Jewish Film Festival Review – Nicky’s Family

November 20, 2011 by Tali Lavi
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Nicky’s Family

One of the most potent fictionalised responses to the Holocaust must be that of W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz wherein a grown man comes undone, fragmented by the discovery of his suppressed history…writes Tali Lavi.

For the protagonist Austerlitz has learned that he was a child of the Kindertransport.  The ensuing grief over what has been lost and the accompanying rupture of his former self precipitates a nervous breakdown.

One would be forgiven for thinking that a documentary about the Kindertransport would be at least as gravely confronting as a novel.  But Nicky’s Family, like its extraordinary subject, confounds expectations.  It is several things; an exploration of Sir Nicholas Winton, audacious mastermind of the Kindertransport, an encounter with some of the rescued children now in their seventies and eighties, and a global foray into his legacy.

What extends Nicky’s Family beyond other documentaries on Winton —including its prequel, Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good, also directed by Slovak filmmaker Matej Mináč — is its engagement with the action of relaying this history to children.   Interspersed between archival footage and a dramatisation of the Kindertransport, is footage of interactions between rescued ‘children’ transmitting their stories and children from schools around Europe and America.  This then engenders a kind of ‘Paperclips’ effect, generating social justice projects from students and adults alike.  The final  scene is imbued with a celebration of compassion.  Winton, famously reticent about his heroism (to the extent that his actions went unknown for fifty years until his wife came across his scrapbook of the time), sits watching a concert held in recognition of his acts, surrounded by students, all there to testify to the force of agency he has bestowed upon them.

Not that there aren’t valleys of sadness that the viewer must first pass along the way.  For listening to the testimonies of the rescued children involves exposing the voids made by their dead parents and siblings, and of course, those who perished in the Holocaust, all of which is made present by the yawning gaps in their sentences, the tears that threaten to overcome them.  The archival scenes of farewell are almost unbearable in their viewing.  We wish we could turn away but we know we are morally impelled not to do so.

One of the questions at the heart of the film is what made a twenty nine year old Englishman do as he did, significantly more than most countries, by rescuing 669 children from certain death.  Although the film’s strength does not lie in fully interrogating this conundrum, it does provide us with slivers of insight into the kind of man he is.  As his son proudly confesses, ‘he still likes to make mischief’.  There is an impulse to subscribe to this uncomplicated and somewhat jaunty version of the narrative wherein the hero was attracted to the derring-do of the mission, an interpretation fuelled by Winton’s playfulness.  On being seduced by a spy in Bratislava whilst he was organising the transports, he deadpans, ‘You can’t have an ugly spy.  It’s a contradiction in terms.’

I was honoured to meet Winton in London a decade ago.  He exuded the irascible gentleman he was, and yes, the gleam in his eye was unmistakable.  But there was another sense of him that emerged; a man of highly developed moral principles with the unwavering belief in an individual’s responsibility and ability to act against other’s misfortunes.  This, together with his highly attuned empathy, makes him the remarkable man he is.

The turning point for Winton was when he visited refugee camps in Europe in 1938, during which he witnessed the dire conditions and the sense of terror at Hitler’s rise.  Watching this documentary would undoubtedly shift many Australians’ perceptions of their country’s own refugee policies today.  Nicky’s family has now grown to 5700 people.  As one of the rescued children happily asserts, ‘He is the head of the biggest family in the world.’

Back to Sebald’s novel.  At the end of the film we are informed of a somewhat benign fact, that up until now only 261 of the 669 children of the Kindertransport have been identified.  I cannot help but wonder, how many have suffered the fate of Austerlitz under the unbearable burden of their history?




Nicky’s Family is showing as part of the Jewish Film Festival.  It will be screened on 7pm Monday 21 November at the Classic Cinema, Melbourne



One Response to “Jewish Film Festival Review – Nicky’s Family”
  1. Sabra says:

    What a moving review and what an obviously heroic Righteous Gentile. Despite all that, I’d never be able to watch the movie itself, not knowing the unbearable emotions it would stir in me .. being the child of child Holocaust survivors myself, and knowing what it did to my family.

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