By Caren Stelson, illustrated by Selina Alko. Carolrhoda Books, 2023. 40 pages. $19.99/hardcover; $9.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 7–11.
“Whoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe.” This famous precept from the Jewish tradition is echoed in the illustration that opens this latest, beautiful retelling of the work of Nicholas Winton: inscribed inside a golden ring that takes up nearly half the page are the words “save one life, save the world.” Winton was a British stockbroker who, along with a small band of courageous humanitarians, rescued 669 Jewish children from occupied Czechoslovakia just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Many people in the United States first learned of Winton’s exploits when he was interviewed on 60 Minutes in 2014. A few years later I saw the segment and decided to start teaching his story to my seventh-grade students as part of our annual unit about the Holocaust.
Since then, a number of excellent books about Winton’s heroic efforts have been published for both children and young adults. Stars of the Night is different in that it tells the story through the eyes of one of the children of the Kindertransport during the time approximately 10,000 children—the majority of them Jewish—were evacuated to the United Kingdom from Germany, Poland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. In the book, Stelson’s unnamed narrator uses a distinctly childlike voice to describe life before the outbreak of the war, then the arrival of refugees outside of Prague, followed by incidents of hate and antisemitism aimed at them by their own neighbors (along with word of pogroms happening in Germany), and finally the arrival of German troops and the imposition of the anti-Jewish laws that were enacted in all Nazi-occupied areas. Jewish families are terrified and fear for their lives, especially for their children.
Our narrator’s parents heard of a man (Winton) who had a scheme for getting Jewish children out of Prague and to safety in British foster homes. The children are frightened and confused, but their parents console them, convinced this man, whose name they do not even know, will lead them to safety. Their mothers tell them: “There will be times when you’ll feel lonely and homesick. Let the stars of the night and the sun of the day be the messenger of our thoughts and love.”
And so 669 Jewish children, who no doubt would have otherwise been murdered by the Nazis, were saved, as were their future generations. They lived out the war in England and then returned home to new heartbreak, and lived for many years without knowing who had been responsible for saving them. Finally, a series of events led to the world learning the name and the story of their savior.
This book is beautifully illustrated by Selina Alko, whose work appears in a number of other wonderful children’s books. The story of Nicholas Winton, the quiet hero who led a long and remarkable life, is retold in simple yet powerful prose, making it an excellent book to read aloud and discuss with any age group.
Whoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe. Important words for every generation.
David Austin is a member of Medford (N.J.) Meeting. He is a retired history teacher and Holocaust educator. His middle-grade novel in verse, Small Miracle, which recounts the true story of a Holocaust survivor, is available from Fernwood Press.