The question which puzzles Lady Milena: Why was I baptised?

JEWISH-BORN Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines, of Preston, was baptised as a Methodist before she and her younger sister Eva Paddock (nee Fleischmann) left Prague on a Nicholas Winton Kindertransport in May, 1939.

Lady Milena never knew why her non-practising Jewish parents took the drastic step of converting their Jewish children to Christianity.

The question of her religious identity is just one of the many unanswered questions, which Lady Milena - in keeping with many other Holocaust refugees and survivors - never managed to resolve while her parents were still alive.

But what she does know is why her late father Rudolf Fleischmann was strongly advised to leave Czechoslovakia the day before the Nazi invasion in March, 1939 - and it was not just because he was Jewish.

The advertising manager for a medical magazine, Rudolf had always been a tremendous supporter of the anti-Nazi author Thomas Mann.

When the writer was rendered stateless by the Nazi regime while travelling abroad, Mr Fleischmann interceded with the Czech president for the author to be granted citizenship of his Bohemian hometown of Prosec.

And it was Mr Fleischmann who travelled to Switzerland to grant the exiled author his Czech citizenship.

Thus the reason why Mr Fleischmann had to flee Prague, where he had since moved with his family, the day before the Nazi invasion.

He managed to reach England and settled in Manchester's Ashton-under-Lyne where his family eventually joined him.

Meanwhile, his doctor wife Sonia and her children were left in Prague.

But Milena, her sister and a cousin Max were privileged to leave Prague on a Kindertransport arranged by the legendary Nicholas Winton, the 101-year-old benefactor with whom Milena is still in close contact.

Milena was one of the 22 surviving refugees who replicated the historic train journey from Prague last year to mark the 70th anniversary of the Winton Kindertransports.

She recalls her original journey: "I was a very adventurous girl. To me it was a big adventure."

Nor was she fazed by the fact that she had to look after her three-year-old sister and make sure she didn't cry on the initial part of the journey, in which the train carriages were locked until they reached the Hook of Holland.

She said: "My sister did not cry. There were even some babies on board.

"I remember a desperate woman throwing her baby through the train window so it should be taken to England."

At London's Liverpool Street station, Milena met her Ashton-under-Lyne guardians, the Radcliffes, who looked after her till a year later when her mother managed to arrive, having escaped Czechoslovakia via Norway in 1940.

Rudolf Fleischmann, who consequently suffered from chest problems for most of his life, was unable to care for Milena as he was in hospital when she arrived.

But for Milena the adventure just continued.

Never having practised Judaism, she says that she assimilated very easily into English life.

Her guardian Roland Radcliffe was the secretary of the local Labour Party and Milena used to accompany him in the evening to social events.

She said: "I never felt deprived."

But her father insisted that Milena continue to speak Czech - which later stood her in good stead when she worked as a Czech interpreter.

During the war she attended a Czech school, which was evacuated to Whitchurch in Shropshire and later to the Welsh Brecon Beacons.

Leaving school at 16 and wanting to improve her linguistic skills, Milena worked in France for two years as an au pair.

She met her late husband Sir George Grenfell-Baines, of Preston, where her father had moved for work reasons, when she was 25 and he 44.

Sir George, who came from a poor Preston family, had been forced to leave school at the age of 14 to find work.

A gifted mathematician and draughtsman, he eventually studied at Manchester University and rose within the architectural profession, gaining awards for his design of concrete flats as well as for the new Rhodesian Parliament building.

He was particularly known for his work for the air ministry during World War Two and designs of a Festival of Britain pavilion as well as the new towns of Newton Aycliffe and Peterlee.

He later became professor of architecture at Sheffield University.

Milena met Sir George through her father, whom she described as a "not very successful businessman" who was trying to import bricks.

When they married, Sir George was divorced with two daughters.

Milena's influence on her stepdaughters was such that the elder one, Susan, chose to follow in her Francophile footsteps and settled in France.

True to her roots, Milena developed a keen interest in both Czech cookery, publishing two recipe books and an introduction in the Lakeland catalogue for the use of the Czech cooking pot - the remoska - as well as the Czech language.

She organised exchange visits between Czech students and those at her local Preston catering college and for the last 15 years has been taking local groups to Czech music festivals.

She also acted as interpreter and tour guide for the Czech team in the 1996 European Championship in England and is involved with the Czech charity Signed by the Heart, which raises funds for Alzheimer's sufferers.

She maintained her French connection by acting as interpreter for English students on catering courses in France and has for 30 years acted as chairman of the Preston Friends of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

But most of all, in recent years Milena has maintained a close connection with the man who saved her life - Sir Nicholas Winton, whom she visited just six weeks ago in his Maidenhead home.

She described the centenarian as "mentally absolutely fine".

And now octogenarian Milena has found a new activity. She says: "Since last year's replicated Kindertransport journey, I have received many requests to talk about my Kindertransport experience".

One of those requests came from St Annes Emunah - the first Jewish group Milena has addressed.

© 2010 Jewish Telegraph