'One Life': Anthony Hopkins Stars as 'Britain's Schindler,' Who Rescued Hundreds of Jewish Children from the Nazis

Anthony Hopkins is Sir Nicholas Winton in "One Life." (Warner Bros.)

You’ve probably seen the viral video. An older man sits in an audience as an unseen voice asks, "Is there anyone in our audience tonight who owes their life to Nicholas Winton?" A crowd around the man stands up as he tries to comprehend what’s happening. You may not remember the end, because it was so hard to see through your tears.

The video was part of a British television show called “That’s Life!” In 1988, Winton was invited to be part of the studio audience for the taping. During the show, host Esther Rantzen read from Winton’s own notes about the rescue of hundreds of Jewish Czechoslovakian children from Nazi occupation in 1939. She then asks the then-adult children to stand up.

In the viral clip, you’ll see only the handful around Winton stand, but Rantzen later asks the children and grandchildren of “Winton’s children” to stand. At this point, the entire audience stands for Winton. Some of the children he rescued would later present him with a ring inscribed with words from the Talmud: “Save one life, save the world.”

Winton’s story is retold through a new movie that will make its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival later this year. “One Life,” starring Anthony Hopkins, recreates how and why Winton found himself in Czechoslovakia rescuing Jewish children from the Nazis. It then fast-forwards to 1988, when his stunning deed is recognized by the world through a BBC television show.

Winton was born in 1909 to German Jewish parents who immigrated to London. He became a banker and eventually a stock broker. As a young man, he joined Britain’s Labour Party and was ardently opposed to the rise of Nazism in Germany, as well as the “appeasement” of Adolf Hitler by British conservatives.

In the years leading up to World War II, he traveled to Czechoslovakia as part of a delegation working to help Jewish refugees escape the country ahead of Nazi Germany’s occupation. Nazi anti-Semitism was well known before 1938 when Winton flew to Prague. While Christian and Jewish organizations had popped up to help rescue children from Nazi-dominated countries, Czechoslovakia wasn’t one of them.

Sir Nicholas Winton in 1938, holding a rescued child. (Menemsha Films)

Winton had planned a ski trip to Switzerland that year, but instead got a call from a friend about an important project in Czechoslovakia. Winton went there instead. Working from an apartment in Prague, he and fellow volunteers secured guarantees from the British government to receive Czech Jewish children, as long as they had homes.

Winton found homes for 669 Jewish children in Britain, calling on private citizens, hostels and anywhere else that would take them. He moved them out of Czechoslovakia through Holland before they could be taken by the Nazis. Their parents weren’t so lucky; most of them would die in the Holocaust, many at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp.

It still wasn’t enough for Winton. He was haunted for much of the rest of his life after his largest transport, carrying some 250 more children and due to leave Prague on Sept. 1, 1939, was canceled due to the Nazi invasion of Poland that saw Hitler shut down all border crossings in Nazi-controlled countries. He never heard about those children again.

Winton went on to serve in the Red Cross and the Royal Air Force during World War II. Aside from a handful of news articles, his activities in Czechoslovakia remained unnoticed by the world. It wasn’t until the 1988 episode of “That’s Life!” that the world at large discovered the work of the man who became known as “Britain’s Schindler,” and Winton himself learned the true extent of what he did before the war. Winton died at age 106 in 2015.

Sir Nicholas Winton visited Prague in October 2007 and met with Czech students. (Hynek Moravec)

“One Life” also stars Jonathan Pryce (“Game of Thrones”) and Helena Bonham Carter (“Fight Club,” “The King’s Speech”). It is currently playing as part of the London Film Festival, but will hit theaters in 2024.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, or on LinkedIn.

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