After my recent visit to Prague, Czech Republic, I began My Czechquest to learn more about this fascinating culture and region. Part of my research came in Madeleine Albright’s deeply personal memoire, Prague in Winter: A Personal Story of Rembrance and War, 1937-1948.
In Prague, Albright reflects on her discovery of her family’s Jewish heritage many decades after the war, on her Czech homeland’s tangled history, and on the stark moral choices faced by her parents and their generation. A reporter at the Washington Post alerted her of this discovery shortly before she first started serving as secretary of state.
“No one who lived through the years of 1937 to 1948,” Albright writes, “was a stranger to profound sadness. Millions of innocents did not survive, and their deaths must never be forgotten. Today we lack the power to reclaim lost lives, but we have a duty to learn all that we can about what happened and why.”
Since the inception of My Frenchquest, I have been studying World War II history; mainly the Allied involvement in France and Germany [see post] . Therefore, I knew very little of the persecution and displacement of the Czechs during this period.
In Prague in Winter, Albright recounts many harrowing and inspiring events of this world war beginning in western Europe up to the storming of the death camp at Buchenwald by the United States solders in April, 1945. As to keep with her thesis, most of the stories relate to her homeland in which her father, Josef Korbel, served as an advisor to Edvard Benes, the President of Czechoslovakia. Korbel would later become a Czech-American diplomat after seeking asylum in the United States. Albright makes a bold declaration that “ as most believe that the presence of a German minority within Czechoslovakia was a primary cause of World War II, it was not. The Sudeten German situation was exploited by Hitler, but that was his responsibility (340).”
One of the worst atrocities which Albright includes in her history of WWII was to come out of the Nazi regime — the complete annihilation of Lidice. This story affected me deeply.
Lidice was a small village in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, now the Czech Republic. Part of the Nazi occupation in World War II, Adolf Hitler and Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler would order the complete destruction of the entire village in June, 1942. Why? Hitler became enraged after the assassination of the Reich’s Reinhard Heydrich, in which no one took responsibility for. This was Hitler’s way of “sending a message” to the world not to mess with his army. Unfortunately, he falsely chose this city because of rumors that Lidice harbored Resistance parachuters that possibly assassinated Heydrich.
Hitler’s order was that all 173 males from the village of Lidice who were over 15 years of age were to be executed and the 184 women and 88 children were to be deported to concentration camps. A few children who were considered racially suitable and thus eligible for Germanisation were handed over to SS families to be raised.
Hitler did not stop there. His purpose was to completely erase the town from the map and all inhabitants from its history. The whole town was burned; the cemetery plowed under and the name of the town was excised from the map.
Albright recounts the events of this massacre in detail and includes a haunting picture of Lidice taken before the massacre featuring a church steeple and the sharply slanted roofs of the residences in the Bohemian countryside (221). There are also numerous books and articles written about the massacre of Lidice including Edna St. Vincent Millay’s The Murder of Lidice, which was excerpted in the October 17, 1942 edition of Saturday Review.
After the war, many children came back to Czechoslovakia. If their mothers had survived the Ravensbruck concentration camp, they were reunited. There would be no Lidice to return to. As with most of the atrocities of the Nazi Regime, this is unthinkable.
Fortunately, Hitler’s goal of erasing this town off the map and out of our minds for eternity was not realized. Soon after the razing of the village, towns in various countries were renamed in Lidice’s honor: San Jeronimo Lidice in Mexico City, Lidice de Capira in Panama, several towns in Brazil, the English city of Coventry which was devasted by Luftwaffe bombing was renamed Lidice and even a neighborhood in Crest Hill, Illinois in which a shrine was built remembering the victims.
The Czech government contemplated rebuilding the city of Lidice after the war and chose to build a small village next to the site of the former Lidice instead. Their decision was to protect the place where the old village was as a calm, open space where people can reflect. Today there is a deeply somber, open plain where Lidice once stood which an adjacent museum. There is a rosarium which connects the old and new containing 25,000 roses.
Of course, the most important part of any town is the people who live there. They are the town; not the structures. According to one of the survivors, Martina Lehmannová,
“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 symbolizes nowadays and which is really necessary for the future.”
As a tourist, I strive to consider and appreciate the history of a culture in which I visit as this adds to the significance of the monuments and typical “tourist sites”. In most of the European cities I have visited, this history is still represented by original structures which were built by founding fathers. As I reflect on the history of Lidice, sadly, this is not the case. Not only were the structures erased, most of the citizens were as well. Can you imagine this? Traveling by train around the Czech Republic, one sees the bucolic countryside dotted with small villages and thinks “all is well”. Not always, n’est ce pas?
Copyright 2019 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com).
Madeleine Albright. Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. New York: Harper. 2012.
Ian Willoughby. Lidice, 75 Years Later: “A Place of Hope and Tragedy.” Czech Radio. Retrieved 22 September, 2019.