June 10, 2020 marks the 78th anniversary of the Lidice massacre. An atrocity committed by the Nazis, the massacre resulted in hundreds of murders, concentration camp deportations, and the complete destruction of the village of Lidice. Located in today’s Czech Republic, Lidice was then a small village located just outside of Prague.
The trail that led to the Lidice massacre begins with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich was the Reich Protector of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, a territory created by the Nazis upon their invasion of Czechoslovakia. This role meant that he represented Nazi Germany’s interests in this area. He had many nicknames among the Czech people, including The Hangman and The Butcher of Prague, indicative of his particularly brutal treatment of the Protectorate. Heydrich was given the role of Reich Protector after Hitler determined that his predecessor’s approach with the Czechs was too soft.
Under the code name Operation Anthropoid, the assassination was one that required months of planning and undetected movement in the Protectorate. Two men were primarily responsible for the assassination – Jan Kubiš, a Czech, and Jozef Gabčík, a Slovak. Kubiš and Gabčík were both soldiers in the Czechoslovak Army-in-exile, based in Britain. After extensive training, the men parachuted into Bohemia undetected in December 1941, and planned the assassination for months with the help of many accomplices.
On the morning of May 27, 1942, Heydrich left his chateau in Panenské Břežany to go to his office at Prague Castle, riding as the passenger in a Mercedes convertible. Gabčík jumped out into the middle of the road, aiming a submachine gun at the car, but his gun jammed. Kubiš reacted quickly, throwing a grenade into the car. After a brief firefight, Kubiš and Gabčík escaped the area. As Heydrich had been able to exit the car to fire his gun at them, they believed that their assassination attempt had failed.
In fact, Heydrich died several days later, on June 4, 1942. Reprisals were swift, and many who were known to have assisted Kubiš and Gabčík were killed or arrested as the Nazis investigated the assassination. Kubiš and Gabčík themselves, as well as some of their fellow Czechoslovak soldiers, were later tracked down to the Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral in Prague. 750 SS soldiers descended on the Cathedral where a massive firefight ensued as the men hunkered down in the crypt and the prayer loft of the Cathedral. The Nazis were unable to take the men alive, and the standoff resulted in the deaths of them all, by both suicide and injuries sustained from the firefight.
Incorrect intelligence information acquired prior to the standoff at the Cathedral led the Nazis to the village of Lidice. Despite an extensive investigation of the village coming up dry, the Nazis had found a target for further, random reprisal. The village’s nearly 200 men were gathered on the grounds of the Horak family farm, where they were all shot. 203 women were sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp, where 60 of them died. Several children, deemed acceptable for Germanization, were separated from the rest, and the remaining 82 children were murdered at Chełmno death camp.
With a majority of the residents of Lidice murdered or sent to Ravensbrück, the Nazis destroyed the village in its entirety. All homes were destroyed, trees were chopped down, animals were killed, and even the cemetery was demolished. Prisoners from Terezín were forced to dig a mass grave for the murdered men. Soon, all that remained of Lidice was an empty field. The Nazis hoped to prove to the Czech people that they could effectively erase them from existence if further resistance continued. The following day the Nazis announced their deed to the Protectorate via radio, although this announcement included a lie that conveniently omitted the murder of 82 children, saying only that the children were being reeducated.
What happened at Lidice resonated deeply with the Allies. A neighborhood in Illinois even changed its name to Lidice, to ensure that the name would in fact not be erased. Lidice was used in Allied propaganda for years to come in an attempt to display senseless Nazi violence. This can be seen in an American propaganda poster from 1942 by artist Ben Shahn, which is in the Museum’s collection.
When World War II came to a close, Lidice was rebuilt adjacent to the original site. The Czechoslovak government’s decision to rebuild came on June 10, 1945. Of the original residents, 143 women returned alive from Ravensbrück. After a multi-year search, 17 children who had been given to German families were returned to relatives, many having to relearn Czech. One of these children, Václav Zelenka, went on to become mayor of Lidice. The village now has a population of about 500.
In 2014, I studied abroad in the Czech Republic to learn about Nazism and Communism in Central Europe. On a beautiful spring morning, I climbed onto a bus headed from Prague to Lidice, knowing admittedly little about what had happened there. The Lidice Museum and Memorial, built in 1962, sits just to the north of the original village. Slightly elevated, the area looks down on a large field which stretches out into the distance. Sculptures, some trees, and a winding path dot the otherwise empty village site.
A wall full of city crests overlooks the field. The crests include villages like Telavåg, Norway and Marzabotto, Italy – both villages that suffered similar Nazi atrocities to Lidice. Most striking, though is the inclusion of other cities, like Dresden and Hiroshima that suffered destruction during World War II. These crests serve as a necessary reminder of the overall horrors of war, and the many innocent lives lost
Perhaps the most remarkable memorial art piece on the site is Marie Uchytilová’s Memorial to the Children Victims of the War, a group of 82 individual sculptures of the murdered children of Lidice. Beginning in 1969, Uchytilová worked on the sculptures for 20 years before her death in 1989. Following her death, her husband, Jiří V. Hampl continued the work that she had begun, and the entire project was completed in 2000. Flowers and teddy bears from visitors cover the ground in front of the sculptures.
The ultimate resilience of Lidice is something that has always resonated with me. Despite the horrors that occurred there, it was rebuilt and continues on. The Nazis were unable to erase the village as they had hoped. The Czech people have been through a lot in the 20th century, from Nazi invasion to Soviet invasion, but their story has always been one of strength in the face of hardship.
Find further information here about visiting the Lidice Memorial and Museum.