One of “Nicky’s boys”

Reluctant World War Two hero Nicholas Winton is in the spotlight again with the release of the movie One Life starring Anthony Hopkins. After a visit to Prague in 1938, the young London stockbroker had embarked on what to most seemed a mission impossible – to save the lives of Jewish children by securing for them foster homes in England.

My father’s first cousin Thomas Graumann was among the 669 boys and girls whose lives Winton saved, and who became known as “Nicky’s children”.

Thomas, or Tomik as he was then known, had been leading a bucolic existence in Těšany near Brno in the Sudetenland where his mother and stepfather lived in great comfort managing a vast estate. But when in October 1938, the Nazis annexed the Sudetenland, the Jews of Czechoslovakia no longer felt secure in their newly socialist country. Relatives were urging the couple to flee for their safety.

To make matters worse, Nazi officers had elected to be domiciled in their handsome mansion. Thomas was just eight when he remembers being woken up early one morning by his mother Franzi, telling him in a whisper to tiptoe after her down the stairs. He was going on an adventure, a two-month-long holiday to England. His five-year-old brother Tony, now in bed with a fever, would join him soon.

Their chauffeur drove them to Brno, where Thomas spent the day with his birth father, my great-uncle Ferry Graumann, at his elegant shoe store. He remembered German soldiers buying boots as they hadn’t yet realised that the Graumanns were Jews. Ferry took him out for dinner before the chauffeur drove Thomas and his mother to the station. His grandmother joined them there to catch the train to Prague.

“You will go to England for two months,” Franzi had told him. “And when Hitler leaves you will return home and we’ll all be together again.”

At Prague’s Wilson station he was given travel papers and a big label on a lanyard marked with the number 652. Like the other children there, he hung it around his neck. 

He gave his mother and grandmother hasty pecks on the cheek, and climbed onto the train carrying two suitcases filled with new clothes, and a backpack of food. He had no idea at the time that he would never see either of them again.

The train travelled through Germany and the Netherlands to the Hook of Holland where they boarded a ferry. On the English side of the Channel they were directed to a warehouse packed with waiting children. Most were soon picked up by foster parents, but a few waited. He was eventually told that his next destination would be Selkirk in Scotland. 

There he was housed for a while in barracks with other Czech boys. They were always hungry, and on Sunday were marched off to a Protestant service at the Church of Scotland. In the end, after a short spell with a pastor’s welcoming family in Dunbar, he was sent to live with a stern white-haired woman called Mary Corson. She was to raise him to adulthood.

A strict Presbyterian, Corson had taught children in Jaffa, Palestine, but the outbreak of war had brought her back to Coney, her Scottish home on the west coast, a village made of 200 houses along a loch’s shore. Mary had been expecting to foster two girls, but their Czech parents couldn’t bring themselves to part with them, so instead she was awarded two Czech boys. 

At first Tomik’s mother had written short reassuring notes. In 1940, he learned the family had had to move into a small house in town, and her letters became less frequent. Then Red Cross notes arrived from a place called Terezin that read “Greetings from your family”. Then no more news. In 1945, Miss Corson received a letter saying all Thomas’s relatives in Czechoslovakia had died.

He later learned that his mother and brother had died in Terezin, and his grandmother in Auschwitz. His stepfather and family were also gone. For a while, his father Ferry had passed for a Gentile until the Nazis discovered he was a Jew and he committed suicide by jumping off a cliff. Thomas also came to understand that the evangelical pastor who had regularly visited his childhood home was working with Nicholas Winton. 

Thomas was to meet Nicholas Winton on two occasions. The first was at a packed press event at a London railway station; the second was during a ceremony at Prague’s Hradcacy castle, when a 105-year-old Winton reminded his audience that England was the only country at the time willing to accept unaccompanied minors.

As for Thomas, he converted to evangelical Christianity and for many years worked with his wife as a missionary in the Philippines. He also lived for some time in Czechoslovakia thanks to a restitution programme that allowed him a local income from the sale of his grandmother’s home. 

There were many reasons why as a young man in Scotland Thomas chose to convert, but among these he gave one poignant explanation. “I was God’s child,” he wrote, “and I would never be sent away again.”

Thomas Graumann wrote an autobiography called “Twice-Rescued Child – the boy who fled the Nazis and found his life’s purpose”. SPCK Publishing. He died in 2020.