Lord (Alf) Dubs fought back tears as he spoke in the House of Lords on 2 February during the Holocaust Remembrance debate. He had been referring to One Life, the film recently in cinemas, and starring Anthony Hopkins, about the 1939 evacuation of children from the Nazi threat in Czechoslovakia. Aged six, Alf Dubs had been on one of those Kindertransport trains from Prague.
Lord Dubs had other reasons for emotion. In 2016 he had struggled to get a commitment to allow 3,000 child refugees from Europe to enter the UK. Section 67 of the 2016 Immigration Bill, known as the Dubs amendment, makes the commitment “to relocate to the United Kingdom and support a specified number of unaccompanied refugee children from other countries in Europe'. Only 350 children were allowed to enter before, in February 2017, the British government without adequate reason, unlawfully abandoned this aspect of the Bill. At the time, Local Authorities denied that there were no longer places for children available and some further 150 children were later allowed entry.
Today, it is the right to family reunification, contained in the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990) and guaranteed by the European Court of Human Rights ECHR, that requires pressure if it is to be honoured. Lord Dubs worked with some success to get government agreement that these family reunification provisions would be respected post-Brexit.
In 2023 opposition to the - well-named - Illegal Immigration Bill was led by the Churches who championed the rights of refugee children, in opposition to a government hostile to migrants and asylum seekers. The then Minister of State for Immigration, Robert Jenrick, demonstrated this hostility – for the benefit of the Tory right-wing - by ordering the painting out of cartoon figures, intended to welcome children, on the walls of Manston refugee reception centre in Kent.
Against this background of growing government legal pressure on migrants and refugees it was serendipity, rather than foresight, that brought One Life to cinema screens just as the government’s ‘stop the boats’ campaign reached obsession level generating, as Lord (Ken) Clarke (a former Conservative Home Secretary) observed, deranged forms of legislation. Directed by James Hawes, known for his television films, One Life is a co-production with BBC Films. It is a well-told unpretentious, morality story. If you were watching at home, you would feel good as you switched off the TV.
So, no blockbuster this. Nor suitable for young children who would be distressed by the heartbreaking suffering of the, mainly Jewish, children being parted from their families in Prague, though the film mainly suggests, rather than shows, Nazi brutality, through the visible fear of its victims. By focusing on a few families and their children – the children’s photographs and their names play a prominent role throughout - refugees become individuals like our own children, but vulnerable, confused and in peril; they are not just numbers.
Anthony Hopkins plays Nicholas Winton, a stockbroker who initiated and organised the evacuation of children from Prague. During the opening sequences viewers easily identify with Winton in his old age as his wife nags him to clear out all the old documents cluttering up his study. Papers which, of course, contain the film’s story. Hopkins remembering to camera, even if a little too lengthy, and starring in That’s Life reunited with those he had saved, gives a masterful performance portraying Winton’s humility. The cut-backs to the young Nicholas Winton – Johnny Flynn looking remarkably like the old footage of the character he portrays – come naturally.
The screenplay based on daughter, Barbara Winton’s If It’s Not Impossible...: The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton, published in 2014, sticks closely to what is known. Through his children’s section’ of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia (BCRC) Winton managed to transport eight train-loads, 669 children, from Prague to London and to settle them in foster families. There are contemporary resonances, initial opposition from the UK government followed by the overwhelming documentation required for each child to obtain a visa plus an indemnity charge of £50 (£2,800 today) to cover possible future costs of repatriation.
The Kindertransport: What Really Happened, Andrea Hammel, Polity Books, 2023, paints the wider picture of the fate of child refugees from Nazi rule. Here is a more critical account of what happened to the 10,000 children fleeing to Britain from Germany and Poland, between 1933-1939. (Many initially fled to the closer but soon unsafe Belgium, France and Netherlands). Hammel highlights how the long-term consequences of traumatic separation from parents remained unacknowledged and how the religious, Jewish, upbringing of the children in Christian or secular foster families was neglected. In One Life, a conversation between a Rabbi and Winton does touch on this religious and cultural problem, though at the time it was Orthodox Jews in the UK who objected most to the point of taking a group of children into their care. At the outbreak of war some children who had reached sixteen were even interned. What was treated as temporary separation, of course, proved permanent as parents died in the Holocaust.
Alf Dubs was in some ways exceptionally fortunate. His father met him at Liverpool Street Station and his mother later managed to join them. But, when all is said and done, the alternative to the Kindertransport is shown in the fate of the 250 children on the ninth and last train, raided by the Nazis before it left Prague, one of the few violent and deeply upsetting scenes in One Life.
Where is the moral in the Kindertransport story, a footnote to the Holocaust? What virtues did Nicholas Winton deploy to save those lives? Unusually for a banker and a stockbroker, he was on the left of the Labour Party. He decided, rather than taking a skiing holiday, to go and join a friend in the Prague BCRC. In Prague he was moved by compassion. Baptised a Christian, Winton was the middle child of a German Jewish immigrant family. He saw first-hand the plight of the Jewish and other families and did something about it revealing exceptional – often underrated - organisational abilities. Winton, his mother (played by Helena Bonham Carter) and the BCRC demonstrated not just empathy but extraordinary perseverance, hope and tenacity. “If something is not impossible, there must be a way to do it” was Winton’s motto.
One Life and the story of the Czech Kindertransport have a déjà vu feeling. As I left Liverpool Street Station last week, I looked with new eyes at the familiar statue of the Kindertransport children in the half light of an early winter evening. The British government in the late 1930s, for some of the same reasons as today’s, sought to limit the number of refugees entering the UK, though it did have the excuse of being threatened by a coming World War. Then it was civil society, refugee organisations plus a strong Quaker element, who asserted and put into practice the duty to admit refugees. Today it is still the Churches with refugee NGOs who practice compassion and solidarity challenging government hostility. Then Nicholas Winton embodied these national values. Today it is Alf Dubs.
See TheArticle 07/02.2023