real life

The incredible true story behind the viral moment that inspired the movie One Life.

It was arguably one of the first viral moments in TV history.

It was 1988, and Sir Nicholas Winton was sitting in a studio audience as part of a British television program. He didn't know what to expect — only that he had been invited in by the show's producers. As the rest of the audience stood applauded, Winton realised he had once helped each and every one of the people standing around him.

Decades earlier, he had saved them from certain death.

In late 1938, everyone in Prague was bracing for an imminent German invasion ahead of the Second World War, which ignited in September 1939.

When a friend asked Winton, a stockbroker, to come and witness the developing humanitarian crisis for himself, he set about organising a series of eight Kindertransports — rescue efforts to remove children from Nazi-controlled territory.

Little did Nicholas Winton know that everyone sitting around him in this TV audience were the children he had saved during WWII. Image: BBC/That's Life


Between 1938 and 1940, the British Government agreed to allow unaccompanied minors into Britain from Germany and German-annexed territories. Through such efforts, some 10,000 children were saved and brought to the UK.

Nicholas Winton was just one part of this effort, though he had a monumental role. He, along with the team he was managing at the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, managed to bring 669 Jewish children to Britain. Most of these kids' families were murdered in the Holocaust. All of the children would have likely been murdered too if they hadn't been able to leave Prague.

Two British humanitarians in particular — Trevor Chadwick and Doreen Warriner — were also pivotal to the cause. While the visas and paperwork were done primarily by Winton, it was Chadwick and Warriner who looked after the children on the train journey from Prague to the UK. It was a daunting journey every time, the Nazi threat ever-looming.

The Kindertransports ended on the day Adolf Hitler invaded of Poland, marking the beginning of the Second World War.

For around half a century, Winton didn't speak about what he had done. He put his head down, got back to work, and refused to "make a fuss". He later said he thought sometimes about the wellbeing of all the kids he had helped save. But mostly, he thought about the children that hadn't made it in time for the Kindertransports.


Then in 1988, everything changed for Winton.

That's Life! was a real-life, consumer affairs TV show on the BBC between 1973 and 1994. It had a similar feel to A Current Affair, but with a studio audience. After records he had kept about the Kindertransports had ended up in producers' hands, Winton was asked to appear on the show — and he accepted hesitantly, not wanting too much fuss. 

He was asked to sit front and centre in the studio audience, his wife next to him, and host Esther Rantzen asked anyone in the studio audience to stand up if they owed their life to Nicholas Winton.

Nearly everyone rose to their feet.

Watch the heartwarming moment between Nicholas Winton and the children he saved. Post continues below.

Video via BBC/That's Life.

Winton was introduced to many of the children he'd helped save, now grown adults. The reunion was a complete surprise to him, and his reaction and the incredibly moving scenes are still going viral online today.

The former child refugees said they were delighted to get a chance to thank Winton in person. They owed him and his team their lives.


Lia Lesser was one of the rescued children.

"We didn't know we wouldn't see our parents again," she previously told the BBC. "I think they must have known there was a good chance they wouldn't see us again, and they were very brave to let us go."

Another of the children, Zuzana Maresova, said: "I never knew how my mother arranged it, she never talked about it. My mother gave me a book about flowers and said, 'You're going to a place where these flowers grow.' That's all I knew."

Zuzana said of Winton: "He took so many risks and it was such a brilliant piece of organising. I just thought it was amazing that a single human being could save 669 children and nobody knew about it. Nicky, I am so proud to be one of your very many children."

Nicholas Winton at Prague Main Station, 59 years after he rescued 664 Czechoslovak children. Image: AAP.


Winton later reflected on getting to know the people he had helped save, in his interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

"Only then when the program started did I know that everybody around me were these children. So, everybody started crying. It was very emotional. We are delighted when we meet them and a lot of the people that we meet are absolutely delightful [and] have all done extremely well," he said.

Winton's story has now been brought to life once again in the 2024 film One Life, starring Anthony Hopkins and Johnny Flynn as Nicholas Winton.

Speaking about the man who saved so many, Hopkins told Entertainment Weekly: "I thought, what a tremendous burden that must've been for him... a blessing and a burden of: how would you shoulder that responsibility? Do you run away with your ego? He was very generous to the other people who were involved in the Kindertransport. He made sure they had the credit, and that was his gift to humanity: his kindness, compassion."

Winton died in 2015 at the age of 106.

Thanks to him, 669 children were able to live out their lives in peace and dignity. 

It certainly is an extraordinary story.

Feature Image: Warner Bros. Pictures. 

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