Barbara Winton self-published a biography of her father, Nicholas Winton, in 2014, which has now become a new major biopic, One Life. Already dubbed “the British Schindler” for his role in the rescue of 669, mainly Jewish, children from Czechoslovakia in 1939, with this new film Nicholas Winton’s fame is firmly established.
The film has a quality cast, including Anthony Hopkins as an aged Winton (the humanitarian died in 2015 aged 106), Helena Bonham Carter as his impressive mother, Babette, and Johnny Flynn as the young Winton. Romola Garai and Alex Sharp star as Doreen Warriner and Trevor Chadwick, the workers for the Czech Refugee Committee, who did all the dangerous and extensive rescue work in Prague.
One Life is a useful beginners guide to the 1930s Jewish refugee crisis, of which few details are widely known. As late as 2002, former mayor of London Ken Livingstone, attending a Holocaust memorial event at Liverpool Street station where many of the refugee children arrived, was honest enough to state that: “Until today, I did not know that Jewish children had escaped to London before the second world war.”
Since then, the Kindertransport, through which 10,000 children came to the UK on temporary permits from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, has become the most famous refugee movement in British history. The intended UK Holocaust Memorial next to the Houses of Parliament, which was confirmed in the 2023 king’s speech, will feature it prominently.
There are, however, several elements of the Kindertransport story that have proved unpalatable, especially as they undermine the presentation of Britain as the saviour of the Jews during the Nazi era.
That reassuring narrative was at the forefront in 2015 when the British government announced the creation of a national Holocaust memorial: “Ensuring that the memory and the lessons of the Holocaust are never forgotten lies at the heart of Britain’s values as a nation. In commemorating the Holocaust, Britain remembers the way it proudly stood up to Hitler and provided a home to tens of thousands of survivors and refugees, including almost 10,000 children who came on the Kindertransports.”
The reality of Kindertransport
Many (perhaps the majority, though there are no definitive figures) would subsequently lose at least one parent through the Holocaust. Indeed, as home secretary at the time, Sir Samuel Hoare, acknowledged when announcing the scheme in the House of Commons in November 1938, it would create a terrible dilemma for the parents who were aware that they might never see their children again.
The other major critique of the Kindertransport is there was insufficient care to make sure that the Jewish children kept their religious identity in the UK. Both problems are raised in One Life, but only fleetingly so.
When the young Winton asks a Prague rabbi to hand over lists of vulnerable Jewish children, the rabbi is reluctant. He asks: “What about the parents?” and queries the future Jewishness of the children who are entrusted to Winton. Rather than dwell further, the scene is used to present the Jewish past of the Winton family and Winton’s true British values.
In fact, in his desire to place the children somewhere, Winton accepted the offer from the Barbican Mission to the Jews to house a group of the Czech Jewish children. It took the efforts of Reverend James Parkes, a Church of England clergyman who worked ceaselessly against antisemitism, to rescue them from conversion.
Nicholas Winton was undoubtedly a decent man who insisted himself that he did not do that much and that others should get more credit. At least the film allows this, with some attention given to two humanitarians, the maverick Trevor Chadwick and the formidable Doreen Warriner.
It was these two young British refugee workers, among others, who looked after the children in Prague, arranging first their flights and then their train journeys and also gathering the necessary documentation for them to both leave Czechoslovakia and enter the UK.
Many others could have been included, but at least One Life makes a start. The film presents Winton as haunted by his failure to do more and frames his lifelong philanthropy as a way of not confronting the full horrors of the Holocaust. It would be better to see his supportive role in 1939 as a part of, rather than apart from, his other humanitarian work.
It was, very belatedly, the interest of others and the need for a secular saint in the rescue of the Jews that pushed Winton into the unwanted limelight and into mythical status as the British Schindler. What this fails to allow for is the agency of the former refugee children themselves.
In 1966, poet and former child refugee Karen Gershon curated We Came as Children, a collective autobiography of the Kindertransport. It is one of the most important articulations of refugee status and its legacy ever published.
This was widely and positively received some 20 odd years before Nicholas Winton was “rediscovered” on the BBC television show That’s Life (1988). In two episodes, host Esther Rantzen introduced Nicholas Winton to many of the children he’d helped, now grown adults, in emotional scenes.
It is significant that while the alcoholic, womanising and child-abandoning Trevor Chadwick wrote an account of his remarkable work in Prague and London in We Came as Children, Nicholas Winton was not mentioned. Ultimately I believe Chadwick would make a more fitting cinematic subject matter when dealing with the messy subject of Britain and the Holocaust – despite, or perhaps in part because of, his own messy private life.
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Tony Kushner does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.