Whenever I learn of a new and interesting picture book, I immediately check to see if it's in the library catalog. More often than not, it has already been catalogued and is available to be put on reserve. After placing my hold, it is only a matter of time before I can read for myself the picture book that caught my eye.
Such was the case earlier this year when I came across a piece from NPR about Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued. Published earlier this year, this standout nonfiction picture book tells two intertwined stories about the Holocaust.
In 1938, Vera Diamantova was 10 years old and lived on the outskirts of Prague, the capital city of Czechoslovakia. Her family was one of the few Jewish families in her town, but it "made no difference," for "they were all friends." Things began to change in October of that year, however, when the German army crossed the border into Czechoslovakia. Vera's family began searching for a way to keep her safe from the encroaching Nazi forces.
That same year a young Englishman named Nicky Winton visited Prague at the behest of a friend. He took into account the events of that year-the annexation of Austria by Germany, Kristallnacht, and the Munich agreement- and correctly surmised that war was on the horizon. Armed with the knowledge that England would accept refugees age 17 and younger if English families were found to take them in, Nicky got to work. He made lists of Czech children, took their photographs, arranged their papers and visas, found them foster families, and coordinated their travel via train. Sometimes he paid out of his own pocket.
In March 1939, Germany invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia, including Vera's hometown. She left for England not long after, on a train arranged by none other than Nicholas Winton. Vera was one of 669 children to leave on a total of eight trains out of Prague that year. On September 1, Germany invaded Poland. War had officially come to Europe.
Nicky never told anyone about what he had done. It was only after his wife found his records almost 50 years later that he told his story. In 1988, Vera's and Nicky's paths would intersect again, this time on a British television program. The rest of the world soon learned exactly what Nicholas Winton had done.
There are admittedly not too many picture books about the Holocaust; most children's books addressing the subject are geared for children in middle school and above (other picture books are listed below under "You Might Also Like"). The text of Nicky & Vera is not dense or overwhelming at all; the really rich storytelling details are in the illustrations, which at times use graphic novel-like panels to show the sequence of events. This book is appropriate for the elementary school classroom, or it can be read independently by a child confident in their reading skills. Parents may also want to share this book with their children, poring over the pictures or researching the historical events to which the illustrations allude.
It is important that children learn about the Holocaust, lest they grow into young adults who do not know any salient information about it, or who fall sway to proliferating Holocaust denialism online. According to a recent national survey, 63% of Millennials and Gen Z do not know that six million Jews were murdered by the Third Reich, 48% cannot name at least one concentration camp or ghetto (out of over 40,000), and most shockingly, 11% believe that Jews caused the Holocaust.
Parents, caregivers, and teachers: this is not OK. While yes, the Holocaust is a difficult subject to say the least, and we might want to shield our children from the horrors of history, we must remember that other children were not so lucky. Children were also targeted for genocide by Nazi Germany. We owe it to them to tell the truth. Our own children will not be served by obfuscations and white washing. If we believe that someone like Nicky Winton is someone to look up to, then we should do our part to follow his example and do what we can, when we can, and how we can whenever we see injustice occurring.