Saving the world, one child at a time

Review: Vivien Horler

One Life – The true story of Sir Nicholas Winton, by Barbara Winton (Robinson) 

In 1988 an elderly Englishman was presented with a gold ring on which the words “Save one life – save the world” were engraved.

The words come from the Jewish Talmud, and the ring was given to Sir Nicholas Winton to mark the fact that as a young man shortly before World War II he – and others – saved the lives of 669 Czech children, most of them Jewish, from the Nazis.

Winton, while technically Jewish – his mother was born into a German Jewish family – was not observant. In fact he had been baptised and confirmed as an Anglican. Later he became an agnostic.

But his lack of religious conviction in no way prevented him from living a righteous life. And thanks to him, more than 6 000 people, children and grandchildren of those he helped save, are alive today.

The effort to save the Czech children – distinct from the much larger Kindertransport which saw 10 000 German and Austrian children rescued – lasted a frantic nine months, from December 1938 until September 1, 1939, when the Germans marched into Poland.

At that stage 669 Czech children had been sent by train to the UK, and on September 2 the biggest group of more than 200 children was due to leave Czechoslovakia. That train never left the station, and it is believed almost all were killed.

After war broke out Winton moved on with his life, serving as an ambulance driver during the war, going into business afterwards and later working for a variety of charities, which in his old age gave his life purpose and meaning.

A number of people were involved in the effort to save the children, and one of them had compiled a scrapbook full of pictures, documents, and letters about it. At the back was a list of the names of all the children who had been rescued, along with the names and addresses of those who had agreed to foster them in Britain in 1939.

This scrapbook was presented to Winton, who in his 70s was looking for someone who would find its details interesting. He came across Dr Elisabeth Maxwell, a historian who was researching the story of her husband, a Czech Jew who went on to own the Daily and Sunday Mirror, Robert Maxwell.

Elisabeth Maxwell was also preparing for a conference on the Holocaust to be held in Oxford in July 1988, so Winton gave her the scrapbook. In the words of Winton’s biographer, his daughter Barbara Winton, “for the first time this story fell right into the hands of someone really interested and knowledgeable”.

Maxwell in turn shared it with BBC presenter Esther Rantzen, who featured Winton and some of the survivors on her programme That’s Life! in February 1988. She also shared it with her husband, who gave it a three-page splash in the Sunday Mirror.

And that was when Winton became famous, meeting many of his “children”, by then often almost as grey as he. For the first time, for many of them, they were able to fill in some of the holes in their personal histories.

In her introduction, Barbara Winton writes her father had agreed to this biography as long as it did not promote hero worship… “but that, if anything, it might inspire people to recognise that they too can act ethically in the world and make a positive difference to the lives of others in whatever areas they feel strongly about…”

She also asked him what he wanted the biography to say, and he told her: “I think it should show my history with religion – from Jewish to Christian to agnostic, and the fact that I came to believe through my life that what is important is that we live by the common ethics of all religions – kindness, decency, love, respect and honour for others – and not worry about the aspects within religion that divide us.”

If you’re looking for a book about one man and his derring do, this might not be the one – Barbara Winton disposes of the Czech episode in the first 42 pages, and then goes on to tell the story of her father’s life and what shaped him. But once he had been “outed’ all those years later in the media, the results of what he had done came to dominate his life, and awards and honours followed, including a knighthood.

Under the title If it’s not Impossible, the book was first published in 2014, when both Winton and his daughter were still alive. It has been reissued this year to coincide with the release of a motion picture, also titled If it’s not Impossible, starring Anthony Hopkins and Helena Bonham Carter.

Reading One Life and then writing this review, against the background of the horrors of what has been happening in Israel and Gaza, rather focuses the mind.

It turns out the Talmud quote of “save a life and you save the world” also appears in the Quran. Both texts have a rider: “Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world.”

Something to ponder.


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