"We were very lucky": Preston's Lady Milena tells her incredible story on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz

"My train was the last train," says Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines. "But the real last train, as Sir Nicholas used to say, never left. There were 200 children waiting to leave when war broke out and the borders were closed. Those children and 16,000 other Czechoslovak children died in concentration camps.

Monday, 27th January 2020, 10:24 am
Updated Monday, 27th January 2020, 10:25 am
Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines
Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines

"We were saved."

Born Milena Fleischmann in Czechoslovakia in 1929, Lady Milena was one of 669 refugee children saved from the Nazis by the legendary Sir Nicholas Winton who, as a 29-year-old about to embark on a Swiss skiing holiday, received a call to help Jewish refugees in Prague from his friend Martin Blake in December 1938.

Abandoning his travel arrangements, Sir Nicholas swiftly made his way to Czechoslovakia and, between March and August 1939, managed to organise for seven trains carrying almost 700 Jewish Czechoslovak children to travel to Britain along the Kindertransport route. The eighth never left the city.

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Lady Milena's travel documents from 1939.

"I know it happened, but I honestly can't remember much," said Lady Milena, 90, of the journey to Britain. "I know I didn't cry. I know my sister [three-and-a-half-year-old Eva] was completely silent and that my grandfather and mother came to see me off on the train with all the other children.

"Most of the children we're being told 'we'll see you in a few months' time, you're going on a holiday'," Lady Milena added. "Some of the little ones cried and some of the older ones realised the seriousness of what was happening. I wouldn't say it was an adventure, but you just got on with it. We were very lucky."

Lady Milena's sentiments towards Sir Nicholas are clear.

"By the time Nicholas Winton came to help the Czech and Slovak children, England was saying 'we don't want any more refugees, there's not going to be a war, Mr Chamberlain and Hitler have agreed that as long as Germany can occupy the border area of Czechoslovakia - the Sudetenland - that's all they want'," explained Lady Milena. "But, of course, that wasn't true.

Lady Milena unveiling a plaque in Prague.

"The Czech and Slovak parents began to feel very anxious and were desperate to try and send the children to England," she continued. "When Sir Nicholas came to Prague, he had a queue of 2,000 families all asking to get their children on his list.

"It's been a mystery all these years how mine and my sister's names got on that list."

Told by the Home Office that he had to find families for children and secure the considerable sum of £50 per child for future repatriation costs before Britain would accept any Czechoslovak refugees, Sir Nicholas advertised for help in the Picture Post. He received thousands of letters of reply from willing families.

One of them - the Radcliffes of Ashton-under-Lyne in Greater Manchester - took Milena and Eva in when they arrived.

The autograph book left to Lady Milena by her grandfather and inscribed with the message 'Be mindful and remember to remain loyal to your country which you are leaving, to your dear parents, and to your grandfather, who loves you very much.'

Milena's father, Rudolph Fleischmann - both Jewish and a supporter of the anti-Nazi author Thomas Mann - had fled Czechoslovakia a day before the Nazi invasion in March 1939 and had made it to England. Beleaguered by chest problems, however, Rudolph was too ill to care for his daughters and his wife, Sofia, would only arrive in Britain in 1940, escaping Czechoslovakia via Norway.

Moving their 14-year-old daughter Mary out to live with a grandmother so as to make space for the girls, Roland Radcliffe, the secretary of the local Labour Party, and his wife cared for the Fleischmann sisters in their two-bedroom terraced house.

With her father insistent that she continue to speak her mother tongue of Czech, Milena went on to attend the Czechoslovak State Boarding School in Llanwrtyd Wells in Wales, which was operated by the Czech government and which at one point had to be evacuated to Whitchurch in Shropshire and later to the Brecon Beacons. The language skills served her well: Milena worked as an interpreter for the Czech national football team in the 1996 European Championships in England.

Eventually joining her father, who had moved for work, in Preston, Milena met her husband-to-be George Grenfell-Baines in the city. A gifted mathematician from a very poor background, George nevertheless went on to study at Manchester University, becoming an architect, town planner, and professor of architecture at Sheffield University. The couple married in 1954 with Sir George, who died in 2003 at the age of 95, knighted in 1978.

Lady Milena with Sir Nicholas Winton.

Lady Milena never forgot that trans-continental journey which saved her and 668 other children, though.

"It took all of 40 years to discover who rescued us," said Lady Milena. On an episode of Esther Rantzen's That's Life in 1988, Sir Nicholas was famously told live on air that he was seated next to Vera Gissing, one of the children he saved. To his right and just out of shot was Lady Milena.

"He's a star in the Czech Republic," she said simply, having gotten to know the late Sir Nicholas well. "Everyone knows who Sir Nicholas Winton is."

In London to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland, Lady Milena, who lives on West Cliff in Preston, says it's surreal to cast her mind back to that life-saving journey on July 31st, 1939.

On the train station platform in Prague before she left, Milena's grandfather gave her an autograph book inscribed with a message reading 'Be mindful and remember to remain loyal to your country which you are leaving, to your dear parents, and to your grandfather, who loves you very much.' He had also had the foresight to get messages from her aunts and uncles.

Milena never saw her grandfather or the rest of her family again.

"One distant cousin survived; she managed to survive three concentration camps including Belsen," explained Lady Milena, with some of her family taken to Theresienstadt, a hybrid concentration camp and ghetto in Terezín, Czechoslovakia established by the SS. "My grandfather, my grandmother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, who were the same age as we were, were all taken away.

"I've been to Terezín, but I've never been to Auschwitz," Lady Milena added. "I really can't face going knowing what happened to my family. It's too raw.

"I'm very aware of what happened all those years ago yet there are millions today who don't know," Lady Milena continued. "And we still have other genocides like Kosovo. Somehow, nothing has changed; there are orphans stranded in Greece and Jordan right now.

"One of the then-children travelling on one of the trains before me was Alf Dubs; we were at school together," Lady Milena said of the Labour peer, whose Lords amendment to the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill to allow unaccompanied child refugees to join their families in the UK after Brexit was recently voted down by MPs.

"It's been 70 years of no war in this country and, as sad as it is, it's a completely different time and generation," she added. "One can only hope that there are good people who would be and are willing to take in today's survivors.

"I'm only a survivor because I managed to escape. We are the remnants of that age."