By Dr. Josef A. Mestenhauser
Most of us know that the entire village was leveled, that men and boys over 15 years were executed, that women and children were send to concentration camps, and that children were separated from parents. The brutality of this “event” far exceeds the common knowledge, however.
I was sixteen when Lidice and Lezaky “happened” and lived through the massive retaliation by the Nazis that followed the assassination of the Reichsprotektor Heydrich. The memory of these years came back when a Czech student of mine sent me two recently published books about Lidice, both in English. One is a carefully researched commemorative volume providing detailed information about the “old” Lidice, the events of June 10, 1942, and the town’s subsequent rebuilding. The second book is the memoirs of one of the very few survivors, written by Jarmila Sklenickova, the student’s relative. She has put to good use her photographic memory in accounting the gruesome events of that June and its aftermath, providing a graphic but unemotional picture of the bestiality of the Nazis that has not been generally known until recently. The peaceful village was encircled by more than 500 Nazi police, Gestapo and SS troops, who woke up residents with instructions to collect their most precious possessions and gather: men and boys over 15 to the Horak orchard, and women and children to the schoolhouse.
It all started with the Munich pact of October 1938 that surrendered the Sudeten area to the Reich, and the subsequent occupation of the rest of the “Czech and Slovak Republic”, turning it into “Protektorat von Bohemia und Moravia” in March of 1939. Growing resistance again this “Anschluss” prompted Hitler to replace the Reich’s “Protektor” with his henchman Reinhardt Heydrich who arrived to Prague on September 27, 1941. He began his term with massive arrests and public executions of prominent Czechs and with imposing severe restrictions on the entire population. As his terror unleashed, the exile government of President Benes in London began thinking of its retaliation, focusing on Heydrich. The plans made in conjunction with the British Special Operations Executive called for sending a group of paratroopers specially trained to assassinate Heydrich. The group parachuted into Czechoslovakia and organized the attack on Heydrich’s car on May 27, 1942; Heydrich died of wounds on June 4 and was buried in Berlin in an exceedingly pompous funeral attended by Hitler himself. Here is probably where the fate of Lidice was sealed; the Gestapo was certain that the inhabitants of Lidice were complicit in the assassination. Their circumstantial evidence was so weak that even Gestapo must have known it was of doubtful value: one, a letter to a girl from her suitor, turned in to the police by the girl’s employer, where the suitor implied that he was member of the assassination group. When arrested, she revealed that the suitor brought greetings from a “Horak” who was originally from Lidice but escaped to England. Second, a captured paratrooper of a different unit who testified under interrogation that two people, a Horak and Cerny, both from Lidice, had been trained by the British for Special Forces assignments in the protectorate. The order to visit collective punishment on Lidice came directly from Hitler. A unit of SS was re-named to honor Heydrich and its most elite members were selected to be the executioners. Hitler’s order was to 1) shoot all men and boys above 15; 2) send all women and children to concentration camps, 3) select children suitable for Germanization and send them to SS families in Germany, and 4) level the village and erase its name forever. The men were executed in the Horak orchard, five at a time, each by three of the SS elite corps (one aimed at the head and two at the chest), with another soldier finishing the act with another bullet into the head of each person. Then the next group of five had to step over the dead bodies of their friends and family, the execution squad stepped three step back, and the act continued until the process appeared too slow so that people were shot ten at a time. The women and children were trucked to Kladno; from there the women went to concentration camps, while children were sent for extermination in Chelmno near Lodz in Poland. Meanwhile, the prisoners were stripped of the “precious belongings” they had brought. The Horak and Cerny families were all arrested separately and executed in the special execution site in Kobylysy in Prague. In Lidice, all houses were searched for valuable possessions, including money, bank books, furniture, and livestock. The estimated value of the funds alone was three million crowns, which were used to pay for the executions and destruction of the village. It was several months before the village was raised. Not even the cemetery was spared: caskets were removed, bodies of the dead searched for gold teeth and jewelry, and observers testified that soldiers amused themselves by using the skulls to play soccer. The entire Protektorat was under martial law, with special courts imprisoning thousands and ordering the execution of almost 1,500 people, in addition to the 173 men and children who died in Lidice, the 82 children who died in Chelmno, and the 60 women who died in concentration camps. Only 17 of the 105 children survived and returned, while only 143 of the 203 women did. These numbers do not include people who were executed independently but in conjunction with these retributions while already in other concentration camps or prisons.
In reading these two books and writing this article I was surprised at my own reactions. Suddenly, I felt the same anxiety, fear, and hate that I experienced then, almost seventy years ago!!! It was as if it happened last month. I even had a nightmare and felt disconnected from normal activities. I was surprised, indeed, and thought about the implications of Lidice, not only for me, but in general. I want to share with my readers these thoughts.
First, time does not always heal injustices, no matter how one may try to forget or even forgive. Such intense memories as green GESTAPO cars circling the country revive the agony of people wondering whether they might stop to make more arrests. Not only do people remember such injustices, but tend to exaggerate them.
Secondly, I am persuaded that Lidice was for most people the turning point beyond which they no longer distinguished “good” and “bad” Germans, and started believing that it would not be possible to live together in a liberated country. Jan Masaryk reinforced this perception, as I have noted in previous articles.
Thirdly, consistent with the previous point, the idea of the “collective guilt” principle used by the Nazis in Lidice, would be employed by the Czechs as well. Despite the twenty years of Masaryk’s democracy, the culture continued to be “collectivistic” and thus amenable to such generalizations.
Fourth, the extreme brutality employed by the Nazis was so severe that their acts make forgetting or forgiveness very difficult. Enjoying themselves while people are slaughtered, playing soccer with skulls of those long dead, robbing personal property and dividing families make unforgettable impressions. The question is indeed how people can live with these memories, whether they can remember the bestiality but let go of the feelings and focus on the future?
Fifth, a tremendous amount of treachery and deception was used by the Nazis to secure people’s compliance with orders. These acts make it very difficult to establish and maintain any kind of trust among people. Treacheries were also committed by Czechs against other Czechs. For example, the paratroopers’ hiding place was revealed by one of them who responded to the Nazi offer of amnesty for anyone providing information about Heydrich’s assassination. The paratrooper revealed the assassins’ hiding place in a church crypt in Prague, but he was executed just the same. Czechs such as the infamous police inspector Vit participated in the action in Lidice. On the other hand, there was an exceptional bravery demonstrated by the victims of these brutalities who faced the execution squads with cries of “Long live free Czechoslovakia” and with their heads up.
Sixth, how can people who have suffered so much deal with the double burden of living with the memories and with the burden of revenge? This is not just a Czech and German issue; just look around and you will see such abuses happening in many countries, including in ours, over a long period of history that does not get forgotten.
Writing this article convinced me that the only solution may be to remember the past, never allow it to be repeated, but to declare a moratorium on violence to punish violence, and focus on restoring humanism for the betterment of the entire world.
What do you think?