When the Nazis razed the Czech village of Lidice to the ground and murdered its inhabitants in June 1942, it sparked horror and anger across the globe. One place where the atrocity struck a particularly deep cord was Stoke-on-Trent, an industrial city in England’s West Midlands. Within months, the local Labour politician Barnett Stross had founded Lidice Shall Live, an international campaign to raise money to rebuild the Czech village. On the eve of the 75th anniversary of Lidice’s obliteration, I discussed the powerful story of solidarity with Alan Gerrard of Lidice Lives, a contemporary Stoke-on-Trent-based group. What was it, I asked Gerrard, that had led Stross to create Lidice Shall Live?
“Thousands of villages were trashed, but when the people of the free world got to hear about Lidice and see what happened, I think it was Barnett Stross’s Jewish connections, the fact that he was a Polish immigrant – that was the a key factor in his campaign.
“But also many of the Nicholas Winton Czech children came to live in Stoke-on-Trent and there was a large Czech immigrant population in the city at that time who had made acquaintance with Barnett Stross.
“He had developed friendships with those people and I think they were instrumental in Barnett Stross becoming aware of what was going on.
“The men of Lidice worked in the mines of Kladno and the steel works of Kladno, so there was an empathy between Lidice and Stoke-on-Trent.”
“The other factor was that Barnett Stross was very much revered among the working class community of Stoke-on-Trent.
“He gave free healthcare. He was a GP at the time. He fought very hard to amend the legal situation surrounding healthcare.
“There was no legislation against pneumosilicosis at the time in the potteries, and that was something that Barnett Stross wanted to remedy.
“The pottery workers and miners in Stoke-on-Trent were very, very keen to support him.
“Also in Stoke-on-Trent, on January 1, 1942, there was the Sneyd pit disaster, when 56 men and boys lost their lives.
“And I know Barnett Stross was instrumental in giving free healthcare to the men and boys who survived and supporting the families, because it was his constituency which was affected.”
“The really big thing was the fact he could rely on support from the miners.
“And Lidice was a mining village. The men of Lidice worked in the mines of Kladno and the steel works of Kladno, so there was an empathy there between Lidice and Stoke-on-Trent. It was an emotional bond that struck immediately.
“Also there was the fact that there was that disaster in Stoke-on-Trent. The reaction could have been one of two. It could have been, We really can’t help you – we’ve just undergone a disaster and we’re in no fit state to help and support your community.
“Or, as happened, it was a case of the miners saying, We’ve got to do something for this community – we’ve just had a disaster but we’re going to help.
“I think as somebody who was born, educated and still lives in Stoke-on-Trent that that’s why we’re really keen and very determined that people across the world are made aware of what my community’s people actually did.”
“Barnett Stross had a very keen relationship with the residents of Lidice. He played a part in helping to get the children back.”
As you say, the people of Stoke-on-Trent had been through terrible hardships themselves. It was the war too, so everybody was going through hardship. But still they collected a large amount of money for Lidice.
“Yes. Ultimately, the amount raised in the Stoke-on-Trent area, but also – as it spread – across the UK, by the Lidice Shall Live fundraising campaign led by Barnett Stross reached the equivalent of a million pounds in today’s money.
“The money raised assisted the Czech government in rebuilding the village.”
“There was also a fundraising and awareness raising campaign in the States called Lidice Lives.”
I was reading also that the Czechoslovak president in exile, Edvard Beneš, attended the meeting in Stoke-on-Trent at which the Lidice Shall Live movement was founded in September 1942.
“And not just the Czech community. The Soviet ambassador, Bogomolov, was also there. The Miners’ Federation president, Will Lawther, was there. It was a thoroughly international campaign launched in Stoke-on-Trent.
“If people go on Google, they can see the Movietone footage of the Lidice Shall Live campaign being launched at the Victoria Hall in Hanley in Stoke-on-Trent.”
In the 1950s, Barnett Stross had the idea to build a huge rose garden in Lidice. Do you know what the thinking behind that was?
“I know that Barnett Stross had a very keen relationship with the residents of Lidice. He played a part in helping to get the children back to Lidice [from Germany, where those who had not been murdered were aryanised].
“I must admit where the idea of the rose garden came from is a mystery, but he had some idea that the atrocity of Lidice – the fact that it was filmed and promoted as an act of evil by the Nazis, that it stood apart from all those other thousands of villages that were destroyed…
“People in Prague they don’t seem to be aware of the international significance of Lidice, which is a shame.”
“I think it was a tremendous idea of his to transform that dreadful act into an opportunity, to use it as a statement to say, It was a tragic event, but let’s say through the rose garden that it’s an opportunity, let’s ensure it doesn’t happen again.
“This is the statement: from this tragedy a phoenix from the flames sprouts, if you like.
“He contacted rose growers from across the UK, Germany, several countries across Europe and that rose garden in Lidice contains thousands of variants of roses from around the world.
“So it’s a truly international statement about peace and friendship.”
After the new Lidice was built, did ties continue between Stoke-on-Trent and Lidice, or even the Czech nation?
“While he was alive Barnett Stross was certainly maintaining the links. He was organising exchanges between Stoke-on-Trent schools and schools in Bohemia – certainly in the Lidice area, Buštěhrad and Kladno, and so on.
“Then, I think, over a number of years following his death the links faded.
“Whether that was something to do with the Cold War, I don’t know. I would guess it probably was.”
But in recent years a statue was built in Stoke linked to Lidice, right?
“Yes. It basically celebrates the link with Lidice, though it’s a wider statement of peace and friendship.
“It recognises the impact that Lidice has had on the wider international community.
“There are references there to the Lidices [named after the original one] in South America, North America and other places in the world. There are villages named Lidice, streets, promenades, squares.
“So starting from an obviously dreadful occurrence, there was quite an inspirational effect on people. That’s what that sculpture is about.
“We worked with Stoke-on-Trent city council between 2010 and 2012 to raise their awareness of this link. To say, Look, you really need to be aware of what went on and you need to be making the city’s people aware of what went on and make them feel proud of that.
“It’s important that it’s there. It’s more than just Stoke and Lidice – it’s Stoke and the rest of the world.”
“Certainly in the immediate area of Lidice, in Buštěhrad and Kladno. People in Kladno are aware, because people from Lidice and Buštěhrad worked in the Kladno mines and steelworks.
“So there is an acknowledgement there.
“Looking at Prague, certainly people aren’t aware of the link with Stoke-on-Trent. And they don’t seem to be aware of the international significance of Lidice, either.
“Which is a shame, because it’s a massive thing for Czechs – to know that they are valued by so many people around the world.
“There are so many people that look to the Czech Republic – in Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, all around the world.
“These are people that don’t necessarily have a heritage that’s Czech, but they value the Czech people. So that’s a shame. That is a real shame.”