I’ve not yet seen the biopic of Nicholas Winton’s rescue of 669 mostly Jewish children from Nazi Europe, but I imagine it’s heavy on the schmalz. Ironically, he’d probably have hated it, if the biography by his daughter Barbara — first published in 2014, now reissued — is anything to go by.
Nicky, as he was known, emerges as an unassuming chap, an upstanding Englishman who enjoyed his share of hijinks, but lived by the rules. Always humble, he never accepted his designation as a hero, even after That’s Life reunited him with his rescuees decades later, and the accolades that followed.
The book, which delves into his childhood as the Christian son of Anglicised German Jews, his RAF experiences and postwar UN roles, imparts just how astonishing it was that he took the risks he did. He had no saviour complex, no thirst for trouble, and if he was motivated by his heritage, showed no sign of it. So why spend nine months circumventing the turgid British bureaucracy to bring across his “children”? On top of a job as a stockbroker, with no ties to those he was helping? Why, when like most, he could have stood by?
One Life doesn’t really answer those questions, although Barbara, who died in 2022, clearly sought to. The book is still an intriguing portrait of 20th century life, even if the writing lacks flourish. Later chapters explore his varied career and his devotion to disability support (following the death of a son with Down Syndrome). It’s also notable to see how much these children owed their safety not just to Nicky, but to those he corralled into helping; he seems to have relied an awful lot on his own mother.
Perhaps more than the rescue, which is dealt with at pace with a surprisingly limited exploration of how it shaped these future lives (then again, it counted for less than a year in a 106-year life), what fascinates is Winton’s post-Holocaust work. He was employed by a fledgling UN to sort through Nazi loot — namely gold and other items of value, taken from Jews — then to organize the sale to provide reparations to groups including the Jewish Agency. It meant Winton spent long periods looking through wedding rings and watches, quite feasibly belonging to relatives of the children he managed to save.
“I think not only of all those innocent lives, senselessly and horrifically cut off… but of the depraved minds obsessed with the material gains to be obtained from pitiable items so small and so personal as gold fillings,” he recalls. “I had a sense of pride and achievement in having succeeded in my mission against such extraordinary odds.”
And yet again, afterwards, he downplayed his contribution. This book, as with the film, should help make clear that this ordinary man was indeed remarkable.
One Life by Barbara Winton