We were delighted to mark Refugee Week 2024 with a special screening of the 2023 film One Life, featuring a Q&A with the film’s director and screenwriter, and a relative of one of its main protagonists.

One Life tells the story of the kindertransports by which thousands of child refugees from Germany escaped Czechoslovakia and the imminent threat of Nazi persecution from 1938-39. A poignant testament to the power of sanctuary, the critically-acclaimed film also has several fascinating Somerville connections.

One Life was co-written by Lucinda Coxon (1981, English), a Somerville alumna and award-winning writer for both screen and stage, whose credits include The Danish Girl and The Crimson Petal and the White. It also depicts the famous episode of That’s Life in which Esther Rantzen (1959, English) brings to light the heroism of the British stockbroker Nicholas Winton as one of the main kindertransport organisers as she introduced him to a roomful of the grown-up children whom he had once saved.

Perhaps most intriguingly for Somerville audiences, One Life also features a show-stopping portrayal of Doreen Warriner, a Mary Somerville Research Fellow at Somerville from 1928-31. As Head of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, it was Doreen Warriner who first alerted Nicholas Winton to the desperate plight of refugee families – but Warriner was far more than a footnote to someone else’s story.

Somervillians Doreen Warriner, Esther Rantzen and Lucinda Coxon

Through a combination of organisational brilliance and her tireless lobbying of the British government (often abetted by Somerville’s first MP, Eleanor Rathbone), Doreen Warriner is thought to have saved more than 15,000 refugees from Nazi persecution from 1938-39. For this work she was awarded the OBE in 1941 and, posthumously, the British Hero of the Holocaust Medal 2018.

An audience of Somervillians and friends, including Doreen Warriner’s nephew and biographer, Henry Warriner, met at the Phoenix Picturehouse on Tuesday 18th June, to watch the story of Warriner, Nicky Winton and the other kindertransport organisers. There were few dry eyes in the house by the time the credits rolled.

Afterwards, guests returned to Somerville for drinks before heading upstairs for dinner. There, everyone was treated to the fabulous cooking of the Damascus Rose Kitchen, an Oxford-based social enterprise serving traditional Middle Eastern dishes prepared by women refugees.

Next came the Q&A, during which we heard from Lucinda and Henry as well as James Hawes, the film’s director and two Somervillians with a sanctuary background. We wish to thank our former Sanctuary Scholar Andrianna Bashar (2022, MSc Digital and Social Education), and our Research Fellow Dr Ammar Azzouz, author of Domicide, for sharing their lived experience of displacement, and their dreams of a better future empowered by learning.

Doreen Warriner had a quality that is rare today: she believed in the possibility of good news

Jean Rowntree, SOMERVILLIAN & friend of dorren warriner

The fascinating conversation began with reflections on the genesis of One Life and the unique burden that adapting such harrowing episodes from history carries. Guests were next treated to an eloquent summary of Doreen Warriner’s life by her nephew and biographer, Henry Warriner.

Finally, we ended with Lucinda and James’ thoughts on what telling a story like this can achieve in today’s world, where 117.3 million men, women and children are currently displaced. Here Lucinda turned to the letter sent by another Somervillian and activist for refugees, Jean Rowntree. Writing to The Times after Warriner’s death, Rowntree said of her daring and brilliant friend that she was ‘good company even in bad times’. Even more importantly, Rowntree wrote, Warriner possessed a quality that was rare then and is perhaps still rarer today: “She believed in the possibility of good news.”

Lucinda expressed the hope that if there is one thing their film might achieve, it is that we take some inspiration from the practical goodness of figures like Nicholas Winton and Doreen Warriner. Of course, we may never be able to do a fraction of what these two achieved. But if we can carry their belief in “the possibility of good news” with us into our own lives and communities, using it in however small a way to resist the forces that would demonise those without voices and power, then perhaps the world might be a rather better place.

We thank our guests for sharing these insights with us and making our Refugee Week event so memorable.

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