Dominic Thomas
Feb 2024  •  4 min read

One life at a time

Sitting in the front row of the audience, he turned to see refugees standing around him, the feeling of raw emotion suddenly rising and filling his being as the magnitude of one man’s efforts had resulted in simple, raw, exposed humanity – life.

I suspect that you have heard about or may even remember seeing the moment that Nicholas Winton is met with an audience of his rescued refugees, as they rise to greet the man. The moment will likely be branded into your mind; it’s truly unforgettable.

There is something about a mild-mannered stockbroker from Maidenhead who not simply changed lives, but made them possible, that resonates with anyone possessing a pulse.

The new film One Life currently on release, is the remarkable tale of this man set a little more than nine months before WW2. I hope that it is a reminder to you that however small your own actions and power may seem, they can be life-saving.

Winton visited Prague in December 1938 at the suggestion of a friend and met with Warriner, Chadwick and Wellington who exposed him to their urgent work attempting to help key individuals flee Europe out of the thousands gathering in makeshift camps all hoping for help. He was fortunate to have never met the Gestapo (I so want to mock by writing gazpacho) and his life was never particularly endangered, but he was deeply moved by the plight of refugees who were fleeing Hitler’s Nazis following the night of mayhem ‘Kristallnacht’ on 9th November 1938 which followed the Munich Agreement in September which ceded Sudetenland and the subsequent full invasion in March 1939.

A time before email, social media and mobile phones, live images from anywhere on earth beamed into the palm of your hand. A trusty typewriter, filing cabinet and antiquated telephone system along with waiting (and pushing) to see those possessing the ability to grant permission. The challenge of bureaucratic lunacy and soulless governance has a modern familiarity, but in 1938, refugees under 18 were not permitted into Britain.

Winton and his mother pushed the wheels of the Civil Service into agreeing a process for granting permission to hundreds and potentially thousands of refugees fleeing extermination in Europe. They raised funds (£50 fee for each refugee), completed the paperwork and placed children with willing people having taken out adverts in newspapers. Some 669 children were spared annihilation in Europe, eventually finding refuge here in Britain after a perilous journey through hostile nations before war broke out, ending any viability of a visa.

Winton’s part in the story may never have been acknowledged had his wife not found his scrapbook from the period, detailing names of children and their foster families. It is highly unlikely that any of the children would have escaped had he and his mother not taken the action that they did.

Today we see horrors around the world with alarming frequency. In my December round up, I stated that “the world is currently safer than it ever has been for many of us”. By way of some context… our world was changed by the attacks in the US on 11th September 2001 which resulted in 2,996 deaths largely on the day itself.  Pearl Harbour, which was the catalyst for the US joining the war saw 2,403 deaths on 7th December 1941.

The second world war itself lasted six years and conservatively resulted in 70 million deaths. That’s equivalent to 22 deaths for every minute of the war, a staggering 31,934 every day.

We can draw many lessons or conclusions from Winton’s story; but for me it’s a reminder that action takes many forms, being sufficiently resourced and able to provide solutions to great challenges is key for most of us. Our ability to respond has untold impact. Of the millions that ultimately died, Winton and his collaborators saved 669, each one significant and priceless.

Below is the trailer for the rather wonderful new film released by Warner Brothers.

And here is the online exhibition, a tour through some of the personal items and documents held in the Sir Nicholas Winton Memorial Trust, illustrating different episodes in his life.