Whenever I need a good cry, there’s one clip I know will never leave my eyes dry. It’s a video of Nicholas Winton meeting, for the first time, the children — now grown — that he saved through his efforts in the operation known as the Kindertransport during World War II.
The clip is from a 1988 episode of the BBC show “That’s Life.” After talking about Winton’s life and achievements, Jewish host Esther Rantzen asks the crowd, which Winton believed to be just an average studio audience, “Is there anyone in the audience who owes their life to Nicholas Winton? If so, could you stand up please?” And then, one by one, dozens of them rise to their feet — the rest of the audience was full of their children and grandchildren. You can see Winton wiping the tears from his eyes, visibly moved and surprised as a doting crowd looks at him. It’s a brilliant moment of TV, so full of the best of humanity.
Now, the story of Winton and the Kindertransport will be the subject of the upcoming film “One Life,” coming out on January 1, 2024, in which Anthony Hopkins plays an older Nicholas Winton, and that iconic moment of TV gets reenacted by Jewish actress Samantha Spiro.
It looks like Hopkins, who most recently played a Jewish-Ukrainian grandfather in “Armageddon Times,” gives a moving performance as Winton, from what can be seen in the trailer of the movie which was released earlier this week.
“Do you ever think of the children and what happened to them?” he asks, adding that these people’s stories, their rescue, is “really not about me.”
Actor and musician Johnny Flynn (“Emma“) plays a younger Winton who goes to Prague for two weeks instead of a Swiss ski vacation and ends up collaborating with the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia (BCRC) to help move 669 children out of Nazi-occupied Prague and into London. His collaborators also offer some pretty powerful moments in the trailer, especially his mother, Babette, played by Helena Bonham Carter. Carter’s own maternal grandfather helped saved hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust and was honored as a “Righteous Among Nations.” Babette, like Winton’s father, was a Jewish German immigrant to the U.K. — the family converted to Christianity and changed their names from Wertheim to Winton due to anti-German sentiments in the country. She served as her son’s secretary in London, and even helped care for some of the kids.
“You cannot save them all,” Babette, who changed her name to Barbara after moving to England, tells her “Nicky” in the trailer, with her thick German accent. “You have to forgive yourself that.”
“Save one life, save the world,” we hear someone in the trailer saying, possibly Jewish-Bulgarian actor Samuel Finzi playing Rabbi Hertz, the chief rabbi of the U.K. during the Holocaust, who was against the Kindertransport if it meant placing Jewish kids in non-Jewish homes. The line, which is also the inspiration for the movie’s title, is a paraphrase of a famous line from the Mishnah that says that anyone who has saved one (Jewish) life, it is as if he has saved a whole world.
Mintzi and Spiro aren’t the only Jewish cast members in this film — actress Romola Garai, whose Jewish Hungarian father lost many relatives during the Holocaust, plays Doreen Warriner, another of Winton’s collaborators. Ziggy Heath and Jonathan Pryce play a younger and older Martin Blake, Winton’s friend who invited him to Czechoslovakia to help with the refugee effort. Lena Olin, who has acted is several acclaimed Holocaust related films, including “Enemies, A Love Story” and “The Reader,” plays Winton’s wife, Grete Gjelstrup.
Winton didn’t want to be known for his work on the Kindertransport, and it was Grete who, in 1988, unearthed a scrapbook with the names of all the children saved and the families they had been placed with. The scrapbook was full of photos and letters that immortalized Winton’s work. She passed it onto Holocaust researcher Elizabeth Maxwell, and it was that discovery that helped lead to Winton’s emotional TV appearance later that year. He later called the filming of the “That’s Life” episode “the most emotional moment of my life.”
After that, Winton started talking about his efforts during the war, and was featured in a segment of “60 Minutes.”
“All I knew was that the people I met couldn’t get out and that they were looking for ways that their children could get out,” he said in the 2014 interview, which he did when he was 105. He said he knew he “might be able to save some people,” because his life’s motto was, “If something’s not impossible, there must be a way for doing it.” Winton also spoke about how he approached the U.S. to take in refugees, but they refused.
When the interviewer gently accused Winton, who passed away in 2015, of resorting to “blackmail and forgery” to save the children, Winton laughed and said, “It worked, that’s the main thing.”
Lately, we’ve been getting a lot of stories of Holocaust heroes on our screens, from the brilliant “Transatlantic” to the masterful “A Small Light.” And while there’s something a little unsettling about making the main narrative of the Holocaust one about its mostly non-Jewish saviors, these stories of people who risked their lives, who went against the flow, who dared to break laws for the sake of saving a life, a whole world, are definitely worth remembering. After all, they give us a blueprint of what to do when we are faced with inhumanities and injustices.