“Winton train” sisters: We’re the last authentic witnesses to those events

Eva Paddock and Milena Grenfell-Baines

On Friday evening the Nicholas Winton biopic One Life gets its Czech premiere in Prague, where it is partly set. The film climaxes with Winton’s 1988 appearance on Esther Rantzen’s TV show That’s Life, when the discovery of how the Englishman saved 669 mostly Jewish children from the Holocaust allowed many of those survivors to connect with him for the first time

Among the children on the “kindertransports” to the UK organised by Winton and several others were half-sisters Eva Paddock and Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines, who are today aged 88 and 94. The women, whose maiden name was Fleischmann, came to Prague for the movie’s Czech premiere. Just ahead of the big event, I caught up with them.

Is it the case that you were on the very last kindertransport that got out of Prague, Eva? When was that?

Paddock: “That’s correct. That was July 29, 30 [1939], and we were on that last train.

“If it wasn’t for Esther Rantzen, there wouldn’t be a Nicholas Winton.”

“As people have heard, Nicky Winton had another train ready to go, with another 200 children, which was loaded and ready to go on September 1.

“That’s when war was declared and the children were not allowed to leave. And it’s presumed that most of them lost their lives in various camps.”

At that time you were three or something?

Paddock: “I was three and a half. Milena and I were on that train and we were taken into the home of a wonderful, wonderful couple in Ashton-under-Lyne [in Greater Manchester], people we came to know as Mummy and Daddy Radcliff.

“We were very fortunate. We were much loved and very, very well looked after. Later my mother escaped; my father had been able to get to England but he was ill and wasn’t able to look after us.

“My mother was able to leave in 1940, in a very convoluted way via Norway, and we were eventually reunited. And we were raised in Ashton-under-Lyne."

Milena, do you know how your step-mother secured the places on the train for you girls?

Grenfell-Baines: “This has always been a mystery to us. Because it was 40 years after we’d been in England that we discovered who had actually organised those trains – the famous Esther Rantzen story.

One Life Trailer #1 (2024)

“I’m going to digress a little bit: If it wasn’t for Esther Rantzen, there wouldn’t be a Nicholas Winton. He’s become a world-famous character, but it was thanks to her really that this happened.

“But to go back, it was a mystery how we got on that train. Our parents never spoke about it. We know that other children’s parents and foster parents never talked about it.

“As I say, it was 40 years before we discovered it, by which time some of the children, like us, had grown up and probably forgotten their past – didn’t want to know about the past.”

Eva, have you ever thought about what was going through your mother’s mind when she took you to the Main Train Station in Prague and put you girls on that train?

Paddock: “A lot. Mainly from the adult perspective of looking at my children and grandchildren.

“And I did meet with my mother later in life and we talked about this – and she said she felt she was dying.”

Do you have any recollections of the train itself?

Grenfell-Baines: “Absolutely not. My recollections and my memories are in my autograph book and the label, which I still have, that we had around our necks.

“That’s the only way I can recall what happened – what’s written in the book.

“I’ve discussed this with a psychiatrist and he said it was quite normal to forget. And at our age... it’s 80 years ago that it all happened.

“And I honestly cannot remember physically being on that train.”

Paddock: “I think in the lingo it’s called repressed memory, which of course everybody understands.

“I honestly cannot remember physically being on that train.”

“My recollection is of being very seasick on the boat and somebody gave me bananas. And I always decided that was why I didn’t like bananas for a long time – but I got over that [laughs].”

Grenfell-Baines: “I remember seeing a photograph of her, of us, arriving in Liverpool Street Station and I think Eva must have been in shock.

“The only thing I know is that she didn’t really talk on the journey, and I’m pretty sure that she was – at three – completely traumatised.

“Because being nine, and I was supposed to look after her, I can’t remember taking her to the toilet on the train. I can’t remember making her eat.

“The only memories that we all had, which we all shared, was when we got to Holland and we were put on this big ship going to England.

“They gave us tea with milk – and nobody liked tea with milk. And we were given white bread sandwiches and nobody liked white bread.

“And this is something that you can read in other people’s recollections. If they remember nothing else, they remember the food!”

Paddock: “'Cotton wool bread' [laughs] – as opposed to the good Czech bread that we were used to.”

Given your dad was in the UK before you arrived, why did you stay with this British family, the Radcliffs?

Paddock: “He had a chronic lung condition, so he was in hospital when we arrived and was not allowed out. Eventually he was able to come and live in digs near to where we were.

“And that’s another interesting thing. We had no idea how people knew where we were and how they reconnected us.

“But he did come to live up north, in Ashton-under-Lyne, and we saw him. But he would not have been able to receive us from the train, or anything like that.

“The Radcliffs had already volunteered to take these two refugees. In fact they were going to just one and then they saw a picture of the two of us.

“I was very cute, you know – we’ll leave the rest to the imagination [laughs].

"And they lived in a two-up two-down, 72 Alexandra Street. They had a daughter, 16, who was of course then already working in the mill; it was a mill town. And in order to take the two of us Mary went to live with grandma down the street and the Radcliffs took us in.

“As I say to people, we had no sell-by date. I mean, they could have been stuck with us forever.

“And we were able to maintain that relationship throughout their lives. My parents became friends of theirs and we were just very, very fortunate.”

That’s a really beautiful story. What do you recall of the end of the war, when you would have been 15, I guess, Milena, and you were nine or 10, Eva?

Grenfell-Baines: “I’ll go back a little bit. First of all, I went to an English school for two years. And then the Czech government [in exile] opened a special school for some of the Czech refugees, so I spent the last three years in Czech school.

“The end of the war was declared while we were at school, and most of those kids were thinking, Oh great, we’ll go home.

“I do have stories from them. Some of them were literally flown back and sitting on the floor in the planes, getting out in Prague and going to the famous theatre opposite the Obecní dům [Municipal House], which was the clearing station where people all the notices were on the wall – people looking for people. And most of them found no-one.

“I came back from school, where I had been sent by my parents. Eva had been at home. And I honestly don’t remember any special celebrations.

“Our parents decided to stay in England. Although Beneš had come back and the country was still free, there was already a socialist feeling. And when the Communists finally took over in ’48, that was why my parents decided to stay in England.

“I think if my father had had his way he would have loved to have come back, but I think my stepmother, who was Latvian originally, and had lived through the Russian Revolution, basically said, No – we’re going to stay in England.”

Paddock: “My father had already got a job with UNNRA, the United Nations relief organisation, and realised that the country had become communist.

“And what he said was, I don’t want to have to run twice. So they stayed in England and got citizenship and they thought Britain was just a wonderful country – which it was.”

How did these experiences, and knowing that essentially you were extremely lucky to have survived the Holocaust, shape your outlook later in life? Or did they?

Grenfell-Baines: “Well, we lived in the north of England and probably away from much of the political activity that was going on, perhaps around London, with some of the other refugees.

“I had gone to school, came home – and had to go to work. Because at that time the only support was from the Czech government and my father had got a job.

“And my mother, who was a doctor, had learnt enough English first to work as a volunteer and finally was admitted to work in a hospital.

“I became a children’s nursery nurse. And because our parents never spoke about the past we just got on with our lives.

“We had no sell-by date. They [foster family] could have been stuck with us forever.”

“I worked in a day nursery for three years and then I decided to get a job as an au pair in France, spent two years there, came home and met my future husband, got married and had children.

“We got on with our lives – and it really wasn’t until the Esther Rantzen show that things changed for us.”

Paddock: “I’ve been interested to learn who we, the escapees, the survivors, became. And most of us went into the helping professions, one way or another.

“Like Milena said, I also got married young and had a family and so on. It was only when we learned about Nicky that I began to think about and deal with the implications of that.

“I think it shaped what I wanted to do. I was a typical ‘50s housewife, and the husband went out to work.

“But I grew up literally and metaphorically and eventually went into a career in education and then became a therapist. And I think that my past experience gave me insights and the desire to work with people.

“Milena has done a huge amount with young people from the Czech Republic, promoting their careers and education in England, and so on.

“So I think it did shape our lives to become socially aware and active.”

Photo: Sir Nicholas Winton Memorial Trust

You’ve kind of touched on this already, but when did you first become aware of Nicholas Winton?

Grenfell-Baines: “I was in the kitchen one morning and the phone went. And this voice said, This is Esther Rantzen. I knew who Esther Rantzen was and my answer was, And I’m the Queen of England.

“I thought somebody was playing a joke and then this lady said, What was your name before you were married? I said, Fleischmann. She said, That’s right, I’ve got a list in front of me, with your name on it, and we’ve found this man, called Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 children – you and your sister were two of them.

“She said, We want to surprise him – would you come down to London and be one of the participants?

“I was so taken aback. I said, There are five other people I know in London who you could ask. She said, Yes, but we’ve just chosen some names from the list – are you prepared to come? And I said, OK.

“When I did finally get down to the studio she said, We’re asking this Mr. Winton to come – and you’re not to tell him who you are; you’re going to be sitting with him and we’re going to surprise him.

Vera Gissing  | Photo: Czech Television

“So he did turn up, and he was already in his 80s by then, and sat down and Esther Rantzen said, Mr. Winton, Vera Gissing is sitting on your left.

“Vera by then had written a book, Pearls of Childhood, which was sitting in the office of Esther Rantzen’s husband’s [Desmond Wilcox] – and he was planning to make a film out of Vera’s book.

“In that book, Vera writes, I’m still trying to find whoever it was that helped us.

“Now he [Winton] was so taken aback, and obviously quite upset by the whole thing. We all gathered in what was known as the Green Room, but he didn’t stay very long. We didn’t really get a chance to know him then.

“But Vera then discovered she’d only been living half an hour away from him, in the next small town, all those years. She then became a sort of private secretary of his, because Esther Rantzen said on screen, Those of you who came, get in touch.

“Most of us survivors went into the helping professions, one way or another.”

“The following week she had them all in the studio, with Winton back, and that’s when she said, Those of you who he rescued, can you please stand up; when you watch this film, these put these two moments together.

“Eventually, when he talked about it, he said, I realised from the 669 children I had a family of 5,000.”

I wanted to ask you: Did this whole development, when his story came out, give you two a kind of new community?

Paddock: “Yes, it did. And also the film now has come full circle, bringing that time back to importance.

“It has also motivated both of us to make sure that we talk about it and discuss it and educate people as much as we can.

“Because we’re the last authentic witnesses to those events, and that’s a very important part of it.”

Obviously it’s very hard to emulate such a great man as Nicholas Winton. But is there anything you feel that we should take from his story? Or any lesson that we should learn from it?

Grenfell-Baines: “Yes. As he said, If you can do something, try and do it. As Eva’s just said, one of the things that we do is visit schools. And we want to leave them with the message that, as he would say, It’s not just about not being bad, being good; even if you just help an old lady cross the street.

Nicholas Winton | Photo: Czech Television

“Think of what you can do to help the next person.”

Paddock: “Yes. I think the major lessons of his life are pure altruism, because there was nothing in it for him whatsoever.

“And, to use I think his phrase, the power of one. As I talk to kids I say, You don’t need a committee – if you see something that needs doing, you make the committee. You start. One person can make a difference, in everybody’s life.”

You’re here for the Czech premiere of One Life. What do you make of the movie?

Paddock: “I think it’s a wonderful depiction of a great man, and a very powerful message for everyone, to see and emulate his life.”

Grenfell-Baines: “I think she said it all.”