‘One Life’ shines a light on a lesser-known hero who saved hundreds of Jewish children

A new film brings to life the story of Nicholas Winton, known as the "British Schindler."
In "One Life," Anthony Hopkins stars as Nicholas Winton who saved 669 mostly Jewish children, and his story became known about 50 years later.

If you ask people about a Holocaust film they’ve seen, a common answer is “Schindler’s List,” the 1994 Steven Spielberg film starring Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler who saved 1,200 Jews by employing them in his factory and making various payoffs to Nazis.

The new film “One Life” highlights a lesser-known hero, Nicholas Winton, who saved 669 mostly Jewish children and is sometimes called the “British Schindler.”

Anthony Hopkins delivers a marvelous performance as Winton, portraying him as a humble elderly man who seeks no fame. Initially, Winton approaches a small newspaper with his clippings, hoping for an article, only to be turned away. 

The legendary actor portrays a man who does not see himself as a hero. Johnny Flynn also gives a stirring performance as the younger Winton, who helped organize the children’s escape.

One of the film’s most dramatic and moving scenes occurs on a TV show called “That’s Life,” where Winton is a guest. He is stunned when the host asks everyone he saved to stand up, and the entire audience rises.

How did he save so many Jewish children?

Before Germany occupied Prague, then part of Czechoslovakia, Winton worked with Trevor Chadwick, Martin Blake and Doreen Warriner, as well as his mother Babi (portrayed excellently by Helena Bonham Carter) to rescue Jewish children.

They worked to identify children who needed homes, found families in London to host them, and raised the necessary funds — 50 pounds per child.

Director James Hawes explained to People Magazine that Winton viewed it as a group operation, not as him being a solo “caped superhero.” This rescue mission became part of what was known as the Czech Kindertransport, which saved children by transporting them to England by train. 

The film highlights the growing challenges once the Nazis occupied the region, and the rescue mission became more difficult. Tragically, the last train of children did not make it, a fact that haunted Winton and led him to keep empty pages in his scrapbook.

One effective strategy was placing photos of the children in Picture Post, a magazine that showcased the children, encouraging people to help and possibly save their lives. 

The dramatic “That’s Life” segment

Although Winton’s wife, Grete (Lena Olin) dismisses the show as frivolous, Winton still appears on it, knowing its wide viewership. While it seems surreal, it is based on a real episode where Winton was initially introduced to adults he had saved in children until he dramatically turns around to find the entire audience made up of people he saved.

For 50 years, those saved had no idea who was responsible and how it was achieved. This show, which aired in 1988, was the first time they could personally thank him. Winton later described it as “the most emotional moment of my life.”

What motivated Winton?

In the film, both the young and older versions of Nicky Winton are portrayed with a clear moral conviction to save lives, showing no hesitation until the Nazis intensify their crackdown. Like Oskar Schindler in “Schindler’s List,” Winton is tormented by not having saved more lives. 

After seeing refugees living in dire conditions in the cold, Winton, a stockbroker with no prior rescue experience, mobilized to save hundreds of children. 

“All I knew was that the people that I met couldn’t get out, and they were looking for ways of at least getting their children out,” Winton told Jewish reporter Bob Simon of “60 Minutes.” “I work on the motto that if something’s not impossible, there must be a way of doing it.”

Children saying goodbye to parents

One of the most gripping scenes in “One Life” depicts parents parting from their children. Knowing the severe risks, yet hoping to reunite, parents chose their words carefully to avoid alarming the children.

In the film, we see children wearing placards with identification numbers for the Kindertransport, tearfully saying goodbye to their parents. Hugo Meisl shared with Bob Simon of “60 Minutes” that his parents told him he was going on a vacation for two or three months and the parents would soon join him.

A true hero

Nicholas Winton passed away in July 2015 at the age of 106. Avner Shalem, the chairman of Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust memorial, remarked, “Winton acted relentlessly, courageously and with integrity to save children, and for that is worthy of our admiration.”

The film “One Life” portrays Winton as a humble individual who took it upon himself to save lives and used creativity to overcome obstacles. Releasing at a time when antisemitism is on the rise globally, the movie resonates deeply with the Jewish teaching that saving one life is akin to saving the entire world.

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