Jewish leaders here want to honor a Czech woman who risked her life to help Jewish slave laborers during the Holocaust.
Helena Vovsova smuggled letters and packages to and from family members of half a dozen Jewish boys who, against their will, had been drafted to cut down trees on the estate of the widow of Reinhard Heydrich, the highest Nazi official in the Czech Republic
Vovsova was 15 when she took on a job as a gardener at the Panenske Brezany chateau just outside Prague in 1941. The following year it became the residence of Heydrich, who was assassinated by Czech agents after a shootout in Prague in May 1942.
But Heydrich’s wife Lina saw an opportunity for profit shortly after his death. She ordered Jews to be brought to the chateau to fell the trees, even though they were hundreds of years old and subject to preservation orders. She then sold them at a profit and developed a vegetable garden whose produce also could be sold to German soldiers.
Vovsova, one of a dozen local Czechs working at the chateau, took an enormous risk by helping the boys.
“They were young boys, maybe 19 years old, and I was sorry for them and wanted to help,” said Vovsova, 78, who said she hid letters under her clothing to fool the German guards. She also passed on food and clothing when she had the opportunity.
Prague Jewish officials learned about Vovsova’s exploits in the Czech media recently and say they now want to recognize her achievements. They plan to send details of her heroic activities to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel so she can be considered as a possible Righteous Gentile.
Vovsova said she only understood the risks involved when she found out that the Jewish brother of a chateau laborer was arrested a day after she delivered a letter to him. Her parents, she added, had no idea what she was up to at the time.
“She was a very courageous girl,” said Milan Platovsky, one of the few slave laborers at the chateau who is still alive. Speaking via telephone from Chile, where he is an honorary diplomat, Platovsky 81, said Vovsova was his “treasure contact. She would leave things in the garden and I would pick them up. She took tremendous risks because she was bringing me things for me and my friends.”
Prague community chairman Tomas Jelinek, who visited Vovsova earlier this month to ask what the Jewish community could do for her, said Vovsova had acted with courage under very difficult circumstances.
“We would like to express our thanks to this lady who took many risks to help Jewish people,” he said. “Miss Vovsova, who is now nearly 80, has indicated that she would like to stay in a senior residence and we will do what we can to help her, whether it is a Jewish, state or non-governmental residence.”
Vovsova, who has no family, was recently turned down by the Czech state for compensation on the grounds that her efforts were humanitarian rather than deliberate attempts to bring down the Nazi regime.
Zdenek Nettl, 77, another survivor of the Panenske Brezany regime who went with Jelinek to meet Vovsova for the first time since 1943, told JTA that Vovsova deserves to be honored.
“I had a very good feeling about our meeting,” Nettl said. “She recognized me immediately. It is quite a shock that she hasn’t received any money from the state. She is poor and alone.”
The survivors see their time at Heydrich’s chateau as a life-saving experience.
“None of us ever realized the extent of the extermination,” Platovsky said. “We were never informed. We felt the life at the Heydrich place was terribly hard work and we were always watched by the SS, but when we got to Auschwitz, we realized that our 18 months there had been a miracle.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.