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.
In the village, anything that didn’t burn was blown up and bulldozed. Even the cemetery was dug up, to ensure that no trace of the village remained.
When the war ended, 143 women returned home to resettle in the area. After a two-year search, the 17 children subjected to Germanization were located and restored to whatever family members had survived. In 1947, foundations were laid for a new Lidice adjacent to where old Lidice had stood. Simultaneously, steps were taken by Czech authorities to create a fitting memorial for the town that had fallen victim to Nazi cruelty.
Some Jewish angles that emerge from Lidice:
We ere told that in 1947 a Jewish artist in Israel by the name of Achiam Shoshany “was invited to Prague where he won the Grand Prix in the competition for the rebuilding of the martyred town of Lidice in the Czech Republic.”
On my visit to Lidice I did not come across his name. An inquiry with the Czech Embassy in Israel yielded no results. I then turned to Achiam’s widow, who lives in Paris, for an explanation. She confirmed that indeed Achiam won first prize, but the Czech president vetoed the use of his model for Lidice.
There is a distinct possibility that the competition coincided with the change in regimes, and communist officials did not favor cooperation with representatives of Israel. Perhaps. If the model is preserved and can be found, it might solidify the relationship between the two countries whose histories have much in common.
Another Jewish angle is that the Nazi Party’s top echelon could not be satisfied by taking revenge on Czechs alone for the assassination of one of its shining stars. And so “as a fitting memorial to Heydrich…Himmler on July 19 ordered all Jews…to be deported by the end of the year. The ghettos and labor camps were to be wiped out.”
The Germans exacted savage revenge on the Jews of Poland as well. What became known as “Einsatz Reinhard” swept up 250,000 Jews in the course of the summer of 1942.
The executions at the Horan farm in Lidice are a testament to how even healthy, able-bodied masculine men can, in certain situations, be rendered powerless to resist, even though they know they are about to be killed. I haven’t yet found the right terminology for this phenomenon, but there we have it, among the Czech men in Lidice as among the Jews in Ponar or Babi Yar or on the banks of the Danube in Budapest. This was not a matter of people being driven like sheep to slaughter.
The memory of Lidice is one thing Czechs and Jews share in common. The betrayal of the Czechs by the Allies in the 1930s is another. The Allies time and again turned a blind eye to Hitler’s broken promises of “this is the last demand of mine” – inaction that led to the demise of Czechoslovakia and to the great war that engulfed the globe.
Today the Allies seem to be playing the same gambit with Iran, repeatedly accepting its assurances, delaying strong action against it though fully aware it is on the way to acquiring nuclear weapons – the first target of which, the Iranians openly proclaim, will be Israel.
No doubt Israelis and Jews all over the world wish Lidice well on the seventieth anniversary of its dark night. We also hope today’s allied powers will be cognizant of the lessons of the past so that the world can move toward an era of genuine goodwill and peace.
Dr. Ervin Birnbaum is founder and director of Shearim Netanya, the first outreach program to Russian immigrants in Israel; 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 founded and directed the English Language College Preparatory School at Midreshet Sde Boker.
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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