Anthony Hopkins as Sir Nicholas Winton, in the studio audience of the TV programme scene.

Doing the Right Thing

Posted by Speakeasy News > Tuesday 20 February 2024 > What's On

Most people would feel proud of saving hundreds of mainly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia just before the outbreak of World War II. But Sir Nicholas Winton was haunted by all the children he couldn't save. Until a surprise 50 years later on a TV programme showed him all the good he had done. A new film, One Life, starring Johnny Flynn and Anthony Hopkins as the younger and older Winton tells this true story.

Nicholas Winton's German-Jewish family moved to Britain before he was born in 1909. By 1938, Winton had become a stockbroker in London. But then a friend alerted him to the situation of many families who had fled the Nazis to Czechoslovakia and were living in refugee camps. Many had escaped from the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, which had been awarded to the Nazis in the 1938 Munich Agreement. A small charity, the British Committee for Refugees in Czechoslovakia, was trying to obtain permission for the refugee families to go to Britain, the U.S.A. or other safe countries. But they were facing an uphill task. The economic difficulties of the Great Depression were still going on, and the families were perceived to be safe in Czechoslovakia even if they were living in appalling conditions.

The outbreak of war was looming and Winton suggested to the Committee that they focus on evacuating children, as it was likely to be easier to obtain permission. The volunteers knew they had to move fast. The British government agreed to take the children, but only if foster families and financial support could be found for each one.

Johnny Flynn (centre) as the younger Nicholas Hinton in Prague, 1939.

The committee managed to evacuate 669 children in the ensuing months. But they would be forever haunted by the 250 children who were due to leave on 1 September, the day the Nazis invaded Poland. War broke out and it was no longer possible to evacuate children from Prague. Most of those 250 children died in concentration camps.

After organising the placement of the children who had reached the U.K., Nicholas Winton threw himself into war work as an ambulance driver and RAF trainer. After the war, he worked with the International Refugee Organisation, which later became the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. He had no idea what had become of the children he had helped save. But he carried on helping others through charities for mental health and elderly people's homes.

Helena Bonham Carter as Hinton's mother, who helped find placements for the children in the U.K.

In 1987, Hinton met Holocaust historian Dr Elizabeth Murdoch while trying to find a home for the archives about the refugee mission he had been part of. And that led to his appearance on a British TV programme, That's Life. The producers had managed to track down many of the children, now adults, the mission had saved, and a good number of them were in the studio that night, to Nicholas Winton's amazement. For the rest of his long life - he died in 2015 at 106 - he kept in touch with the survivors. And he was showered with awards, including a Knighthood for services to humanity.

One Life, directed by James Hawes, tells this extraordinary true story. Its title refers to an engraving on a ring gifted to Sir Nicholas by "Nicky's children", as the survivors style themselves: "Save one life, save the world".

You can find lots more information about Nicholas Winton and his work on the site created by his daughter, Barbara, whose biography of her father inspired the film.

One Life
On general release 21 February

Johnny Flynn as Nicholas Winton, carrying a child onto a plane.

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