Lidice: An example of collective guilt, 70 years later

Guest columnist: There is little that suggests the vast human tragedy that transpired in Lidice in the course of one night, 70 years ago.

prague 311 (photo credit: yaakov lappin)
prague 311
(photo credit: yaakov lappin)
By local bus, Lidice is a 35 minute ride from Prague. Getting off at the Lidice bus stop it is a 10-minute walk through the well-kept gardens to the main building and entrance to 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 here in the course of one night 70 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 half a day by all who visit Prague.
Not because the numbers who perished in Lidice were so large. Altogether 340 citizens were murdered in the town by the Germans. Many more perished in hundreds of other places. And many more perish now weekly in Syria. But Lidice presents a crystal-clear picture of the most cold-blooded calculated slaughter of innocents as a sign of angry vengeance. It was a vengeance that meant to be flaunted before the world, so that all who walk the face of this earth should learn of the precious value of German blood.
Lidice certainly merits a visit by anyone who still doubts man’s potential inhumanity. It is a story in which Jews were not directly involved, although 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 in 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.
Hitler had no problem breaking his solemn promise of no further territorial aspirations. Five months after Munich, despite Hitler’s promises and Anglo-French guarantees of the new Czech frontier, German troops marched on defenseless Prague. By the middle of 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 SS, 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 was reputedly grooming Heydrich – the man with “a heart of iron” – to become his successor, was yearning 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 people were hustled to the village square. Their houses were attacked and gutted after anything of value, including farming tools and herds, were taken from them.
After executing the members of the Horak family, whose son served in the British forces, all the men above the age of 15 were driven to the Horak farm. Mattresses were placed against one wall to prevent bullets from ricocheting. The men were lined up in groups of 10 without blindfold for execution.
The next group of 10 was lined up in front of those who were shot, until all 199 men of Lidice were executed.
At 5 a.m., when the massacre of the men ended, the women and children who were locked in the local school, were put onto lorries and driven away. Eventually, 184 women were transferred to 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 rest – 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 coal mines for immediate execution. One document from the Lidice Museum sticks in my mind. Tracing every living soul linked to Lidice, they found out that two people were patients in Prague hospitals.
The Germans 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. Such was Hitler’s thirst for vengeance.
When the war ended, 143 women returned home to resettle in the area. After a two-year search, the 17 children subjected to the process of Germanization were located and restored to whatever family members survived. In 1947 foundations were laid for a new Lidice adjacent to where old Lidice was. 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 are told that in 1947 a Jewish artist residing in Israel by the name of Achiam Shoshany, who has a most impressive one-man show of his monumental sculptures in the Shuni park near Binyamina, “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 in 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 the Communist takeover did not favor cooperation with representatives of Israel at the time. Perhaps. If the model is preserved and found, it could solidify the relationship between the two countries, whose histories have so much in common.
Another Jewish angle is that the Nazi Party top echelon could not be satisfied by taking revenge on the Czechs for the assassination of one of its shining stars. We are therefore informed that “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 not only upon Lidice but upon the Jews of Poland.
What became known as “Einsatz Reinhard” swept up 250,000 Jews in the course of summer 1942, prior to tackling the remains of the 400,000 Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. A fitting memorial to the prime mass murderer of the Third Reich.
THE GRAPHIC description of the executions at the Horan farm in Lidice, where group after group, in batches of 10, lined up on the dead bodies of their comrades, depicts how healthy, able-bodied, masculine men in certain situations become powerless to resist, though they knew that the next few minutes will bring about their death. This is not a march of sheep to slaughter. I haven’t yet found the right terminology for this phenomenon, but there we have it – among the Czech in Lidice as among the Jews in Ponar or Babi Yar, or on the banks of the Danube in Budapest. But for sure: This was not a phenomenon of people being driven like sheep to slaughter.
The memory of Lidice is just one thing Czechs and Jews share in common. The betrayal of the Czechs by the Allies in the crucial 1930s is another. The Allies time and again were ready to turn a blind eye to Hitler’s repeated solemn promises of “this is the last demand of mine,” only to be broken soon thereafter, leading 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 that Iran is on the way to acquiring the atomic bomb, whose first target – it openly claims – would be Israel. Israel cannot wait until its “Sudeten” goes, and the road to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem remains defenseless.
No doubt, Israelis wish Lidice well on the 70th anniversary of its dark night, and the Czech people further growth and development. Together we hope that the world will remain cognizant of the lessons of the past so we can march together toward an era of genuine goodwill and peace.
The writer is the founder and director of “Shearim Netanya,” Israel’s oldest Russian olim outreach program. He formerly taught at City University of New York, the University of Haifa and Moscow University, served as a rabbi in the US, and in Netanya’s Bet Israel Synagogue. Published in the fields of government and Judaica.