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.
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.
“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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