For more than half a century, few knew the story of Josefina Napravilova’s extraordinary efforts to track down and repatriate Czechoslovak children at the end of the Second World War. Ms. Napravilova rarely discussed her past while living quietly in Canada for 45 years. It was only when she moved back to her homeland at age 80 that her heroic achievements slowly came to light.
When she died Feb. 20 at age 100 in a nursing home in Tabor, a village south of Prague, she was a Czech celebrity. That afternoon she had received a visit from the President, and a tabloid headline the following day announced, “She Saw President Zeman … And Then Died.”
“Your history always eventually comes back at you, no matter where you are in the world,” she wrote in her 48-page autobiography, Dreams and Memories, published last year.
In the chaos of postwar Europe, a tireless 31-year-old Josefina Napravilova set out to find Czechoslovak children who had been scattered by the Nazis, and take them home. Following tenuous leads and vague hunches, she hitched rides across the countryside, often in the back of military trucks. She slept on benches in train stations. She relied on her knowledge of several languages, and had a remarkable gift for detective work and meticulous documentation. In the end, she found about 40 children.
The Nazis had sent hundreds of them from occupied Czechoslovakia to concentration camps. Many had been killed, but some were placed with SS families, given German names and forced to assimilate.
Such was the case with the children of Lidice. Most infamously, on June 10, 1942, Hitler ordered that the village, near Prague, be wiped off the map as an act of revenge for the assassination of high-ranking Nazi officer Reinhard Heydrich (known as Heydrich the Hangman) days earlier in Prague. Czechoslovak parachutists, sent in from England, had orchestrated the attack, so Hitler directed his rage at their compatriots. All the men of Lidice were rounded up and shot, the women were sent to Ravensbrueck concentration camp, and of the village’s 105 children, most were sent to a Nazi extermination camp in occupied Poland and only 17 were spared. One of them was 8-year-old Vaclav Hanf.
The boy was placed with the family of a German SS officer, with his sister, but he rebelled, so he was sent to a Hitler Youth military camp. When he refused to co-operate, there, an SS officer smashed his left knee. He was moved from camp to camp and at one point he was shot in the left arm, but he recovered.
In 1945, Mrs. Napravilova found Vaclav, then 11, at a displaced persons camp in Salzburg. She was pushing her way through a crowd of 200 children, repeating the Czech words for mother, father and grandmother, hoping to trigger early childhood memories. Vaclav stepped forward, saying he was Czech, but he had no documents to prove it. Only when the boy identified a picture of his mother and father, as well as an old school photo from Lidice to the officer in charge, was he free to leave with Ms. Napravilova and return to Prague by train. She took him into her home for several days, and they celebrated Christmas together with her husband.
They bonded, and Ms. Napravilova, who had no children, offered to adopt Vaclav. But his sisters had also returned home, and he was sent to live with them instead at their uncle’s home near Lidice.
“She was an incredibly kind woman. I loved Mrs. Napravilova and I will never forget her. I called her my second mother,” Mr. Hanf said.