By bus Lidice is a 35-minute ride from Prague. It is a ten-minute walk from the Lidice bus stop through the well-kept gardens to the main building and entrance of the Lidice Memorial Museum. In the season of bloom the gardens display thousands of roses. There is little that suggests the vast human tragedy that transpired there in the course of one night seventy years ago.
The visit – including the video that served as document No.379 at the Nuremberg Trials, the wall exhibits, a visitors’ center, a small bookshop, and the imposing children’s memorial – took us no longer than two hours, without rushing. For so little time spent, the visitor is left with a lasting impact.
Essentially, it is a small Yad Vashem that deserves a stop by all who visit Prague. Not because the number of those who perished in Lidice was large; all told, 340 citizens were murdered in the town by the Germans. Many more perished in hundreds of other places during those blood-soaked years. And many more perish weekly now in Syria.
But Lidice presents a clear picture of the cold-blooded, calculated slaughter of innocents.
Lidice certainly merits a visit by any who still doubt man’s inhumanity to man. It is a story in which Jews were not directly involved, though lessons concerning the Holocaust of the Jews can easily be drawn and, as we will see, it ultimately had a definite bearing on us, too.
When the Allies bowed to Hitler’s threat of war with the Munich Agreement and forced Czechoslovakia to yield the Sudeten territory to the German Reich, they essentially deprived the small country of all its defenses and much of its heavy industry.
Five months after Munich, despite Hitler’s promises and Anglo-French guarantees of the new Czech frontier, German troops marched on defenseless Prague. In mid-March 1939, Czechia ceased to exist. It became a German Protectorate.
In September 1941, Reinhard Heydrich, former head of the Gestapo, was promoted to the chief position of the Protectorate. On May 27, 1942, two British-trained Czech and Slovak freedom fighters lobbed a grenade at Heydrich’s Mercedes in the Prague suburb of Holisovice as he was being driven to his office. Heydrich died from his wounds on June 4.
Between May 27 and June 4, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the S.S., ordered the execution on consecutive days of 100 Czech intellectuals and 1,357 Czech citizens, while 657 more died under police “investigation.” On June 9, a day after Heydrich’s funeral, Hitler ordered that a community be selected and wiped out to “teach the Czechs a final lesson of subservience and humility.” Hitler, who reportedly had been grooming Heydrich, the man with “a heart of iron,” to become his successor, yearned for revenge.
The Germans discovered that two young men from Lidice served in the Czech brigade of the British forces. In the middle of the night of June 9, German troops entered Lidice. All the residents were hustled to the village square. Their houses were attacked and gutted after everything of value was taken from them.
After the Germans executed the members of the Horak family whose son served in the British forces, they ordered all men above age 15 to be driven to the Horak farm. Mattresses were placed against a wall to prevent bullets from ricocheting. The men were lined up in groups of ten, without blindfold, for execution. All 199 adult men of Lidice were executed in this manner.
When the massacre of the men was over, the women and children, who had been locked in the local school, were put onto lories and driven away. Eventually, 184 women were transferred to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Of the 99 children, 17 with an “Aryan look” were selected for Germanization. They were shipped to Germany and handed over to trustworthy German families dedicated to the process. The other 82 children were gassed in Chelmno. A survivor still remembers her child yelling, “If you love me you can’t give me up!”
The Germans, known for their thoroughness, hunted down 19 people from Lidice who worked in the nearby coalmines for immediate execution. One document from the Lidice Museum sticks in my mind. Tracing every living soul linked to Lidice, the Germans learned that two were patients in Prague hospitals. They tracked them down and shot them on the spot.
About the Author: Dr. Ervin Birnbaum is founder and director of Shearim Netanya, the first outreach program to Russian immigrants in Israel. He has taught at City University of New York, Haifa University and the University of Moscow; served as national superintendent of education of Youth Aliyah and as the first national superintendent of education for the Institute of Jewish Studies; and, at the request of David Ben-Gurion, founded and directed the English Language College Preparatory School at Midreshet Sde Boker.
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