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Tales of escaping Communist East
Buy this photo » Filmmaker Sharon Woodward with Sadie King who features in the exhibition. Pictures: OX54344 Damian Halliwell
WHEN Renee Zarecky was a young newlywed, she used to carry a pistol in her handbag for safety.
And on one dark night in 1948, she escaped Communist persecution, fleeing her home in Czechoslovakia with her husband and seven-month-old baby.
They got as far as Belgium, only to be turned back towards the Iron Curtain. But the family were not yet done and daringly leapt from a train near Dortmund in Germany, before finally getting to Britain.
Mrs Zarecky’s story, and the stories of dozens of other Oxfordshire pensioners were retold at an exhibition last weekend.
Filmmaker Sharon Woodward has created a film and records of the interviews and memories that will now be taken intolocal schools. Brownie groups and local schoolchildren have also benefited from interviews and activities with the pensioners.
Mrs Zarecky, now 88, said: “Life is what you make it.
“No matter what crisis, no matter what the problems are, there’s always humour. And there’s always hope.”
Born in London, Renee Whitlock (as she was) signed up for the RAF at 16, lying about her age.
Spending her wartime years with the WAAF, she met her future husband, a young Czech man called Jindrich, while stationed in Norfolk.
He had fled Czechoslovakia after the Nazi invasion, joining the French Foreign Legion and then crossing the Channel in a rowing boat.
Following the war, the couple moved back to his home country, but soon Communist rule made life difficult because of the couple’s links to the West.
Mrs Zarecky said: “It was dangerous. I have been asked if I would have used that pistol if needed. And I would have done. You had to.”
Eventually the couple decided to flee Czechoslovakia. They were helped back to England after their escape from the train by British officers stationed in Germany.
They then set up home in Abingdon at RAF Abingdon, now Dalton Barracks , when Mr Zarecky rejoined the service.
Sadly he was killed in a plane crash whilst transporting equipment to Cyprus in 1957, leaving Mrs Zarecky to raise her four young children alone.
She has now retold her story in the Down Memory Lane project, funded by a £9,000 Lottery grant.
An exhibition of memories went on show at the Abingdon Health and Wellbeing Centre on Saturday.
Ms Woodward is best known for the 2009, award-winning documentary about skinheads, Thank You! Skinhead Girl, which became a worldwide success touring Europe and Asia.
She said: “This is a project I believe in. Listening to their stories makes me quite humble and I hope I have as much as these amazing people to say when I am their age.”
Others taking part included Stella Coulling, who drove Oxford buses during the war with only a provisional licence, and former pearly king Herbert Cole, left.
The 85-year-old showed off his collection of pre-war cardboard records, saying: “I still remember these songs.
“I was brought up in London and we had three houses destroyed by the bombs, every time we moved.
“I remember my mum standing after the third house, shaking her fist at the sky and shouting “you’ll never get me down”. I was 14 at the time.”