  He carries a shield with the words:


In the center of his body, a knight is fighting a fire-breathing dragon.

This recounting of two lives is a distinguished presentation in words and pictures.  You will find yourself reading Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued written and illustrated by Peter Sis repeatedly.  Each time you will be moved by this man's significant triumphs in the face of evil.  The three-page author's note at the end is a must read. A list of resources is included. I can't imagine a personal or professional collection without this title.  I can't imagine teaching a history class without this book.  

To learn more about Peter Sis and his other work, you can visit his accounts on Facebook or Instagram.  The cover was revealed at Publishers Weekly through a wonderful conversation.  At author, reviewer, and blogger Julie Danielson's Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast this title is showcased.  At the publisher's website you can view interior pages.  At Matthew Winner's The Children's Book Podcast, Peter Sis speaks with him about this book.  For more information about Nicky, you can read Nicholas Winton, Rescuer of 669 Children From Holocaust Dies at 106 from The New York Times.  To discover more about Vera, you can read this interview found at The Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive, The University of Michigan-Dearborn.

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