June 10 is the anniversary of one of the worst atrocities in modern Czech history. On that day, in retaliation for the killing of governor Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazis slaughtered the inhabitants of Lidice and completely demolished the small village, intending to wipe it off the map for eternity. Today the spot where the original Lidice stood is a deeply sombre, open plain with an adjacent museum. Ahead of the 75th anniversary of the notorious act of barbarism, I visited the head of the Lidice Memorial, Martina Lehmannová. She told me what the village looked like prior to June 10, 1942.
“Some of them also worked at Prague Airport. And as I said, they lived just ordinary lives.”
Were there some big families in the village? I saw in the museum a lot of photos of people with the same surnames.
“Yes. There were names like the Horák family. The Saidl family. Names like that. Whole families disappeared. It’s really something very tragic.”
Do we know why the Nazis selected Lidice?
“It was a very sad coincidence. The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich happened and it was necessary to find someone responsible and someone who should be punished.
“It happened that a man who was in love with some girl wrote a letter and this letter was discovered. It was said to be written by someone who was in touch with the people who were responsible – and this letter led to Lidice.
“On top of that, at the beginning of WWII, or before the beginning, two men from Lidice escaped to Great Britain, where they were with the RAF.
“It was known that parachutists from England were responsible for the assassination, so putting this information together led to the decision to show Lidice as a place where people responsible for the killing of Heydrich were.”
“There were names like the Horák family. The Saidl family. Names like that. Whole families disappeared.”
Lidice wasn’t the only village to be destroyed – there was also Ležáky. You were saying earlier that there was a connection between Ležáky and the Allies.
“Yes. A transmitter was hidden in Ležáky with which people there had contact with England and the people who were in exile there at that time.
“If we compare Lidice and Ležáky, we are comparing two completely different stories, because in Lidice the people who were killed were completely innocent.
“But we can call the people who lived in Ležáky heroes, because they were fighting as best they could against the Nazi regime and they were punished for that.”
It’s well known, but I have to ask you again – what became of the population of Lidice on June 10, 1942?
“Everything that happened in Lidice started on the evening of June 9. The Nazis came and chose one house on the edge of Lidice, next to the village of Buštěhrad.
“From this house they had an overview of Lidice and they asked the mayor of the town to come and inform them about all the people who lived in Lidice and also about the money the people had and things like that.
“Then they started to collect the people. The men were put into the Horáks’ barn and were killed afterwards.
“The women and children were gathered in the school building, before being brought to Kladno, where they stayed some days.
“On June 13 the children were taken from the women and sent to Lodz in Poland. There it was decided which children should be aryanised. They went to Germany and the rest were simply killed.
“The story of the children who were sent to Germany is complicated. After WWII, Czechoslovakia put great energy into finding all these children from Lidice.
“The children were taken from the women and sent to Lodz in Poland. There it was decided which children should be aryanised. They went to Germany and the rest were simply killed.”
“They did it and the children came back to Czechoslovakia. Some of them were so small that they forgot that they had even spoken Czech.
“If their mothers had survived the Ravensbrück concentration camp, when they were reunited they couldn’t speak to each other, because the children had forgotten Czech.
“So they had to learn Czech again.
“As the children remember it, it was quite hard for them, because it was forbidden to speak German, they were forced to speak Czech and it was very complicated.
“I could never imagine that I would survive something like this myself.”
What happened to those women and children after the war? Where did they go?
“They came back but the village of Lidice didn’t exist. It was necessary to build it again. They lived in several places, including Kladno.
“And after 1962, when the village and the Lidice Memorial were completed, they could come back and live in the houses – the new houses that were built in a new place, next to the old village.”
How long did it take the Germans to demolish the original village? You told me earlier there were 101 houses, and on the wall in your office there is a plan of how they were going to do it.
“The Nazis brought 36 Jewish prisoners from Terezín to dig a hole and put all the bodies into it.
“Then they blew up all the buildings. Even the cemetery couldn’t exist – there should be nothing of Lidice.
“But two objects survived. One of them was the engine of the voluntary firemen. The reason it survived was that at the beginning of June it was lent to another group of voluntary firemen in some village next to Lidice.
“Volunteer fire brigades are a kind of organisation that is very strong in the Czech Republic, mainly in villages, so it’s really very symbolic.
“The second object that survived were the doors of St. Martin’s Church. They were used to prevent animals from running away from Lidice.
“We also have some objects in the Lidice Memorial collection that were hidden underground when the houses were blown up.
“After WWII there were archaeological excavations and during that some of those pieces were found.”
“The decision to protect the place where the old village was as a calm, open space where people can reflect on the information that they get about the tragedy was, I think, a very good decision.”
Was there ever any suggestion that the original village of Lidice could be rebuilt?
“A very short time after the tragedy in Lidice happened, the initiative Lidice Shall Live started in Great Britain.
“The main idea was that it was necessary to build a new village. At the beginning it wasn’t sure whether it would be at the place where Lidice was or some new place.
“The decision to protect the place where the old village was as a calm, open space where people can reflect on the information that they get about the tragedy was, I think, a very good decision. And the new village was built next to the old one.
“The connection between the old and new parts is now the rosarium [rose garden], a place where nowadays more than 25,000 roses are planted.
“This idea also came from England, from the initiative Lidice Shall Live and its founder Sir Barnett Stross.
“In 1954 he started to proclaim that something like the rosarium should be built and one year later the first roses were planted here.
“Unfortunately, in the 1990s, when the communist regime had fallen in Czechoslovakia, Lidice was very unpopular. Nobody wanted to take care of the village and its history and mission.
“But when the Lidice Memorial was founded as an organistion of the Ministry of Culture, the reconstruction of the rosarium again started.”
When did you yourself first hear about Lidice? Was it from your parents? At school?
“I was born during the communist era and at grammar school every year Lidice was also commemorated when it was the anniversary of the end of WWII.
“But when was a child I didn’t live in Prague or near Prague – I lived in Moravia. So I don’t have the experience of people who grew up in Prague or nearby who had to come to Lidice.
“And sometimes when I am speaking to people who are the same age as me, they say that coming to Lidice again and again was boring.
“But now people are again very interested in what happened here. Because the political misuse of Lidice came to an end and only the mission of the tragedy, and that it should never happen again, survives.
“This is something that attracts people and they are coming to Lidice again. And in bigger and bigger numbers – the number of visitors is constantly increasing.”
My final question is, 75 years after the terrible atrocity, what for you is the message of Lidice, if there is one?
“For me, and I hope I will also be able to give the idea to other people, it is that Lidice is a place of tragedy but also a very strong place of hope.
“If someone does something very bad to you, you always have some hope that you can stand up again and go and create some new quality around you.
“This is something that Lidice symbolises nowadays and which is really necessary for the future.”