“The documentary ‘Nicky’s Family’ with dramatic reenactments is about Sir Nicholas Winton, a prosperous British businessman who in the late 1930s heard about the impending plight of the Czech Jewish community. He raced to the region and set about to save as many Jewish children as he could, arranging for families throughout the UK and elsewhere to adopt close to 700 youngsters.
The children he rescued — most of whose parents and grandparents were killed by the Nazis — and their descendants, who now number in the thousands, reunite regularly and identify themselves as “Nicky’s Family.”
Winton, who is now 105, was “an ordinary citizen, a stockbroker, and a 29-year-old bachelor,” said Rafaeli, who, though not a member of “Nicky’s Family,” is himself a Czech Holocaust survivor. “He was set to go skiing with a friend in Switzerland on Christmas vacation when the friend sent him a cable from Prague saying, ‘There are people here we can help.’ He dropped everything — his job, his life — to help and then kept quiet for 50 years.”
The story of Winton’s heroism, Rafaeli said, “transformed his life.”
In a phone interview, Rafaeli told NJJN that Winton’s story resonated with him on many levels. His own father, who was blind, was “beaten to a bloody pulp by Nazi sympathizers and died.” He and his mother were transported to Ravensbruck and then Buchenwald, where she was killed.
Rafaeli escaped and went into hiding with false identity papers. In 1949, he went to Israel, where he married his wife, also a Czech survivor. (Inez Rafaeli, who died last year (2012), lost most of her family and, said her husband, “relived the Holocaust every day of her life.”) They had two daughters before immigrating to the United States in 1961. Rafaeli earned a high school diploma and worked full-time while earning a degree from Johns Hopkins University. He went on to have a successful career in the auto industry.
Since retiring, he has served as treasurer and president of the American Friends of the Czech Republic and was appointed to his honorary post in Philadelphia in 1993.
Rafaeli was introduced to the Winton story in the mid-2000s during a visit to Prague, where he met Matej Minac, the Czech-Jewish filmmaker who is director and cowriter of Nicky’s Family and author of the book on which it is based.
“We met for dinner and ended up chatting until 2:30 in the morning,” said Rafaeli. Minac, whose mother is a survivor of Auschwitz, “is from Bratislava, and I’m from Bratislava,” said Rafaeli. “He asked me if I knew someone who could translate his book.”
Rafaeli volunteered to do the translation himself and also agreed to help Minac raise funds for publication of the book, securing a grant from the Czech government and “substantial funding” from Hadassah. Nicholas Winton’s Lottery of Life came out in 2007. “With the gracious help of Hadassah, we were able to distribute 15,000 books in this country,” said Rafaeli.
The film, which was released in 2011, has won over 30 awards at Jewish and international film festivals.
Rafaeli said he has long been committed to securing more recognition for Winton. In 2006, he convinced former President George W. Bush to send him a letter of citation. A year later a resolution in Winton’s honor introduced by the late Rep. Tom Lantos of California, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, was passed by Congress.
In recent years, Winton has received other international accolades, and the film, which opened in New York and Los Angeles on July 19, has been generating a great deal of interest.
In 2008 the Czech Republic nominated Winton for a Nobel Peace Prize, and Rafaeli remains active in the ongoing international campaign to secure the honor for him.
When Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth on the occasion of his 104th birthday in April, Rafaeli was among the guests at the event in England”
by Debra Rubin
NJJN Bureau Chief/Middlesex
July 30, 2013