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Rescue on the Rails

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Nearly 75 years ago as World War II was about to break out, a train heading across Germany from Czechoslovakia to the Atlantic coast changed the direction of one Indianapolis woman's life forever.

Kirsten Grosz, now 84, didn't know it then, but her future husband, Hanus, and his brother, Karel, were on that train in 1939, two unaccompanied Jewish boys fleeing as Nazis began the occupation of their Czech homeland.  A series of such trains, which led refugee children to a ship that took them to safety in Britain, are known as the Czech Kindertransport. Organized by Englishman Nicholas Winton, the system also involved finding places for the children to live and sponsors who donated money for their safe transport. The children's mainly Jewish parents, who put them on the trains, were left behind. Most died.

Kirsten Grosz is thankful to Winton for saving her husband's life and thus her family. - BRITTANY BRODERICK
  • Brittany Broderick
  • Kirsten Grosz is thankful to Winton for saving her husband's life and thus her family.

In all, such efforts saved about 10,000 children from The Holocaust. Winton's system rescued 669, including the Grosz boys.

Without the rescue effort, Grosz, who is Danish, wouldn't have had the opportunity to meet Hanus fifteen years later while working in a Wales hospital - a meeting that led to a nearly 50-year marriage, three children and the family's eventual migration to the Northwest side of Indianapolis. Gosz' husband, a psychiatrist who came to Indy to work at the IU School of Medicine, died in 2001.

"(My life) would have been completely different (without Nicky)," says Grosz, a blue-eyed woman in a simple pair of khaki pants and a striped top who offers chocolates as she matter-of-factly explains the unusual set of circumstances that brought her to town. "My children, they owe their lives to him, really."

'Nicky's Family,' the documentary

Such stories are the reason the 2011 documentary Nicky's Family was made. The uplifting 90-minute film tells the stories of the children Winton rescued and will be shown for the first time in Indianapolis on Nov. 9 at the JCC Indianapolis as part of the 15th Annual Ann Katz Festival of Books and Arts. Grosz plans to be in attendance for the screening.

JCC Director of Arts and Education Lev Rothenberg hopes Grosz will give a talk about her experiences afterward.

"I think when something so good can come out of something so bad, that's a really important message," says Rothenberg. "In a situation where things look hopeless, (Winton) made the ultimate difference to a lot of people."

Grosz knows Winton personally, though she didn't meet him until she attended a Kindertransport reunion in 1989.

That's in part because Winton, who was a 30-year-old stockbroker with a comfortable life when he started arranging rescue transportation for the children, didn't tell his story publicly until his wife found his records with the names of the children he helped in their attic in England in 1988. After the scrapbook was discovered, the British Broadcasting Corporation covered the story, and the reunion in England was planned. More media coverage followed.

Before the big reveal in the '80s, Grosz' husband didn't know who had helped him, but when they met at the reunion, "they clicked very well," remembers Grosz. "They had fun together, joking together."

Hanus Grosz escaped Czechoslovakia during WWII thanks to trains organized to help child refugees. - BRITTANY BRODERICK
  • Brittany Broderick
  • Hanus Grosz escaped Czechoslovakia during WWII thanks to trains organized to help child refugees.

They were married in 1954, after meeting in Wales, where she was working as a nurse and her soon-to-be husband was a 30-year-old intern. They were both foreigners in England, bonding as they worked and chatted about fine art and music.

The couple first settled in Wales. But when Grosz was six months pregnant with her first child, Anita, they decided to move to the United States. Since her husband wasn't English, the young doctor didn't have many connections and needed experience so he could get the work in the London hospital he wanted. But, when more opportunity presented itself at the IU School of Medicine, the Groszes ended up in Indianapolis.

Her husband was always quiet about his World War II experiences.

"It happened and he got on with life," says Grosz.

Making good memories out of bad ones

But the Grosz' daughter wanted to know more.

Connecting with her family's past as an adult, she became a leader in the American Kindertransport Association, formed to reunite the children who were rescued. Now, living in near London, their adult daughter is so close to Winton that she shares a weekly lunch with him.

Her mother memorialized the rescues her way -- with Kindertransport quilts.

On display at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Mich., the blankets are made of squares that illustrate the creators' view of the experience. The multi-squared folk art pieces include expressions of gratitude for Winton, memorials to lost family members and expressions of fear and traumatized childhoods. She collected the squares and sewed them together, including her husband's. His includes photos of himself and Karel working on the farm where they lived after they got off the transport train. A third photo is of Lilian Bowes-Lyon, the woman who donated money they were required to have on the train to get to England. A fourth is of a young Winton.

Over the past 30 years, the Grosz' connection to world history has opened a few doors, including those of St. James Palace. In celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport operation, the couple was among the refugees and their families who met Prince Charles there in June.

They were treated to refreshments in the palace, and Prince Charles was gracious, Grosz says.

"They should do that here, too, with the President," she adds.

Kirsten Grosz browses through old photographs of her deceased husband, Dr. Hanus Grosz and shares their story. - BRITTANY BRODERICK
  • Brittany Broderick
  • Kirsten Grosz browses through old photographs of her deceased husband, Dr. Hanus Grosz and shares their story.

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