Dame Esther Rantzen reveals ‘British Schindler’ Nicholas Winton’s guilt over failure to rescue final trainload of 250 Jewish children destined for Nazi death camps in 1939 – as new film starring Anthony Hopkins depicts famous That’s Life moment

Sir Nicholas Winton’s rescue of nearly 700 mostly Jewish children from near certain death in the Holocaust was famously highlighted on That’s Life in 1988.

Live on TV, the wartime hero was reunited with many of the men and women whose lives he had saved by organising homes for them in Britain in 1939.

But Dame Esther Rantzen, who as the presenter of That’s Life orchestrated the emotional reunion, revealed the stockbroker was haunted by the guilt that a final trainload of children could not be saved.

Speaking as Sir Nicholas is set to be portrayed by Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins in an upcoming film, Dame Esther told BBC Radio 4 yesterday that he told her before his TV appearance that he ‘hadn’t saved enough’.

She said she had been ‘determined’ to make him understand just how many lives he had saved, so invited as many survivors as possible onto the show to surprise him. 

The moment the much of the studio audience stands up when they are asked if they ‘owe their lives to Nicholas Winton’ – as the emotional businessman looks on amazed – has been watched millions of times online.

Sir Nicholas, who later became known as ‘Britain’s Schindler’, had been unable to get a final train carrying 250 children out of Czechoslovakia because of the Nazis’ invasion of Poland, which triggered the start of the Second World War.

Sir Nicholas in the Czech Republic in 2014, receiving the Order of the White Lion, the country's highest honour

Sir Nicholas Winton rescued 669 mostly Jewish children from near certain death in the Holocaust. Above: Sir Nicholas with one of the children he rescued from Czechoslovakia; Sir Nicholas in the Czech Republic in 2014, receiving the Order of the White Lion, the country’s highest honour 

Live on TV show That's Life in 1988, the hero was reunited with many of the men and women whose lives he had saved by organising homes for them in Britain in 1939

Live on TV show That’s Life in 1988, the hero was reunited with many of the men and women whose lives he had saved by organising homes for them in Britain in 1939

The country’s borders were closed and the children were taken off the train, with nearly all going on to die in the Holocaust.

Overall, around six million Jewish men, women and children were murdered, mostly in the Nazis’ network of death camps in occupied Europe. 

Sir Anthony, 85, is starring as Sir Nicholas – who died aged 106 in 2015 – in One Life, which will be released in September. 

Dame Esther, 83, told the Today Programme: ‘Having seen this brilliant film, I have been thinking about that moment and wondering to myself why Nicky had kept quiet about his extraordinary achievement for so long and why I had that idea of surrounding him with the surprise, they didn’t realise who had saved him and he was meeting for the first time the people he had saved.’

She said he had told her over the phone before his TV appearance that he ‘hadn’t saved enough’.   

‘I said why do you say that. And he said because there was a last train, it had 250 children on the train… they had closed the border and all those children had to be taken off the train.

‘That moment is reconstructed in this feature film. It traumatised Nicky, and I think for him, the memory was of his failure,’ she added.

Dame Esther Rantzen, who as the presenter of That's Life orchestrated the emotional reunion, told this week of Sir Nicholas's deep sense of guilt that a final trainload of children could not be saved. Above: The presenter in March last year

In 1983, when she was presenter of That's Life

Dame Esther Rantzen, who as the presenter of That’s Life orchestrated the emotional reunion, told this week of Sir Nicholas’s deep sense of guilt that a final trainload of children could not be saved. Above: The presenter in March last year, and in 1983, when she was presenter of That’s Life

Sir Nicholas is set to be portrayed by Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins in upcoming film One Life

Sir Nicholas is set to be portrayed by Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins in upcoming film One Life

Sir Anthony Hopkins filming scenes for One Life, which is set to be released in September

Sir Anthony Hopkins filming scenes for One Life, which is set to be released in September

‘When I heard him say that I was so determined to change that, to make him understand what he had done. 

‘And that is why we invited as many of those survivors as we possibly could, surrounded him with them as a surprise and he was forced to confront that although for him he hadn’t saved enough, he had saved hundreds of precious lives that would not exist without him.’

Also speaking yesterday was survivor Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines, who was aged nine in 1939 when she was saved by Sir Nicholas.

She was one of two survivors on That’s Life who were initially introduced to Sir Nicholas.  

‘To all of us it was a tremendous surprise at the solving of a mystery that had been haunting us for 40 odd years as to who and how we got on that train,’ she said.

Lady Grenfell-Baines told of how she was given an autograph book by her grandfather and was carrying it with her on the train. 

Her grandfather had the ‘good sense’ to fill the book with messages from relatives. 

She added that the book had the names of some of the children she travelled with on her train.  

Sir Nicholas’s grandson, Laurence, said: ‘We grew up knowing the Kinder people like Milena and others who would come to Nicky’s birthday parties and when i was a child I really didn’t know what the fuss was all about.

‘So it wasn’t until I turned 18 or so, and I had to think, hang on a moment, he really is not just my grandfather but really special in all these ways that people are saying.’ 

Sir Nicholas’s saved the children with the help of fellow Briton Trevor Chadwick, who was later lovingly called the Purbeck Schindler.

The pair met in Prague when they were both working as volunteers in helping children from Jewish families at risk from the Nazis.

Also speaking yesterday was survivor Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines, who was aged nine in 1939 when she was saved by Sir Nicholas. She was one of two survivors on That's Life who were initially introduced to Sir Nicholas

Also speaking yesterday was survivor Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines, who was aged nine in 1939 when she was saved by Sir Nicholas. She was one of two survivors on That’s Life who were initially introduced to Sir Nicholas

Despite his incredible feat, Sir Nicholas, who was a stockbroker, lived in relative anonymity until February 1988, when he appeared on BBC programme That's Life. Above: Winton meets Vera Gissing, one of the children he saved Despite his incredible feat, Sir Nicholas, who was a stockbroker, lived in relative anonymity until February 1988, when he appeared on BBC programme That's Life

Despite his incredible feat, Sir Nicholas, who was a stockbroker, lived in relative anonymity until February 1988, when he appeared on BBC programme That’s Life. Above: Winton meets Vera Gissing, one of the children he saved 

Returning to Britain six weeks before Czechoslovakia’s occupation by the Nazis, Winton helped to compile a list of Jewish children needing rescue and then found them homes and sponsors in Britain.

The operation famously became known as the Kindertransport, after the British government agreed that the children could come to Britain.

As Sir Nicholas worked from the UK, Chadwick remained in Czechoslovakia to help organise the trains needed to get children out of the country.

Chadwick stayed even after the Nazi occupation, negotiating with the Gestapo to obtain exit permits for the children to leave Prague.

The evacuation of children continued until the beginning of the war on September 1, 1939.

Speaking of Chadwick, Sir Nicholas later said: ‘Chadwick did the more difficult and dangerous work after the Nazis invaded… he deserves all praise.’

Despite his incredible feat, Sir Nicholas, who was a stockbroker, lived in relative anonymity until his appearance on That’s Life in February 1988. 

Producers of the programme had got hold of Sir Nicholas’s scrapbook, which recounted his rescue of the Jewish children.

As he sat in the front row on That’s Life, the audience and viewers at home were told his life story.

Near the end of the show, he was introduced to two women, Vera Gissing and Lady Grenfell-Baines.

Sir Nicholas worked closely with Trevor Chadwick (above), who was later dubbed the Purbeck Schindler

Sir Nicholas worked closely with Trevor Chadwick (above), who was later dubbed the Purbeck Schindler 

Producers then asked Sir Nicholas to come to the following Sunday’s show. He agreed, but he said he wanted to bring his wife.

During that famous broadcast, presenter Esther Rantzen asked: ‘Is there anybody in our audience tonight who owes their life to Nicholas Winton? If so, can you stand up please.’

After a short pause, four rows of middle-aged people stood up. All of them owed their lives to Sir Nicholas, who was knighted for his heroics in 2003.

He stood up slowly, turned round, and couldn’t quite believe how many there were.

He acknowledged them all and then sat down to wipe away tears.

Children saved by Sir Nicholas include Labour peer Alf Dubs, and poet Gerder Meyer.

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