In 1938 after the first of the pogroms aimed at Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe — the Kristallnacht attacks — eight-year-old Renata Laxova’s parents feared for her life. They arranged for her to leave their home in what was then known as Czechoslovakia and head for the relative safety of England.
Laxova’s parents took her to a train station for the ride to a new life.
“It suddenly hit me that I was alone,” she said recently. “I had no idea where I was going. I started crying ‘Please don’t leave me.’ My mother said, ‘We want you to be able to learn and develop and not live under this cruel regime.’”
Laxova, now 83 years old, was one of the few fortunate Jewish children who escaped the brutality of Adolf Hitler’s cruel hand, the Holocaust, in which millions of Jews died. Her life led her to the University of Wisconsin where she was a researcher of human developmental disabilities.
The Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of Milwaukee arranged for Laxova to speak recently to area students at Necedah High School. The audience, many of whose parents probably had not been born when Laxova’s story began, sat attentively and silently for nearly two hours as she told how the rise of Hitler changed her life.
The change began in 1938 with the Munich Agreement that allowed Hitler to control Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, its German –speaking areas. While that pact led England’s Neville Chamberlain to declare “peace for our time,” it also led to the start of what was eventually known as the Nazi “final solution” to intimidate, and then eliminate Jews.
Laxova’s parents, along with other Jews in Czechoslovakia, could feel the rise of danger. When the Nazis took control, their home, Brno, which had been free and open to all, changed.
“Everywhere in my city it said ‘Jews forbidden,’” Laxova remembered.
As the fear grew, her parents started to make inquiries toward finding a safe place for their daughter, knowing they would not be able to follow. They were surprised to learn that several English groups shared their fear and were willing to arrange to move the eight-year-old girl to a new home.
In 1938, English stockbroker Nicholas Winton traveled to Prague to set up an operation to remove Jewish children from Czechoslovakia. Laxova was one of the 669 children who Winton sent out of the country on a train in July 1939, just in time. The next train arranged by Winton was stopped and the children who would have been on that train disappeared.
Somehow, Laxova, from her new home in Lancastershire, England, was able to stay in contact through Red Cross messages with her parents left behind in Czechoslovakia, even though her parents were arrested for accepting those messages. Just as miraculous, after the war, Laxova was able to rejoin her parents, who survived the war and the Holocaust.
Laxova returned to Czechoslovakia, but the Potsdam Agreements had given the then-Soviet Union control over that nation.
“The communists were no better than Hitler,” Laxova said.
After the Prague Spring reforms in 1968 led the Warsaw Pact to invade Czechoslovakia, Laxova and her parents made another escape to England. Laxova’s husband, a veterinarian, emigrated to Wisconsin because of an appreciation of this state’s dairy cattle, and that led her to join him at the University of Wisconsin.
While that affiliation led Laxova to a successful life in the United States, she still can’t forget the millions who were not able to escape. She vividly told the high school students a story she had heard of a Jewish family who had been attacked by Gestapo officers. When their children tried to escape, the children were shot.
“The last thing the parents saw of their children was their blood on their steps,” Laxova said.