I made a terrible mistake when I went to see the new film One Life, in which Anthony Hopkins and Johnny Flynn portray the British stockbroker Nicholas Winton and retell the story of how he saved 669 children from the Nazis in Prague in 1939. Stupidly I forgot to make sure I had a handkerchief easily accessible.
As a result I spent much of the film wiping away tears with my sleeve. When the film ended and my husband asked ‘What did you think?’ I was literally speechless with emotion, gulping back the sobs before managing to yelp,“very good,” words that felt quite inadequate given the strong feelings the movie had evoked.
On the one hand the film is an unashamed tear-jerker, much like the episodes of That’s Life which introduced Nicholas Winton’s story to the British public in the 1980s — scenes that lose none of their power when recreated. On the other hand, it manages to convey a great many complex things with commendable understatement, including the question of whether Nicholas Winton himself was Jewish. Born to a German Jewish émigré family, he was baptised into the Church of England as part of a protective assimilation process. “Does that make me a Christian or a Jew?” he asks a rabbi in Prague in the film, hoping to be trusted with a list of vulnerable Jewish children to be helped with visas and the chance of an escape. “A Jew,” replies the rabbi, handing over the list.
One thing bothered me though, watching the story unfold. Did the Wintons not approach the Jewish community in their heroic quest to find sponsors and foster homes for the children? Back at the office, I consulted the JC archive. The search engine is not always 100 per cent accurate. But I could find no trace of any appeals or letters in our columns from 1939.
The publicity for the film was criticised this week for “erasing” the Jewishness of the children that were saved, by referring to them as Central European refugees rather than Jewish ones. It is not a mistake made in the film itself, where one of the most chilling scenes comes when Nazis enter a train full of terrified children as it travels through Germany. They burst into mocking laughter at the very idea of importing Jews to one’s land.
Although the omission in the press release was undoubtedly unfortunate, in some ways it reflects the experience of Nicholas Winton himself, and many of the children he saved as well as others who arrived on the Kindertransport from Germany and Austria. For many of them the question of identity, the rift between their Jewish childhood and their non-Jewish foster homes meant they were never quite certain where they stood. For some it was not enough to escape from the Nazis, they felt the need to future-proof themselves by escaping from Jewishness.
In 1989 – 50 years after the outbreak of war — a Kindertransport refugee Bertha Leverton organised a reunion of the children who had been saved, including the ‘Winton children.’ Close on a thousand attended the gathering, reported the JC, “they queued uncomplainingly for over an hour on the hottest June day for 13 years.”
Vera Gissing was one of the Winton Kinder interviewed, and her story is told in One Life. “I will always be proud to be Jewish by race, Czech by birth and British by choice,” she told the JC.
Another Vera saved by Winton was Vera Apter. She described leaving her sheltered home in the Sudentenland for the squalid conditions in Prague — bed bugs, unsanitary overcrowding and Gestapo raids. In England she was fostered by a schoolmaster’s family who were “Christian but never pushy in their religion.” Nonetheless Vera, whose parents died at Auschwitz, converted to Christianity, “persuaded by her isolation and the example of the people among whom she lived. For her, conversion repaired a shattered life.”
The report points out that many of the children saved were “country folk” who fitted well into the rural homes they were sent to. The overall tone of the conference was “uplifting” with an emphasis on the positive way that the children had put down new roots. But some told of psychological anguish and feeling as though they had a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality.
One woman praised her parents for the Orthodox upbringing that had instilled in her a deep sense of her own Jewishness. Others had headed for Israel and made new lives in a new state. One refugee started out as a German Christian (but with a Jewish father) and made a choice to become Jewish and English, the Holocaust educator, teacher and psychotherapist Ruth Barnett.
The conference report like the new film makes clear, that in a time of emergency what counts is saving lives. Identity, already a complex, nuanced thing, can be further fractured in the process. Assimilation and even conversion may follow for all kinds of reasons, and Nicholas Winton’s family’s own story may have unintentionally set the pattern for many others.