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Josefina Napravilova lived in Canada for 45 years, but rarely discussed her efforts to track down and repatriate children at the end of the Second World War.
Josefina Napravilova lived in Canada for 45 years, but rarely discussed her efforts to track down and repatriate children at the end of the Second World War.

JOSEFINA NAPRAVILOVA rescuer of children, 100

Josefina Napravilova: ‘Second mother’ reunited Czech families Add to ...

“Computers were coming in, but I used my old, tried and true methods to find errors and mistakes.” She retired to Guelph Ont., and began a routine of feeding swans on the river. She never remarried.

Her volunteer work never stopped, though. Shortly after her arrival, she organized other Czechs to make it to Canada. In 1956, she helped Hungarians come, and in 1968, in the aftermath of Prague Spring, she helped yet another generation of Czechs emigrate.

She celebrated Czech holidays, and wrote her mother a letter every week until her death in 1972. “That was my religion. Instead of going to church on Sunday, I wrote to my mother,” she said.

When the Velvet Revolution erupted in Prague in 1989, Ms. Napravilova was there, supporting the students in the streets, taking them food and other supplies.

“Throughout her life, she showed up to help, at all the key moments in Czech history,” said Jiri Fiedor, a documentary filmmaker who interviewed Mrs. Napravilova for a program titled Unsung Heroes.

“Throughout my time in Canada, I always wondered if ‘Little Vaclav’ Hanf was still alive,” she wrote in her memoir.

In 1994, she returned to live in the Czech Republic. One day in 2000, her neighbour showed her a newspaper article in which Vaclav Hanf named her as the woman responsible for his safe return to Lidice. She contacted him and they met. They held hands, cried and called each other mother and son. Their friendship instantly resumed, 55 years later.

He and his family visited her frequently, and in 2009, when she could no longer live independently, Mr. Hanf offered to take her into his home.

“We wanted to have her come and live with us where we could take care of her,” Mr. Hanf said. “But the doctors wouldn’t allow it.”

She sold her villa and moved into a nursing home in Tabor, south of Prague, where she received frequent visits from friends, journalists, politicians and Mr. Hanf’s large extended family. She was awarded numerous honours, including a Masaryk Medal, and an honourary citizenship to the village of Lidice. She was still translating Czech poetry into English, and penned her memoirs at age 99.

She died in her sleep one month after her 100th birthday.

At her funeral in Tabor on Feb. 27, Vaclav Hanf, 79, laid a wreath with a banner reading, “For my Second Mother.”

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