In 2001, Peter A. Rafaeli, the honorary consul general of the Czech Republic in Philadelphia, received a call from the Czech consul general in New York, inviting him and his wife to Manhattan to see a video his office was set to screen. The caller knew that the Rafaelis were Holocaust survivors and believed that the subject of the documentary would interest them.
"This is really a positive story," the consul general emphasized to his Philadelphia colleague, who noted that his political instincts kicked in at that point. Rafaeli understood the message, and so packed his wife into the car and made the trip north.
He could hardly have imagined at that moment how completely his life would be transformed.
The documentary was called "Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good," and was the work of a young Czech Jewish filmmaker, Matej Minác, whose mother was also a survivor; neither name meant anything to Rafaeli, though all that would change in a matter of hours.
The film depicted how, in late 1938, Winton, then a 28-year-old British stockbroker, planned to take a ski trip with a friend to Switzerland. Winton did lots of business in Europe, and had heard the war rumors and knew about the abuses of the Nazis. But he was looking forward to a little downtime on this particular visit.
At the last moment, however, he was convinced to make a detour to Prague; his friend said there was "something urgent" he'd have to see for himself. Winton was taken to refugee camps where Jewish children of all ages from the Sudetenland, many of them already orphans, were living in horrific conditions. The young businessman understood instantly that these youngsters would soon become Hitler's victims if someone didn't act at once.
Rather than take up his Swiss holiday, he returned to London and began writing letters to government officials around the world, asking if they would take in these children. He was rejected by almost all, including the United States; only Sweden and England said yes. With a small staff of volunteers, including his mother, Winton worked tirelessly for the next nine months to secure freedom for his charges.
The first group of 20 left Prague on March 14, 1939. Though the German army took over all of Czechoslovakia the following day, Winton and his staff kept working, sometimes forging papers to get the young ones past the Nazis. By the time World War II began on Sept. 1, Winton and his assistants had managed to save 669 children via eight different transports.
There was a ninth set to go on Sept. 1, containing 250 children — the largest transport of all — but the Germans put a stop to departures. According to Winton, none of these children survived the war.
After the rescue mission, Winton returned to England, and never spoke to anyone about that time, not even to the woman he would marry — that is, until she found the extensive documentation in 1988 when she was cleaning out the attic.
The material included records and lists and tagging numbers, as well as pictures of the children and some of their parents, and even letters that mothers and fathers had written to their offspring. When Winton's wife asked for an explanation, her husband said that it was all part of the past and should be burned. His wife Greta insisted that it was not fair to do that — that the letters were from parents who might not have survived and should go to their children, if they were still alive. But she couldn't budge her husband.
She then offered the documents to a number of institutions. All declined, until she approached Yad Vashem, which took every scrap. Winton simply shrugged his shoulders and changed the subject.
Not until Minác began making his film and some of Winton's "children," who'd never known the identity of their savior, began searching him out, did this amazing man begin to discuss the past.
To say that the video changed Rafaeli's life would be an understatement. But it's only part of the Winton saga that's inspired him.
Their Past Intertwined
It turned out that Rafaeli's past was entwined with the film in a surprising way: He was born in the same Czechoslovakian town as filmmaker Minác — Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia.
And Rafaeli's life story has as much variety and as many layers as Winton's. After his Holocaust experience, the consul emigrated to America, but not without considerable struggle and long delays.
He went into the auto business (after completing his high school education) and ran a dealership for almost two decades in Baltimore, where he and his wife raised their two daughters. Then, from 1984 to 1997, he ran a dealership here in Fort Washington.
Since his retirement, he has acted as the honorary Czech consul and is also the president and treasurer of the American Friends of the Czech Republic, a group that is intimately involved in getting the Winton story out to the world.
In the first steps of Rafaeli's own Winton saga, the honorary consul began screening Minác's film at various venues in the Philadelphia area, beginning with Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park in 2003.
But matters took a different, though related, turn when he visited his homeland the following year, for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of southwestern Czechoslovakia, and met up with Minác again, whom he'd first met in 2001.
"This time, this young guy shoves a book in front of me, in Czech, called Nicholas Winton's Lottery of Life," Rafaeli explained in a recent interview. "He's written it and is also distributing it free of charge to children throughout the country, with the help of the Czech government, as part of Holocaust education.
"Then he asks me, 'You don't happen to know anyone who would want to translate it for me and get it published?' I told him I was a naturalized citizen of the U.S., but had not been an English major but rather a business major" — Rafaeli got his degree attending Johns Hopkins University at night — "but I said I would try."
Reading and then translating the book had probably an even greater effect on Rafaeli than seeing the film.
"I am the self-appointed proudest citizen of this amazing country, which took me in and gave me a wonderful life when no other place would have me," he said. "But when I read in Minác's book how President Roosevelt blew Winton off and would not let the children in, I was devastated. From that moment on, I decided I would try to undo some of what FDR had done by getting Winton recognized."
Minác's book is about to be published here in Rafaeli's rendering, and like its Czech author, the translator is working to have it distributed throughout the country to promote education on the Holocaust.
The initial seed money for this part of the project came from the Czech foreign ministry, while Hadassah in the United States is, according to Rafaeli, the largest single financial contributor.
The video is now being distributed by Charles and Rita Gelman, who have an agreement with Minác. "They're a retired couple who did very well and have their hearts in the right place," said Rafaeli. "They've set up a foundation. And there's close co-ordination between us, mostly in the area of teacher education."
But Rafaeli has gone even further than that to honor Winton.
In 2006, with assistance from U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter's office, President George W. Bush wrote to thank the British rescuer.
In 2007, with the help of attorney Tom Boggs, the son of the late U.S. Rep. Hale Boggs (D-La.), with whom Rafaeli had once worked, and Boggs' law partner Jeff Turner, the Czech consul drafted House Resolution 583, recognizing Winton's rescue efforts. Then the late U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and his wife Annette (both survivors) worked to have the resolution read into the Congressional Record.
The honorary consul has met with Winton — who's now Sir Nicholas, but whose friends call him "Nicky" — and wasn't disappointed, as can be the case with "heroes." Rafaeli said he found him to be "a very gregarious, witty, sharp, sharp, individual. I hope he lives till 120." (Not a stretch; Winton turned 99 on May 19.)
The Englishman is as self-effacing as many other Holocaust rescuers. When Rafaeli told him about House Resolution 583, Winton asked: "Why would the most important government of today be interested in what I've done?"
"And he meant it sincerely," continued the consul. "This was not false humility. I was glad I could tell him, 'Nicholas, the good news is they've done something to make a wrong right. They didn't do it voluntarily. But it's an important thing and, considering the world we live in, maybe even more important.' "
Asked why Winton never discussed the rescue — and resisted until others sought him out — Rafaeli cited a passage in the book which states that Winton admitted that he "felt guilty that he couldn't do more for the children of the last transport. The thought that none of these children survived still haunts him."
"It was definitely a guilt complex," said Rafaeli. "He had left no stone unturned in his efforts to save the children, and then 250 kids, who were scheduled to leave on Sept. 1, all perished."
Rafaeli explained that Minác is working on a sequel that will focus on "Nicky's children" — the "young ones" Winton saved who are still alive. More turn up every day, said Rafaeli, whenever the documentary is shown.
In the sequel, added the consul, "they are going to reconstruct the last train out of Prague — the last transport that didn't make it — and they plan to film it on Sept. 1, 2009. As 'Winton's children' find out about this plan, every one of them wants to take the ride — and they are in their 80s."
Rafaeli noted that he has one problem left to solve, one thing that remains undone — the lack of recognition of Winton by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. "Believe me, I won't give up until I die or something is done."
So what drives Rafaeli? Why has he worked so tirelessly?
"Although I'm not a Winton child, from the time I saw the documentary, I've identified with him because of his philosophy of the power of good. He said once that there was a difference between passive goodness and active goodness. He said that active goodness is 'the giving of one's time and energy in the alleviation of pain and suffering. It entails going out, finding and helping those in suffering and danger, and not merely leading an exemplary life, in the purely passive way of doing no wrong.' He wrote that in a letter in 1939 when he was just 29. It's an extraordinary thing.
"I didn't save anybody's life," continued Rafaeli. "But I'm grateful for what happened to me. And I think this is the right thing to do, pure and simple. You've got to pay back."