VICTORY TOWNSHIP — A giant of a personality with a gentle voice, the diminutive lady with the larger than life story to tell barely cleared the podium from which she spoke.
Czechoslovakian-born Renata Laxova survived the Holocaust of World War II. She outran a “deranged maniac” named Hitler, and a “madman” named Stalin. She earned a college degree in medical genetics, became a published author, and for years has traveled from school to school and state to state to tell her story “of hope and courage.”
Some sat on the floor and some in the aisles at West Shore Community College (WSCC) Tuesday, while others stood along the back and side walls. All 272 chairs in the Center Stage Theater were taken by young and old, and another 60 chairs that had been spread out across the stage were filled with students from surrounding high schools.
It was estimated about 350 listened to Renata, who at 85 years old jokingly told her audience, “... you probably thought I was 35.”
And that’s how it went for the next 90 minutes or so. Renata would tell in soul-numbing detail of the atrocities carried out against her family and fellow countrymen, of how she and others survived and of how many did not, and then she’d crack a joke and a smile. It was as if she was talking to 350 friends in the comfort of her own Wisconsin living room.
“I thought she was wonderful,” said Kris Johnson, who served as a chaperone for a group of Manistee High School students.
“She was amazing … to have lived through both Hitler and Stalin.”
Claire Wittlieff, a student at Manistee Catholic Central, said she found Renata’s story to be “inspiring.”
“It was incredible (what she went through),” the 15-year-old student said. “Every detail, wow, she went through so much.”
Bernie Topping, 67 of Custer, said he was struck by how Renata remembered so much, while at the same time did not have to refer to a single note to deliver her message.
“She was so alert, so informative,” said Topping. “She has a very good memory, and she showed that. She really had a lot to say and I enjoyed listening to her.”
‘THERE WAS FEAR, YOU COULD FEEL IT’
By the time she turned 8 years old and with the world on the brink of an unimaginable world war, Renata would become one of 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia to be hustled off to England through the Kindertransport efforts of British humanitarian Sir Nicholas Winston.
While countless of their parents and siblings became victims of Nazi concentration and death camps — Renata’s parents survived the war and her family was reunited afterward — thousands of children from Poland, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia would be saved through Kindertransport, which means “children’s transport.”
Quietly shuttled to Great Britain, the children would live with British families, in hotels, and more, until the end of the war when they’d be returned to their home countries.