Monday, 8 June 2009

The destruction of Lidice

Towards the end of Bohumil Hrabal’s book ‘I served the king of England’ the main character spends two weeks in prison and gets out at the same time as a murderer:

“…we walked up to the top of a small rise, not much more than a sigh in the earth, and he said from here we should be able to see his native village. But when we got to the top of the rise, not a single building was visible. The murderer hesitated, seemed almost alarmed, and stammered that it was impossible, or could he have made a mistake? … There was a village here once, and there’s not a trace of it now, babbled the murderer. Am I losing my mind, have I gone crazy, or what? What was the name of the village? I asked. Lidice, he said. That explains it, the village is gone. The Germans blew it up and shot the men and took everyone else off to a concentration camp. Why? the murderer asked. Because the Reichsprotektor was assassinated and the assassins’ trail led them here, I said.”

I served the King of England is a work of fiction, but the assassination was an actual event. In June 1942, the most powerful German official in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia, Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich, died after being ambushed by British trained Czechoslovak paratroopers.

An enraged Hitler ordered his men to ‘wade through blood’ to find those responsible, and his orders regarding any communities found harbouring the assassins were to
1. Execute all men and boys above the age of 15
2. Transport all women to a concentration camp
3. Place children suitable for Aryanization into approved families
4. Level the entire village to the ground
Which is what happened at Lidice, despite there being no proof that the village ever had anything to do with the assassins.

How the SS chose Lidice is debatable, but there are several theories. One involves a love letter to a local girl intercepted by her employer and turned over to the Gestapo because it seemed the writer had some part in the assassination. Under interrogation Anna recalled that her lover had once asked her to pass on greetings to the Horák family of Lidice from their son, who was serving with the RAF in Great Britain.

After investigations including a thorough search of Lidice, the Gestapo managed to identify the writer as an ordinary factory worker from Kladno. Because he was married and feared being found out, he wrote to end his affair with the girl by saying he was part of the resistance and was forced into hiding. The Kladno Gestapo concluded there was no connection with the Heydrich assassination and reported that to Prague, but by then the fate of the village was sealed. The new top man in Nazi hierarchy, Karl Frank, had already decided to make an example of Lidice to demonstrate his tough approach and at Heydrich’s funeral in Berlin on the 9th of June, Hitler agreed.

Early on the morning of the 10th, an SS Task Force surrounded Lidice and rounded up all the villagers. The woman and children were transferred to Kladno, where they were separated; The 184 women were sent by train to Ravensbruck concentration camp and the 88 children were sent to Lodz in Poland. In Poland a handful of Lidice’s children were selected for Germanization and the rest were transferred to Chelmno, where they were gassed on the day of their arrival.

Lidice’s men and older boys were taken to the farmhouse of the Horák family on the edge of the village, where they were lined up against the wall of the barn, and shot by firing squad, ten at a time. The dead were left where they fell and the new groups of ten were forced to walk past them without blindfolds until there were 173 dead bodies lying in the Horáks’ orchard.

With the villagers gone, the village of Lidice was set alight. The foundations and anything else that didn’t burn was later blown up or bulldozed until no trace remained. By year’s end, all that was left of the village was empty land and some Prohibited Entry signs.

The destruction of Lidice was filmed by the Nazis and the footage later served as evidence against them in the Nuremberg trials. Passages of it are included in the film shown by the museum that overlooks Lidice’s original valley from a gentle rise much like the one in Hrabal’s story.

The gentle valley where Lidice originally stood is just a few kilometres north west of Prague, about half way between Ruzyně international airport and Kladno. Opposite the turnoff to Buštěhrad on the Prague to Kladno highway, is a tree-lined path leading to a high octagonal pergola and a semi circular complex of buildings that function as a memorial and museum.

The grey concrete interior of the museum is a stark, dimly lit space. The original village sign is preserved and children’s letters home from Poland are on display, but the museum mostly uses photographs, texts and a very good 8 minute video to describe the destruction of Lidice. Full-price admission is 80Kč and the museum is open daily from 9am until at least 4pm, year round.

Outside, the semi-circular space enclosed by the curved buildings is paved and extends forward to form a raised viewing terrace where the hillside begins to drop into the valley. Visible from there and connected by well-maintained paths are the memorial rose garden, the village pond and the scattered monuments marking the significant locations of the original village, including St Martin’s church, the schoolhouse, the Horák family farm, and the location of the mass grave where 173 innocent men and boys have lain for 67 years this week.


Brett said...

Excellent blog Greg - I've just started reading the book "Seven Men At Daybreak" - the film version "Operation Daybreak" is proving harder to track down...

Allan and Monika said...

Have to agree, excellent post, kept me interested from start to finish. I have just put Lidice to the top of my list on my return to CR! Just in front of Zatec, which I have been meaning to get to but keep putting off, your recent post reminded em to go there, for different reasons that Lidice however!

Captain Oddsocks said...

Cheers Guys!

I'm sure you'll enjoy both places, Alsch. If you have your own transport, you could probabaly visit Lidice from Prague in the morning and continue on to Zatec for lunch and the afternoon.

Brett, If you have the chance, I'd be keen to know what you thought of that book when you're done...

sansIcarus said...

Great post Oddsocks.

Captain Oddsocks said...

Thanks Marko!