The Tragedy of Lidice, a Czechoslovak Village, June 10, 1942
Many Hungarians know vast details of of their own country's history (or a version of it). Sadly, in my experience, most know but little of the histories of their neighbours. (Perhaps is similar everywhere? For sure, Brits are in no position to boast. )
Whatever, almost no Magyars that I have asked have had the slightest inkling of what happened at the village of Lidice, 79 years ago this night, and the following days of 1942.
Photo: Lidice in happier times. This is the cover of a book by Eduard Stehlik
On the night of June 9 - 10, 1942, the inhabitants of Lidice, a village 20 kilometres north-west of Prague, were ordered out of their homes by German SS soldiers. Confused and frightened, the women and children were first taken to the nearby town of Kladno. The menfolk were kept in the village.
Soon after dawn, troops began shooting all 173 men by firing squad. Another 11 male inhabitants who had been working night shifts, were later also shot. Only one male inhabitant then in the country survived this human slaughter - ironically because he was serving time in gaol.
Photo: The bodies of the murdered men remain on the ground in Lidice some days later, awaiting burial by Jewish prisoners. Note the mattresses piled up against the wall, there to prevent bullets ricocheting and potentially injuring the firing squad. (Eduard Stehlik's book)
Of the 105 children, 88 are believed to have been gassed to death, six died in German orphanages, and 17 ultimately survived the war after being adopted by SS families for "Germanisation". They were found and returned, some many months after the end of the war.
Most Lidice mothers, however, never saw or heard of their children again after deportation from Kladno. Several pregnant women had their babies murdered at birth.
The approximately 200 women were separated from the children and deported by train to Ravensbrück concentration camp, north of Berlin: 143 survived to liberation in 1945.
Today, to the best of my knowledge, just one, Jaroslava Skleničková, remains alive. I interviewed* Mrs Skleničková, via an interpreter, in 2010. Infuriatingly, I can't find the cassette tape of this.
I have but scant memory of the interview, however I do recall that, as a young teenager at the time, she said the older women in the camp, especially the Poles, befriended her and gave her extra food when possible.
The orginal cause of the massacre, via a twisted, hectic tale of vengeance and wrong conclusions, was the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the so-called Reichsprotektor of Nazi-occupied Bohemia and Moravia, on 27 May, 1942. The assailants were two astonishingly brave, British-trained, volunteer commandos, Jan Kubiš (a Czech) and Jozef Gabčík (a Slovak), who had been parachuted into Czechoslovakia by the RAF just after Christmas in 1941.
A reasonable, if limited account of what happened at Lidice can also be found on Wikipedia
I will highlight a couple of points however, including the rarely noted fact that the Gabčík was memorialised by having a place named after him - Gabčíkovo - a name that should ring bells with Hungarians and others acquainted with the controversial, half-completed Danube hydropower scheme, first begun in the 1970s between Hungary and then Czechoslovakia.
I should also mention the bizarre, though still tragic, story of the survival of the man in gaol at the time. František Saidl (1887–1961) had been arrested at the end of 1938 because he had accidentally killed his son. (That, at least, is the Wikipedia version: I've read elsewhere it was deemed a crime of passion. Because he volunteered himself to the police afterwards, was given a light sentence.)
Upon his release, Saidl went 'home' with no knowledge of the massacre, only to find his village razed to the ground. Upon discovering the truth, he turned himself in to the SS in nearby Kladno and confessed to being from Lidice. According to one version of the story, the SS officer laughed at him, told him he was mad and sent him packing.
News of the massacre and destruction of Lidice was broadcast by German radio, to the shock and revulsion of the public in the UK, USA and other allied states. Although there had been numerous massacres of non-combatants by the Germans on the Soviet front, these had been kept secret. Nothing like Lidice had previously been so openly admitted. In a number of mining communities - not exactly the richest themselves - including Stoke-on-Trent, England, volunteers collected funds to rebuild the settlement after the war. (Lidice had been home to a number of miners.)
A new village (and it is a village, not a town as described in some American texts) was indeed built near the site of the original, in the late 1940s, with the houses given to survivors.
Except that is, to two men who had returned home after serving in the RAF during the war. In now communist Czechoslovakia, such men were deemed "unreliable".
Sadly, this was a foretaste of what was to come, with the Lidice story becoming politicised by the regime in Prague for the next 40 years.
With the collapse of communism, the resultant backlash in turn meant that for a decade or so Lidice was rather neglected. Certainly when I first made my way there in the summer of 1993, the original site was in a scruffy, unkempt state.
After the turn of the millennium, however, Czechs have once again given the village the honour it deserves, and it now boasts a well-kept memorial and exhibition centre. The latter is filled with such poignant items as postcards written by the children (under German orders) to aunts and uncles just a day or two before the kids were so cruelly gassed.
A terrible story, but even Lidice is only part of the horrendous cost of Operation Anthropoid, the code name for the project to assassinate Heydrich.
All told, an estimated 1,300 Czechs and Slovaks were murdered as a result of, and in retaliation for, the assassination of the man who was the original mastermind behind the "Final Solution".
Once it takes hold, the cost of containing and righting evil is indeed immense.
Photo: I may have misplaced the cassette, but despite several computer crashes, I have just found one photo of Jaroslava Skleničková, with her husband in their garden, from the time of my visit in August, 2010. "I did learn somethings in Ravensbrück," she told me, "I learned Polish for one thing." I remember too she recounted meeting a communist inmate. "What's a communist? I asked. I had no idea who or what a communist was. I was a young girl. I just wanted to have fun."
If I recall correctly, both Jaroslava and her sister survived Ravensbrück, and were provided with new homes in 'new' Lidice after the war.
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Short film of the people of Illinois pleging to help Lidice
(The British reporter mispronounces the name - it is pronounced Liditseh, not cheh.)
Here's a longer report:
* My thanks to Euan Edworthy, of Best Communications in Prague, for arranging this interview, and providing his interpreter.
I have defined Lidice as a 'Czechoslovak' village as this was how country had been known prior to Nazi occupation iin 1938-39. It is in today's Czech Republic, and as I was told, had a 100% ethnic Czech population at the time of the massacre.
A NOTE ON THE BLOG: In case some are wondering (as I was msyelf) how come this site was still functioning, I found out that at least some of the annual fee had been paid - whether by accident or not I have yet to sort out. So yes, here we are, the blog still lives! My thanks to those who sent messages of support.