“A Light Across the Sea”: a new film remembers a wartime bond between Czechs and an English industrial city

19-10-2013

When Czechoslovakia’s President-in-exile Edvard Beneš spoke in the English industrial city of Stoke-on-Trent on 6 September 1942, it was a turning point in the propaganda war with Germany. This was three months after the Nazis had destroyed the village of Lidice near Prague; many of the men who were murdered were miners or steel workers and in Britain the massacre led to a wave of solidarity with the victims, most markedly among miners. The “Lidice Shall Live” movement that was born in Stoke-on-Trent became the focus of this solidarity, initiated by Barnett Stross, a local doctor and city councillor. David Vaughan reports on a moving story that had been all but forgotten, but has now been commemorated in film.

Michael McDonald, Chris Gibbs, photo: David VaughanMichael McDonald, Chris Gibbs, photo: David Vaughan Chris Gibbs and Michael McDonald are young film makers from Stoke-on-Trent, on the north-western edge of the English Midlands. They have just completed a moving documentary about the link between Lidice and their home town. Not only does the film tell the story of the Lidice massacre itself, but also a remarkable tale of empathy and determination, and of one man in particular. Barnett Stross had been born into a Polish Jewish family in 1899, but grew up in Britain. As a doctor, he lived and worked in Stoke-on-Trent, building up close links with the miners and other industrial workers of North Staffordshire. As soon as he heard of the Lidice massacre, he was determined that the village should rise again and he launched a massive campaign that captured the imagination of people throughout the free world. His role in renewing Lidice after the war cannot be underestimated; it has even been suggested that without him the village would not have been rebuilt at all. Barnett Stross may have been largely forgotten in his home city, but he is still remembered with affection in Lidice itself. Chris and Michael were in Licice last week to launch the film, called “A Light Across the Sea”, and I took the opportunity to talk to them.

Chris: “We first found out about Lidice about three years ago. We read an article in our local newspaper in North Staffordshire, where we’re based, about two people who had been out here in the Czech Republic and were trying to get involved in arts projects connecting Lidice and the city of Stoke-on-Trent. It started to open our eyes and made us think that this was something we knew nothing about – which is, quite frankly, shameful. There’s this incredible connection between the two places that we as documentary makers and people interested in social history didn’t have any knowledge of. Obviously, once we got over that obstacle, we then decided to research it very thoroughly.”

How did you go about researching it?

Photo: archive of the Czech Embassy in LondonPhoto: archive of the Czech Embassy in London Michael: “How we make our films, we always prefer to speak to people directly, so we came out to Lidice for the first time on the 70th anniversary of the massacre in June 2012, and we met a number of people. Back in Stoke-on-Trent we were looking for people with firsthand experience, whether that was someone who was at the “Lidice Shall Live” launch back in September 1942, or it was somebody who knew Barnett Stross themselves, or miners. We like to speak to people to find out our histories.”

I found it one of the most moving parts of the film, describing the moment in 1942 in the Victoria Hall in Stoke-on-Trent, when the “Lidice Shall Live” movement was established and when President Beneš spoke.

“In our own records and in the records of humanity, the name of Lidice will loom large. Lidice will live forever.”

President Beneš, Stoke-on-Trent, 6th September 1942

You spoke to people who had been there in that room – I think you say that there were 3,000 people packed into the hall. They brought to life that memory.

Michael: “Charles Strasser, whom we interviewed in the film, actually lives in Canada and was in Stoke-on-Trent on a rare visit. We managed to find him and speak to him.”

Charles Strasser: “I was present in 1942 when the Lidice Shall Live movement started in Stoke-on-Trent, in the Victoria Hall. It was… mesmerizing is I think a good word to use.

Hugo Dash: “It was absolutely bursting at the seams. There were people outside and I felt very privileged and very honoured to be part of this movement. People in Stoke-on-Trent, the miners of Stoke-on-Trent, responded marvellously to the memory of the miners of Lidice. The whole idea of the Nazis was that Lidice shall not live. It was obliterated from maps.”

Charles Strasser: “When the news came out about what had happened there, we were obviously extremely concerned and since Barnett Stross was the councillor at that time and particularly the doctor for the Czech community [Czech and Slovak exiles living in Stoke], he agreed that something should be done to commemorate this terrible deed. And hence, to show support, they overwhelmingly agreed to start a fund to collect money to rebuild the village of Lidice after the war.”

LidiceLidice Tell us more about the link between Lidice and Stoke-on-Trent…

Chris: “Barnett Stross was a medical doctor by profession. He moved into the city. He had specialist knowledge in pneumoconiosis and silicosis, the industrial diseases that were prevalent in the mining industry. He wanted to help people who were suffering from these diseases. He didn’t have money to pay for their health care – this was between the wars, pre-National Health Service, so these were very difficult times. On learning about what had happened in Lidice, he immediately felt a strong connection. Both Lidice and Stoke-on-Trent are mining towns, and he was in a brilliant position to be able to put into place what we now know as the Lidice Shall Live movement.”

He realized the importance of this solidarity…

Michael: “Barnett Stross had the real respect of the mining community, because he’d helped them to get recognition for the lung diseases that they were suffering from. Talking about solidarity, I would perhaps describe myself as English, someone may describe himself as Czech, whereas a miner describes himself as a miner, and that’s where that kind of bond came from – that life-threatening work that they took part in day by day, wanting to help their fellow miners, regardless of where they were.”

“Today we pledge ourselves to rebuild Lidice, and we renew that faith and determination to see this struggle through to the bitter end.”

Will Lawther, President of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, Stoke-on-Trent, September 6th 1942.

It’s one of the astonishing things that we hear in the film, that they managed to raise the equivalent of a million pounds among British miners, mostly from the Staffordshire coalfield, who themselves would have had precious little money in the middle of the war.

'A Light Across the Sea' - Edvard Beneš on the right'A Light Across the Sea' - Edvard Beneš on the right Chris: “It’s hard to compute, I think now, but it was unanimous, the decision that the miners would contribute towards the cause, and you can’t get a better example of the solidarity that we’ve just been discussing. There was no question of anyone not wanting to commit to it and the result is something that was absolutely incredible.”

After the war, Barnett Stross was elected as a Labour Member of Parliament and he came to Czechoslovakia several times. He was instrumental in the attempt to have Lidice rebuilt and also to have the tragedy of Lidice remembered internationally.

„Although I am chairman of the British Lidice Shall Live movement, I hope that my words will represent not only our own feelings, but those of all the comrades who have travelled here from so many countries.”

Barnett Stross in Lidice

Michael: “He came over with a delegation of miners from Stoke-on-Trent – you know, people didn’t travel abroad then unless you were fighting in a war – so it must have been a real eye-opener to see what had happened, to come to somewhere that had been totally decimated by the Nazis, and I think that had such an effect on them that it was quite clear to them that they should raise the money to help rebuild Lidice. He then went on to be instrumental in setting up the rose garden and then the gallery. It obviously struck a chord with him.”

“You know, after all the dreadful things we’d lived through in the three years following the massacre, after the inhuman things that the Germans had done to us, someone like Barnett Stross was an inspiration, a reassurance that not all people are the same. We shall not forget what he did for us.”

Milada Cábová, Lidice survivor

“This village and this garden set out the pattern on which our civilization can securely rest. For hope and love and peace are enduring pillars which can prop up the high heavens themselves.”

Barnett Stross in Lidice

Today Barnett Stross is rather nicely remembered in that the road that links the Lidice Memorial with the main road is called Barnett Stross Avenue.

Michael: “Yes, but I think he’s a man who has not been recognized a great deal, considering what he’s done.”

That’s something I would like to ask you. You are from Stoke-on-Trent but you were saying that you didn’t even know about him or about the connection with Lidice. It strikes me as amazing…

Chris: “But we were in a huge majority of other people as well, who were completely unfamiliar with the subject.”

Lidice, photo: Vilém FaltýnekLidice, photo: Vilém Faltýnek Why was it forgotten?

Chris: “I believe, as we’ve come to learn through the film, and as we’ve come to learn through speaking to many people here in the Czech Republic, that he was a very modest man, he was a very quiet man. He genuinely didn’t think that anything he was doing was in any way extraordinary. And I think just that aspect of Barnett Stross’s personality perhaps in many ways did lead to the fact that it wasn’t so talked about and shouted about. After his passing, there was just nothing said.”

Tell us a little bit about the film itself. I have the feeling from watching the film that it was a journey for you and that it almost took you over.

Michael: “It’s such an emotive story. It’s such a powerful story that you just can’t help becoming involved in it. You know, meeting people like the children of Lidice [17 children survived the 1942 massacre, 88 were murdered], you can’t help but be astonished by their outlook on life, given what happened to them. And actually, having completed the film, I think there’s a bit of sadness amongst us, that it feels like our project is coming to an end now, whereas really the roll-out of the film is just the beginning of the project. But the making of it has been such a pleasure for us all that we’re kind of upset that we’re not making it anymore and it’s finished!”

I’ve seen a lot of films over the years about Lidice and I think it’s one of the best. So what more are you going to do to make sure that as many people as possible get to see it?

Chris: “We’re going to put it in front of schools. We’re having an event coming up soon when we’ll be showing it to 350 schoolchildren. Beyond the film itself we’re producing education packs so that it will be taught in the schools, hopefully even go so far as being part of an official syllabus. So we are making sure that there is a legacy beyond simply the making of this film.”

There’s a very strong sense of community in the film which is rather nicely reflected in the fact that one of your partners is Stoke City Football Club.

Michael: “Stoke City are our local football club and play a massive part in the community. More than a tenth of the population goes to each home match. For them to get on board was really important in raising awareness of the film. It was their 150th anniversary last year – the second oldest club in the world – and they’ve always been a community club. The chairman and the chief executive saw the project, asked us in and offered us both the money to help us finish it and the marketing weight to get it out there and get people seeing it. Only last Saturday in the programme for the match, there was a feature about the film and about us coming out here to premiere it. Raising that awareness is just as important as helping to finance the project.”

And finally, I expect that people hearing this interview will be interested to see the film. Is there any way they can get to see it?

Michael: “Fingers crossed, it will be on television. If not we will make the film available online. We want this to be seen by as many people as possible.”

19-10-2013