Josefina Napravilova was born on Jan. 21, 1914, in Plzen, a bustling Austro-Hungarian city west of Prague. She was the only child of Adolf and Bohumila Gottfried. When she was six months old, her father left to fight in the First World War, and he never returned, remaining instead in Trieste, Italy, to build a factory. Josefina grew up in her mother’s care, in a modest home in Plzen. They attended the theatre together every Thursday evening. She had lessons in music, dance and languages. Her mother instilled in her strong values of humanism and social equality, rooted in the burgeoning Czech cultural nationalism of the time.
“My mother was my lifelong role model,” Ms. Napravilova wrote in her book.
Her first love was a young poet named Miloslav Matasov, but she left him behind in Plzen when she moved to Prague with her mother to attend law school. Her studies were abruptly halted in 1939, though, when Charles University was closed during the Nazi occupation.
She met and quickly married Karel Napravil, a wealthy banker. They moved into an apartment on Karlovo Namesti, in central Prague.
While she was resting after lunch at the apartment on Feb. 14, 1945, her life took another abrupt turn. American forces dropped 152 tons of bombs on Prague. The bombs fell just out her window, and she said she was lucky to survive. That day, 701 people died and 1,184 were wounded. She ran out into the streets to help the injured. She said she felt an urgent calling to do it.
In May, she joined the Prague Uprising, a battle to liberate the city from the German occupation. She filled in at Karlovo Namesti hospital, next to her apartment, improvising as a nurse while those who were better qualified were stuck behind barricades.
“At first I fainted during the amputations, but I eventually got used to it,” she wrote.
Family friend Gillis Rosborg, the Swedish consul in Prague, told her about the flood of people drifting into Prague from the concentration camps. Ms. Napravilova joined the Red Cross and spent long days handing out food stamps and clothing. As the people and their stories poured in, she began to document missing family members in her notebooks.
Meanwhile, Mr. Rosborg had heard that 15 Czech girls released from Ravensbrueck were stuck in Smaland, Sweden. He asked Ms. Napravilova to travel there and help them return home.
Her treacherous journey to find missing children had begun. The girls’ recovery was fairly straightforward, but she quickly found more difficult cases: The children Hitler had attempted to assimilate into Nazi Germany. Her efforts were complicated by the fact that toward the end of the war, the Nazis had relocated many children to the countryside. Ms. Napravilova crisscrossed Germany and Poland, then went back to Sweden and Austria.
By the spring of 1946, she had helped recover several dozen Czech and Slovak children.
“The greatest reward is to see joy in the eyes of children …” she wrote in her memoir. “I could never have children of my own, but in the end, I like to think I had 40 children. They were all between the ages of 2 and 15 when I found them.”
In 1947, she followed her husband to Vienna. But as the Communist regime gripped Czechoslovakia, they soon realized they could not return to Prague. Her husband died of a heart attack a year later. She joined the International Refugee Organization, and in an ironic twist, began helping Czechs flee to Austria. Consequently, she was stripped her of her citizenship, and became stateless.
Friends in Canada helped her emigrate, and she landed in Halifax on Dec. 6, 1949, moving on to Vancouver, where she found a job as a bank teller at CIBC. Her talent for detective work undoubtedly contributed to her eventual promotion to auditor, which saw her reviewing financial records. She retired in 1979, but worked at the bank occasionally for another four years, especially at tax time.