Post-Its | Rabbi’s Corner

Rabbi’s Corner: One Of the Greatest Moments in TV History

There he is, totally oblivious to what is about to happen. He is caught in the spotlight, bewildered, in his own world. The whole studio audience stands. Nicholas Winton, on the front row, has no idea until someone taps him on the shoulder and asks him to turn. Only then does it sink in what he has done. 

For those of you unfamiliar with the story of Sir Nicholas Winton, let me enlighten you. Sir Nicholas was known for organizing the rescue of 669 Czech children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia during the nine months before war broke out in 1939. He was a stockbroker living a relatively comfortable life in London but his moral compass drove him to look into the plight of vulnerable Jewish children on the European continent. Much of the time Winton battled against mundane bureaucracy to get the required paperwork for the children. At other moments, he had to use his powers of persuasion to get the “pen-pushers” to bend the rules. In his own words, “I was only interested in getting the children to England and I didn’t mind a damn what happened to them afterwards, because the worst that would happen to them in England was better than being in the fire.” (The Guardian, January 1, 2024)

Many years after the war, in Britain, there was a famous TV show called “That’s Life.” Its Jewish host, Esther Rantzen, would highlight human interest stories, fight for consumer rights and raise up the names of people who had done extraordinary things. The team behind the show had discovered Winton’s story and that of the children he had saved and decided a wider audience should be informed and inspired. Unbeknownst to Winton the whole studio audience, on the day he attended in 1988, was populated by people whom he and his team had saved. He had never sought them to garner thanks, having assumed their lives had proceeded in a straightforward manner once they had escaped the Nazis. 

During that particular episode, the hosts read out letters of gratitude, not just from those survivors, but also from their children and grandchildren, who knew they were extremely fortunate to have their Czech evacuee relatives in their lives. A few minutes into the TV show, the host reveals that Winton is sitting next to one of his evacuees and he starts weeping. Then another audience member also explains how they were part of a similar group that Winton saved. Several months later, with Winton again in attendance, the host asks, “Can I ask, is there anyone in the audience tonight who owes their life to Nicholas Winton? If there is, could you stand up please?” The whole audience rises. “You’ll have a chance to meet them properly later on but, on behalf of all of them,” the host continues employing classic British understatement, “thank you very much indeed.” 

For our viewing pleasure, on our respective TV screens, there might be spectacular Superbowl endings, much-viewed season finales, and the chronicling of supreme historical moments. Nevertheless, in my humble opinion, this remains one of the greatest moments in TV history.