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One Life is the Story of Thousands of Lives

One Life tells the story of 669 Jewish children rescued from Prague due to Winton’s dogged persistence.

When contemplating the hideous details of the Holocaust, arguably the worst crime in human history, many of us wonder what we would have done in the face of such inhumanity (or if we would have done anything at all). Those brave souls who did act in defiance of the atrocity were all too few.

One of the few was Nicholas Winton, a young stockbroker in London who found himself in Prague in 1938 and was witness to a refugee settlement in the middle of the city teaming with Jews from the Sudentenland (the portion of Czechoslovakia attained by the Nazis in 1938).

The number of desperate Jews also included thousands from elsewhere in Europe. And though they have fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, Hitler’s acquisition of the rest of Czechoslovakia (including Prague) is inevitable.

One Life tells the story of 669 Jewish children rescued from Prague due to Winton’s dogged persistence. The young Winton (played by Johnny Flynn), in 1938, decides to assist the children at risk in Prague, and the elder Winton (played by Anthony Hopkins) struggles with his memories at home in England in 1987.

Hopkins is in a viable position to be nominated for two Oscars in the same season (Freud’s Last Session being the actor’s earlier work). Of course, Hopkins is a great actor who can always deliver a masterful performance. But Flynn shows greatness in the movie, too, and he is certain to be mentioned in the next round of Oscar nominations.

Young Winton has to struggle with agencies in both Prague and London to arrange for the mass movement of the children. Passports must be provided, foster homes in England must be available, pictures of the children must be taken, and monetary deposits are required for what is perceived as the eventual return of the children to their families.

This is just prior to the Nazi onslaught on the rest of Czechoslovakia and before the Nazi invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939 (war having been declared on Germany by Britain and France two days later). It was at this point of war that the Nazis closed the Czech borders, and the movie provides a horrifying scene of Jewish children being dragged off the trains by German soldiers.

The young Winton was in Prague at the time the borders were closed, and the elder Winton remembers the day with haunting sadness and dubs the incident as that of the “last train.” The elder Winton has also kept a scrapbook that chronicles his time in Prague and the events pertinent to the children who were saved and those who were not saved.

As the elder Winton grapples with guilt over the children who weren’t saved, those of the last train, attempts are made by family and friends to encourage him to relinquish his guilt and take pride in those lives he had saved.

But that is easier said than done, especially by someone like Winton who has such high expectations of himself.

Reminiscent of the young Winton’s frustrations with the bureaucracies of London and Prague, the elder Winton is frustrated by the indifference shown by the editor of the small English town newspaper who is unmoved by the potential for human interest generated by the scrapbook. But the BBC comes upon the story of Winton and his scrapbook and contacts him to do a feature.

BBC interest leads to the scrapbook being aired on a television show called That’s Life. Winton is made part of the audience and introduced to a woman who was one of the children saved. The publicity results in a wealth of people coming forward who had been among the children Winton saved, and a second airing is conducted on That’s Life in which a multitude of those saved by Winton are present in the audience.

End of the movie credits indicate an estimate of 6,000 lives having resulted from the 669 lives Winton saved. Winton is moved to tears when he meets those whom he had saved. Those watching One Life are also bound to be moved to tears as well.