116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When Renata Laxova was just 8 years old, a train took her away from everything she had ever known. She said goodbye to her country, her language and her parents, unsure if she would ever see them again.
That train ride saved her life. She was one of 669 children rescued by British man Nicholas Winton, who organized the transport of refugee children, most of them Jewish, from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to the United Kingdom.
Laxova now 84 and living in Madison, Wis., was on the eighth train Winton organized. A ninth train, with 250 children on board, was stopped from leaving a few months later. All of the children aboard that train are believed to have perished in the Holocaust.
Laxova will share her story at several talks in Eastern Iowa from April 12 to 14, including a Holocaust Remembrance service at Mount Mercy University on April 12, organized by the Thaler Holocaust Memorial Fund and the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County.
The service is one of several events around the state to mark Holocaust Remembrance Month. On Wednesday, The National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids will screen 'Nicky's Family,” a movie which tells the story of the trains that rescued Laxova. The film accompanies an exhibit at the museum, 'The Tragedy of the Slovak Jews,” on display through April 19.
Another speaker, Auschwitz concentration camp survivor Esther Bauer, will share her story in Decorah on Tuesday.
A hard goodbye
As Laxova's train pulled away from the Prague train station at midnight on July 31, 1939, she remembers crying. Some of the children's parents had promised they would be reunited soon. Hers had not.
'My parents never promised they would come and get me or follow me. I was grateful my parents were honest with me despite my young age,” she says. 'They promised they would try, but I knew it was very difficult for people to get permission to leave occupied countries.”
The United Kingdon admitted some 10,000 refugee children, most from Germany and Austria, and placed them with foster families. In Brno, in what is now the Czech Republic, Laxova was an only child.
When she arrived in the U.K., she moved in with the Daniels family and gained a younger brother - Harry.
She lived with them in a suburb of Manchester, England, for seven years. She is still close with Harry, who named his daughter Renata after her. She, in turn, named her daughter Daniela for her adoptive family's last name.
'I got a good education there. When I came back to my home country, I could speak only English,” she says. 'For seven years, there was no one to talk to except in English.”
After the war ended, a miracle. Her mother came and found her. Against the odds, her parents had survived.
Her mother had fled Brno and assumed a false identity to hide the fact she was Jewish. Her father was a laborer, a job he reached by train each day. One day, his train stopped in the middle of the tracks, and someone shouted, 'All Jews out!” While the other 39 men onboard left the train, her father had a hunch and hid in the toilet. Soon he heard the other men being gunned down.
After that, Laxova knows he hid various places, was captured and escaped. But she doesn't know many details. Like many survivors, he didn't like to talk about what he'd gone through.
'I always say Sir Nicholas rescued them too. Because they didn't have me, they could do whatever they had to do to survive,” she says. 'They were young, and they were brave and strong, and so they survived.”
Coming to America
After returning to the Czech Republic, Laxova received her Ph.D. in medical genetics in 1956. She married Tibor Lax, a veterinarian, and had two children. When Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, she and her family fled back to the U.K.
In 1975, Laxova was appointed to the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her family moved to the United States. Today, she is retired but remains an emeritus professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she discovered the Neu-Laxová syndrome, a rare congenital abnormality involving multiple organs.
That part of her life was possible thanks to the actions of that one man - Winton, who is still living in England at age 106 - who decided to do something when he saw children in danger, and thanks to the family who took her in.
Laxova says she wants others who hear her story to be inspired to help others as well.
'I think it's important for people to appreciate what they have,” she says. 'Do whatever you can to help other people who are less fortunate than you. Don't abuse what you have, and try to do your best. That's all.”
l What: Holocaust survivor Renata Laxova will speak at 'Lest We Forget: A Service of Remembrance for the Victims of the Holocaust”
l Where: Mount Mercy University Chapel, 1330 Elmhurst Drive NE, Cedar Rapids
l When: 7 p.m. April 12
l 1 p.m. April 13, Coe College, Sinclair Auditorium, 1220 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids
l 6:30 p.m. April 13, Cornell College, Hall-Perrine Room in Thomas Common, 600 First St. SW, Mount Vernon
l 12:30 p.m. April 14, Kirkwood Community College, 6301 Kirkwood Blvd SW, Cedar Rapids
'The Tragedy of Slovak Jews” documents the story of Slovak Jews before and during the Holocaust.
Petrik Gallery, National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Pl. SW, Cedar Rapids
Through April 19
'Nicky's Family” tells the nearly forgotten story of Nicholas Winton, an Englishman who organized the rescue of 669 Czech and Slovak children just before the outbreak of World War II.
7 p.m. April 1
Hemphill Theater, National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Pl. SW, Cedar Rapids
l What: Holocaust survivor Esther Bauer will present the lecture 'Living History: A Holocaust Survivor Story”
l Where: Main Hall, Center for Faith and Life, Luther College, 700 College Drive, Decorah
l When: 7:30 p.m. March 31
l Cost: $5, Tickets.luther.edu or (563) 387-1357