ONE LIFE – Survivors Interview

In the months leading up to World War II, an ordinary English man, Nicholas Winton, travelled to the former Czechoslovakia to help support those who were forced to become refugees by the encroaching Nazi regime. Horrified by what he saw, Winton was determined to do something to help, ultimately saving 669 Jewish children by securing passage for them by train to England. Winton’s story was almost forgotten until 1988 when a surprise reunion was organised live on the Esther Rantzen BBC show, ‘That’s Life’.

New movie ‘One Life’, starring Anthony Hopkins and Johnny Flynn as Sir Nicolas Winton, tells the story of the daring rescue that changed their lives.

We had the remarkable opportunity to speak with two women rescued by Sir Winton. Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines & Vera Schaufeld MBE were nine when they were forced to flee their homeland & share their recollections of their journey and seeing their story brought to the screen.

How did you feel when you heard that they were making a film about your story?
Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines: A Czech filmmaker made a film a few years ago, and the story is well-known there. Thank goodness that the new film has been made and a global audience will find out everything. For the last ten years, I have been telling my story in English schools, and so have others who were on the trains. Few of us are left, and the problem with younger generations is that they are beginning to think this history didn’t happen. It’s so important that the film is released when we can still go to schools and say ‘I was there. My country was invaded. I was on that train. I lost my relations. I lost my grandparents. This really happened’.

Watching the film, I was struck by how humble Sir Winton was. Does Anthony Hopkins capture the man that you knew?
Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines: I saw the film with Nicky’s son, Nick. Afterwards, he said to me, you know, there were times when I was watching Pa [on screen] and that sums it up. He absolutely became Nicolas Winton. I met Anthony at one point during the filming because he wanted to see some of the original documents, and I happened to have the original label that I wore on the train and my travel permits.

Did watching the film bring back memories of the journey?
Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines: I am 92, and I was 9 when I was at that railway station… My mother came with my grandfather, and he gave me an autographed book. He wrote a farewell message and asked my relations to write in it. I wasn’t aware at the time that the Germans had already occupied the country, although they would have been on the platform. I didn’t know about the Final Solution when they gathered up the Jewish population and sent them to the camps. My grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles were all sent. I knew nothing about it in England. We didn’t know this was happening. I was just a child.

Luckily, my mother escaped through Norway. I was one of the few with parents in England because most of those children never saw them again. Every child will have a different story to tell you. It is about altruism when it comes to Nicolas Winton. He did it all without wanting to be known, without wanting a reward. When the call for help came, he had to help, hence the title of the film ‘One Life’. You save one life; you save the world.

Vera Schaufeld MBE: My memories are surprisingly clear. My mother took me to the station and told me I would go on the train with other children. I was nine; the older children took care of the smaller ones. There was even a child minding an infant. I felt sad with the other children. We waved goodbye to our parents, but we would never see them again. I really expected to join my family again someday; I never expected to spend the rest of my life in England without them.

Did you know you would meet Sir Winton on the Esther Rantzen show?
Vera Schaufeld MBE: I didn’t know much about it. I knew we had been invited to come to a BBC show about Nicholas Winton, but we were not told we would meet him. I knew I had come on this train to England, but I hadn’t thought who organised it or how it happened. Later, when I found out, I was very glad to have the opportunity to meet Nicky.

The appearance on the Esther Rantzen show had a significant impact on Sir Winton, and you stayed in contact with him afterwards.
Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines: We all did. One day, in his home, he said, “You know, I’ve now got a family of thousands.” Everybody who met him, who had grown up in England because of him, had gotten married and had their own children, kept writing to and visiting him. One woman discovered she lived 15 minutes away all those years. She became a secretary, helping him to answer all the letters. Nicky came to stay with me, and I used to visit him often. We got to know him extremely well; he was very sociable and loved having parties.

Lady Milena, what was it like meeting Anna Darvas, who plays you in the film?
She is a lovely woman; we have become friends. She wore exactly what I did on the Esther Rantzen show; the detail is wonderful.

Sir Winton saved so many lives, but many other children did not make it out and died.

Do you ever think about those children?
Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines: Well, of course. I think about it because my children realized that if I didn’t survive, they wouldn’t be here or the grandchildren or great-grandchildren,and that is the same for all of us who survived.

This film should be shown week after week to each generation as they are coming up to show that it really happened. For now, a few of us are still around to go to schools, but history is easily forgotten and not believed; that is why we need films like this.

How do you carry on when something so awful happens?
Vera Schaufeld MBE: Awful things keep happening in the world, & this was my experience, but I am not the only one. Since then, other people have gone through terrible genocides in all parts of the world. I was just very fortunate that I could survive.
I had the opportunity to come to England, even though it wasn’t what I expected my life to be. That is why it is so important that stories like this are told. The world is such a mess. Genocides keep happening. We don’t have to live lovely, complacent lives, not thinking about what is happening in the world. We need to talk about it. I remember Nicky once saying nobody learns from history; people learn when they feel empathy for other people, and that really stayed with me. I hope the film helps people to understand.

Interview by Cara O’Doherty

ONE LIFE is at Irish cinemas from Jan 1st