Vera Gissing, now 79, tells her story
"I hope that the children will learn from my story"
Vera Gissing from Prague was 10 when she was helped by Nicky Winton - dubbed Berkshire's own Schindler - to flee Czechoslovakia just before WWII broke out. Here she talks to Henry Kelly of her memories.
Vera Gissing was born in July 1928 in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
In June 1939, shortly before her 11th birthday, her parents arranged to get Vera and her sister, Eva on a special train to Great Britain, organised by Nicky Winton's Czech Kindertransport.
Nicky, then only 28, has been dubbed Berkshire's own Schindler for almost single-handedly saving 669 Jewish Czech children from Nazi death-camps.
Vera went to live with foster parents in Liverpool and later attended a school in Wales for Czech refugee children. After the fall of France in 1940 Vera had no more news from her family. By the time she was repatriated to Prague in 1945 she already knew that both her parents had perished in the Holocaust.
She'd kept diaries and these formed the basis of her book Pearls Of Childhood, first published in 1988 and reprinted 13 times.
Vera, who now lives in Wargrave, now looks after Sir Nicholas Winton, now 98 and living in Maidenhead. He was knighted in 2002 for services to humanity.
She spoke to BBC Radio Berkshire's Henry Kelly ahead of her talk at Trinity School in Newbury on Tuesday 21 January at 2pm, which is open to the public.
Listen to the full interview here or read extracts below:
When you look back on that trip across Europe in 1939 what do you remember?
"I remember mostly standing on the platform in Prague with my older sister who also came to England, and with my parents there saying goodbye to us."
Had the war actually started then?
"No, once the war started there was no way any of us could get out, my parents hoped war wouldn't come and that we'd be back within a year.
"It was a hope they knew or felt would not come true but to let your child go to an unknown country, not knowing if you'd ever see them again, it must have been an incredibly hard decision for them to make."
Sir Nicholas Winton in 2007
Travelling from Prague through Germany and Holland to Liverpool Street in London, did you feel you were in danger? Did you have the right documentation?
"The documentation was presented for us through the office set up by Nicky Winton in Prague.
"We were too young to feel in any danger, except in Germany when the soldiers came in to look at our belongings and there was tension at that time. But in Holland people greeted us with cocoa and biscuits and smiles on their faces."
Nicky Winton, a man from Berkshire who is now 98 and who you are now looking after, how did he end up in Prague organising this? Did he do it on behalf of the British Government or on behalf of charity?
"Nicky Winton came to Prague by chance. He was packing to go skiing in Switzerland with a friend of his. Then the friend phoned him up and said 'forget skiing, come to Prague, I've got something important to show you'.
"It was in November 1938, and at that time there were masses of refugees which had fled there from the Sudetenland, which was a gift from Chamberlain to Hitler. It meant that Czechoslovakia was exposed to future invasions. And there were so many people who had no clothing, no money and many children in makeshift camps.
"There was no one to help them.
"Nicky Winton came just at that time and when he went through the camps he realised the seriousness of the occasion.
Jewish refugee children on the Kindertransport
"He could have put his hand in his pockets to give some money towards the upkeep of the children, maybe he could have said 'I'll go back to England and take a child or two with me'. But no, his motto was to think large, and to never say it can't be done.
"He decided there and then he would save as many young lives as possible."
How did he go about it? How did you parents make contact with him?
"My parents had never seen him, he was only in Prague for a very short time - for three weeks - and the whole thing had to be set up, not just with Prague but with the home office to organise permits for children. Homes had to be found first.
"He had over 5000 names on the list by the time he left Prague, and 669 children actually were saved.
"But today there are about 5,000 of us who are alive thanks to him - we've had children, grandchildren and some of us even great grandchildren. What an incredible achievement."
It's almost spooky to say that you wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for him.
"Nearly all of us had lost our parents in the Holocaust."
When did you know that your parents had been killed during the Holocaust?
"During the war I kept diaries and they were for my parents - they recorded all my hopes and my fears and my everyday activities. They were the diaries we should have read together once war ended.
Sir Nicholas Winton as a young man
"When war did end I was in a Czechoslovak boarding school in Wales and I was the first one to get a little strip of paper sent through the Red Cross from my mother, who by then was in Belsen. It said: 'I am alive, I look forward to seeing you at home'.
"And I felt as if I was given all the riches in the world. Everybody was so pleased for me.
"But before I could get to her, my mother had perished in Belsen. So did my two young cousins, who were due to come on the last transport of Nicky Winton's, but that transport never left Prague station because war started and all frontiers were closed."
What do you do to keep the memory of this alive, particularly passing this story on to children.
"I feel very rich because through my diaries I have managed to keep my parents alive to this day. My aim in life has been, ever since I met Nicky Winton in 1988 for the first time, to spread my story to the children who started life like I did when I was 11 years old to show them what they can achieve and what their parents can achieve.
"I am happy that my story teaches young people of today to value their parents, to help one another. I hope that the children will learn from my story."
Vera Gissing will be speaking at Trinity School, Love Lane in Berkshire on Tuesday 21 January.
Afterwards there will be a showing of the award-winning documentary The Power of Good, which tells the true story of Sir Nicholas Winton.
The programme will close with two readings from students at Trinity School and a one minute silence.
Doors open at 2pm. Programme starts at 2.30 and will end by 5pm.
To reserve a place contact Jo Richardson on 01635 519441 or email:
last updated: 20/05/2008 at 14:18
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