The incredible story of how Nicholas Winton – who was later dubbed “Britain’s Schindler” – saved hundreds of children from the Holocaust, is being told in a new film. Exclusive BBC clips show the moment when Winton met some of the children he rescued.

In February 1988, Vera Gissing sat with tears in her eyes in the BBC TV studio as she was introduced to Nicholas Winton, the man who had saved her life.

Overcome with emotion, she clasped his hand and embraced the then nearly 80-year-old man, who had organised her escape from Nazi-occupied Prague just months before the outbreak of World War Two.

Forty-nine years earlier, a 10-year-old Vera, born Věra Diamantová, along with her 15-year-old sister, Eva, had been packed onto a train called a “Kindertransport” with hundreds of other Jewish children, to take them to Britain.

“I shall never forget the waving goodbye to my parents, and suddenly feeling very afraid because I caught the expression of fear on my parents’ tear-stained faces. There were German soldiers all around us,” she recalled.

Vera would never see either of her parents again. Of the relatives she left behind that day, all but three would die in the Holocaust. She was just one of hundreds of children Winton saved from the same fate.

The remarkable story of what Winton did is told in the film One Life, starring Anthony Hopkins. The film takes its title from a saying in the Talmud, the book of Jewish law, “whoever saves one life saves the world entire”.

The wider world might never have known of his extraordinary humanitarian efforts had his wife not discovered a suitcase in the attic of their home in Maidenhead, England. It contained a scrapbook that detailed the names and photographs of the children he had helped escape.

Winton was the son of German Jewish parents, who had anglicised their name, and baptised him into the Anglican church in an effort to integrate into British life.

Although he was a stockbroker by profession, Winton was also a committed socialist with an interest in international affairs. And by 1938, through his own family contacts, he was keenly aware of the danger facing Jewish families in Nazi-occupied territories.

At the urging of his friend and fellow socialist Martin Blake, he travelled to Prague to help refugees fleeing persecution in the build-up to World War Two.

When he arrived, he was horrified by what he saw. The city was rapidly filling up with people trying to escape the Nazis, many of them Jewish, from Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia that Hitler had annexed. The refugees were living in squalid conditions in overflowing camps and, with the approach of winter, struggling to survive.

He was particularly distressed by the desperate plight of the many children there and resolved that something had to be done to save them. And so began the rescue operation that became known as the “Czech Kindertransport”.

Operating initially out of his room at the Europa Hotel in Prague, with his colleagues Martin Blake, Doreen Warriner and Trevor Chadwick, he began to record the names of families he spoke to, who were desperate to get their children to safety.

Nicolas wrote letters asking for help to governments and embassies all over the world. Nearly all of them turned him down. Sweden agreed to take in some, as did Britain, providing they could identify families willing to care for the children. Although he was just an ordinary British citizen, he became convinced he could arrange the evacuation of these young refugees by train and find them a safe haven in the UK.

After three weeks, he returned to London and threw himself into the quest to find families to host the children and a way to organise their safe passage across Europe and into Britain. His friends Chadwick and Warriner stayed in Prague to coordinate the project from there.

He was still working on the stock exchange by day, but from 4pm to late every night he would work doggedly on the London end of his Czech rescue operation, organising permits and travel warrants for the children.

Despite facing enormous organisational challenges and administrative obstacles, he worked tirelessly raising the necessary funds for a £50 (roughly the equivalent of about £4,150 today) deposit per child, a sum required by the British government to enable their eventual return home.

Growing frustrated by the sluggishness and complacency of the British authorities, he began to make direct newspaper appeals for families to take in children, organising the placements and personally persuading complete strangers to take the children in. He had managed to photograph the children on his list while in Prague and those haunting images proved crucial in securing them homes.

The first train carrying child refugees left Prague on 14 March, 1939. The next day, German troops occupied the whole of Czechoslovakia.

Battling bureaucracy and filled with a growing sense of desperate urgency, Winton began forging the Home Office entry permits, which were slow arriving.

Between March and August 1939, a total of eight trains carrying 669 children, most of who were Jewish – although there were also children who were political refugees – left Prague, passing through Germany and France to Britain. At Liverpool Street Station in London, they would be met by Winton and his mother, before they were collected by their adopted families.

Vera Gissing and her sister escaped Prague on Kindertransport in July 1939. They were taken in by two separate families, with Vera staying with a poor Methodist family, the Rainfords, near Liverpool.

She recalled meeting them at the station. “When my foster mother first saw me, I call her my little English mother because she is so small, tears were pouring down her face and she hugged me and she said some words I didn’t understand, but now I know she said “You shall be loved.” And she was right, loved I was.

“They had very little money, but they had a heart as big as a house. They did everything they could to make me happy. I was very lucky.”

A ninth train carrying 250 children was supposed to leave on 1 September. But that day Germany invaded Poland, war was declared and the borders were closed. The children who were due to leave were turned away by German soldiers at the station.

Two of those children were Vera Gissing’s own cousins. Both would later die in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It is estimated that of the 15,000 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia sent to camps, fewer than 150 children survived the war.

With war declared, Winton registered as a conscientious objector and served as an ambulance driver in Normandy. He was one of the people evacuated at Dunkirk. In 1940, he rescinded his conscientious objector status and joined the RAF. Following the end of World War Two, he worked for the International Committee for Refugees, taking charge of items looted by the Nazis and selling them to raise funds for Jewish organisations, and later for the International Bank in Paris where he met his wife Grete Gjelstrup.

What is all the more remarkable is that despite the magnitude of the accomplishment, Winton never really spoke about what he did with the Kindertransport operation, believing his friends who stayed in Prague took greater risks. For decades his heroism went largely unnoticed.

When BBC researchers from the BBC consumer affairs programme That’s Life! got wind of Winton’s story, they invited him to join the show as a member of the audience. Winton believed that he might have information that would help any of the Kindertransport children trace their families.

The host of the programme, Esther Rantzen, showed the scrapbook Winton kept, which recorded the details of 664 of the children. Later research would identify another five children who entered Britain on Kindertransport he organised.

Sitting in the audience, Winton was introduced to three children he had helped to rescue, one of whom was Vera, in a highly emotional reunion. None of the children had known who had saved them from being killed. A fourth child, Rudolph Wessely, was also in the audience. He and Winton had met by chance in the 1970s when they both worked for a charity providing housing for older people.

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