The most inspiring and heartbreaking story since “Schindler’s List” is “Nicky’s Family,” another authentic Holocaust saga that will make you weep.
In my view, there is nothing so poignant as a film showing inhabitants of a long-ago city scurrying along in their huge hats and long skirts, the men in their long black overcoats, stepping over the trolley tracks and avoiding the slow-moving vintage automobiles as they go about their daily business.
They are all ghosts, long gone, their business done.
Except for one. Nicholas Winton is 104 now, a holdover from another time. It was he who, in 1938, at the age of 29, organized and ran a type of Kindertransport that removed mostly Jewish babies and young children from German-occupied Czechoslovakia to families he recruited in England to care for them. He personally sent some 669 children to loving foster families. The children were saved, but most of their original families were not.
For some 50 years Winton’s feat remained unknown. Even the children did not know their own stories, nor the name of the man who saved them. That is until one day his wife Grete happened on a trunk in their attic that held a scrapbook of documents, ledgers, lists, and other evidence of the work that her husband had undertaken half a century before.
The world was apprised of this modest banker and stockbroker’s history on a BBC television program, “That’s Life,” similar to Ralph Edwards’ old “This Is Your Life” program. Winton had been lured there as a member of the audience, and so had more than two dozen adults who had been transported by him to England so many years earlier.
Winton’s story is told in a thrilling and moving documentary by Czech director Matej Minac. The film includes interviews with the elderly survivors, and with the Dalai Lama, Elie Wiesel, and several survivors who grew up to be prominent in their own fields, such as physicist Ben Abeles, Canadian television journalist and author Joe Schlesinger, and Nicholas Winton himself.
There is also a scene in which he is knighted by Queen Elizabeth II to become Sir Nicholas Winton.
There is none of the traditional horrific Holocaust footage. Just children being taken to the train station to be shipped to safety. No arrivals at concentration camps. No piles of dead bodies. No skeletal survivors in striped pajamas. Just elderly men and women telling their survival stories.
This is a simple documentary, different in many ways from the epic “Schindler’s List.” It is an emotional visit with the actual survivors, while “Schindler’s List” uses recognizable actors to tell the story and is somewhat removed from the real people it introduces only at the end.
In 2009, to celebrate Winton’s 100th birthday, a special train with a locomotive and carriages from the 1930s reprised the trip to Britain that the Czech Kindertransport trains had undertaken some 70 years earlier. The train was filled with survivors and many of their descendants. It is estimated that there are more than 6,000 family members of the original transported children alive today.
The trip also commemorated the last transport of 250 children scheduled to travel to Britain who were unable to travel because of the outbreak of World War II two days before their trip. All of those children later died in the camps.
Ironically, Winton could not be included in Israel’s list of honored Righteous Gentiles because even though he had been baptized a Christian, his ancestry was originally Jewish and he was born a German Jew.
There are statues commemorating his work, however, at Maidenhead Railway Station and at a railway station in Prague. He is a member of the Order of the British Empire, and received the Pride of Britain Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2003. A minor planet was named for him by Czech astronomers, and in 2008 the Czech government nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. (In 2013 some 200,000 signatures have been collected to nominate him again.)
“Nicky’s Family” was named Best Documentary of the 35th Montreal World Film Festival, was awarded the Forum for the Preservation of Audio-Visual Memory prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and the Audience Award at the 46th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival from among some 275 competing films. In all, the film has won 32 festival awards worldwide.
But the most striking image one is left with is of a smiling century-old gentleman happily sharing his motto: “If something isn’t blatantly impossible, there must be a way of doing it.”
“Nicky’s Family” will open in New York and Los Angeles on July 19 and around the country shortly thereafter.
Five couples, one bed
According to the dictionary, the verb “boomerang” is an action or statement that has the opposite effect from the one intended. In other words, something that turns into a well-intentioned disaster.
Well, have no fear. Playwright Matthew Leavitt’s “The Boomerang Effect” is not a disaster, but a triumph. Hilarious, intelligent, and bordering on realism, the play follows five couples through the various loopholes and pitfalls of love.
The five couples, who turn out to be loosely interrelated, pursue their individual relationships in a bed that is the center of the action. In the first scene, Stephanie (Kim Hamilton) delivers a sexual birthday present to her partner, Paul (Luke McClure), as he turns 25. A man-child who works bagging groceries at Trader Joe’s, he responds to her nagging by protesting that if he had college to do over again he would never have majored in creative writing.
In “Pillow Talk,” Renee (Tiffany Lonsdale) and Andrew (Malcolm Barrett) engage in a slapstick struggle as he tries to help her remove her boots, which seem to be cemented on. Finally, as they get ready to make love, she launches into a series of totally irrelevant small talk. Later we learn that this nonsensical chatter is meant to “slow him down” in his lovemaking.
“Words with Friends” focuses on a gay couple whose relationship has soured. Nick (Emerson Collins) is the one who works, while David (Jonathan Slavin) plays Scrabble on his iPad with his nemesis, Ian Chang. David has “dreams.” He’d like to be an actor or a pastry chef. With no experience in either field, he justifies his desire to be a pastry chef with the explanation, “I love cookies!” He moans that the two haven’t had sex in three weeks and declares with an accusatory whine, “We’re turning into a straight couple!”
In “Des Moines” a 60-something executive (Charles Howerton) traveling with his eager blonde assistant (Katherine Bailess) turns her into an indignant termagant by blatantly propositioning her, telling her that if she doesn’t sleep with him he will fire her. She threatens to sue him and he flattens her with a diatribe about the legal wrangle that suing would ensue.
And finally, in “The Ignoble Fate of Timmy the Rabbit,” a cheating husband (Joel Bryant) tries to talk his lady of the evening (Vanessa Celso) into not taking his drunken protestations seriously. And then the couples each appear again, this time to resolve or explain their earlier behavior. Does love win out? You bet it does — most of the time — in spite of misunderstandings, miscommunications, and a plethora of witty dialogue that often exacerbates the situation.
If you saw “The Boomerang Effect” when it was presented at The Odyssey last year, you might want to laugh your way through it again.
The cast is uniformly excellent and well directed by multi-award winner Damaso Rodriguez, the set by John Iacovelli is unassuming and well used, and the costuming by T. Ashanti Mozelle is appropriately low-key.
“The Boomerang Effect” may not be Chekhovian drama, but it is a hell of a lot of fun. It will be presented Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, through July 27. Call (800) 595-4849 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.