The much anticipated film about Sir Nicholas Winton, One Life, opens on 5 January. It will reveal to the public at large what most British Jews already know: how he saved 669 children, predominantly Jewish, spiriting them out of Prague in the days before World War Two broke out and the doors of freedom slammed shut.
The fact that stars such as Anthony Hopkins as Winton, Helena Bonham Carter as his mother and Jonathan Pryce as his co-worker have taken lead roles shows both the high aspirations the producers have and how much the actors themselves value the story. But what is perhaps most notable about the rescue missions is that they were so nearly obliterated from all memory. Once the borders were closed and no further children could be got out, that was the end of the matter. Winton — as well as everyone else — was totally taken up with the war. In his case, as a pacifist, he served with the Red Cross, before changing his views and joining the RAF.
After 1945 there was a rush to return to normal life, which for Winton meant taking up a job in finance. He never spoke publicly of the rescues he organised, nor pursued what happened to the children he saved. It was only when his wife was clearing out boxes in the attic almost five decades later, and uncovered papers relating to that period, that the full story began to emerge.
This led to the famous television moment when he was invited to a production of Dame Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life in 1988 in which, unbeknown to Winton, everyone else in the audience was a now adult survivor from his trains.
It was a spine-tingling moment when Rantzen asked him during the programme if he recognised anyone else who was present. When he said, “No”, she asked those who owed their life to him to stand…and everyone did so. The look of modesty and amazement on his face as he realised the consequence of what he had done so many years earlier was a priceless moment.
It also led to countless public honours, both in the UK and abroad, including a knighthood and a series of reunions of “his children” who, along with their children and grandchildren, numbered several thousand. Despite initial calls for him to be numbered among the Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem, this was dropped when it was realised that, despite being brought up as Christian by his parents, they were both Jewish and thus technically so was he.
Those of us living in Maidenhead, to where he moved not long after the war, have special memories of him. Even before his national fame, he was known locally for his charitable work in founding Mencap and establishing an Abbeyfield Home.
When Schindler’s List came out in 1994, I took Winton as the synagogue’s guest to its local premiere. The Talmudic saying engraved on the ring given to Schindler by the Jews he had saved, “Whoever saves one life saves the entire world”, was applicable to him too.
In his latter years (he died in 2015, aged 106) he became increasingly frail but was determined to stay at home. In conjunction with his family, we organised a team of synagogue members who would visit him to provide a meal or tend to his beloved garden.
He would always tell me that he did nothing special and what anyone else would have done at the time. To save having an argument, I used to nod, but I knew it was not true. Many people may have tut-tutted at the plight of the Jews, but only a notable few took action.
The motto that he said guided his actions — “If something is not impossible, then there must be a way of doing it” — is a call to action that most ignored. Winton was not unique. Others such as Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg, British Intelligence Officer Frank Foley and the Portuguese and Japanese diplomats Aristides de Sousa Mendes and Chiune Sugihara also responded, but he and they were exceptional.
It should be noted that Winton did not act alone but headed a team whose work was vital in organising the trains, securing the visas and finding hosts for the children. It is also the case that, unlike those named above, Winton was never in personal danger, for after an initial visit to Prague, he then conducted operations from London. But heroism can be backroom as well as frontline.
Every time I catch a train to London, I say hello to the statue of him at Maidenhead Station, and think of the thousands of worlds that exist because of him.
Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue