MADISON (WKOW) – The world this week mourned the loss of Sir Nicholas Winton, the Englishman credited with saving 669 lives during the Holocaust.
Winton, was passed away July 1 at the age of 106-years old, organized for 669 Jewish children living in what was at the time Czechoslovakia to be transported by train to England, where they lived out the war with foster families.
Renata Laxova, of Madison, was one of the 669 children rescued.
“He was a wonderful person,” she said of Winton.
“I always feel gratitude and awe when I think about him,” Laxova said. “He was an exceptional human being and he changed my life.”
Laxova said German forces first arrived in Czechoslovakia in March of 1939. She said Jews living there came under fire almost immediately.
“Jews were not allowed to go swimming. We weren't allowed to go on outings. We weren't allowed to go to school,” Laxova said. “I never finished second grade.”
Laxova said her mother had an intuition that conditions for Jews living in Czechoslovakia would become even worse. So she wrote a letter to a British Member of Parliament asking for help in getting her young daughter to a safe home in England.
Laxova said the MP's secretary responded and assured her mother that their office would help in transporting her only child to safety.
Laxova's picture and biography were distributed along with those of other, Czechoslovakian Jewish children, to various religious and philanthropic organizations in England.
Foster families would then take the children in, provided each one could pay 50 pounds and that the family would serve as a guarantor, ensuring it would care for the child until he or she reached the age of 18-years old.
Laxova said the whole operation was organized by Winton, though she didn't know it at the time.
She said her parents were contacted by the Daniels family, who lived near the city of Manchester and assured them they'd be willing to take Renata in.
Laxova boarded a train to England on the night of July 31 1939. She said she still remembers saying goodbye to her parents at the train station in Prague.
“My parents were honest with me,” she said. “They told me the truth. They didn't say I was going on holiday to England and that they would come get me. Some of the other children, that's what they believed.”
“We were told to be at the railway station in the middle of the night,” Laxova said. “We got into a taxi and we were going to the station, and that's when it hit me. I knew my parents weren't coming. I was going alone.”
“That's when I started to cry,” Laxova said. “I begged them not to send me. But they were convinced this was a matter of life and death.”
Winton arranged for a total of eight such trains to transport kids from Czechoslovakia to England. Laxova said she was on the eighth and final train.
She said a ninth train was scheduled to leave on September 1, 1939. But she said Hitler and Germany invaded Poland that day, leading Britain to officially declare war against the Nazis.
“The 250 children on the train were not allowed to leave Prague,” Laxova said. “That train stood there and those children were never heard from again.”
“Sir Nicholas Winton always mentioned that he regretted that the last transport couldn't leave,” she said.
Laxova said she lived with the Daniels family during the war and was eventually reunited with her parents, who both survived.
Upon returning to Czechoslovakia, Laxova received a medical degree, married and had two children.
The family moved to England, but Laxova said her husband, a veterinarian, always wanted to move to the United States. Laxova said her family moved to Madison after her husband was offered a job here. She eventually took a job as a professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin.
In 2009, Laxova had the chance to meet Winton at a special reception organized on the 70th anniversary of the historic train rides.
She said he was surrounded by people, but she managed to make her way over to him during a special reception at the Czech embassy in London.
“I shook his hand, I kissed his hand, and I kissed him on the cheek,” she said.
Laxova is now one of a group of holocaust survivors who share their stories with students and other groups in conjunction with the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center in Milwaukee.
The center, which includes a library, offers training for teachers and other educators regarding the Holocaust and how to best explain and teach it to middle school and high school students, said executive director Shay Pilnik.
“I would say each of the survivors who speaks for us is performing a heroic act by volunteering to share their stories for free,” Pilnik said.
“For some of the survivors, this is a therapeutic process that helps them recover, as much as possible, from the traumatic experiences they had as young people,” Pilnik said.