As I round off my first month of classes here in Praha, I’m beginning to see how truly subjective and ever-changing history is. I suppose I should have expected to learn about an absolute different angle to World War 2, but I was unprepared for such a stark, and really rather gruesome and detailed, contrast. Somehow learning about the war from the view of a country that was occupied not only by the German Nazis but also by the Soviets, has made the war so much more “real.”
I think some of these feelings have to do with my program’s recent field trip to the town of Lidice. Unaware of the incident before arriving in Prague, I wasn’t quite prepared for the emotional experience of laying my eyes on the now completely open land and rolling hills that once had a bustling town of 500 inhabitants 60 years ago. The only trace that there once existed a town in the open field are the crumbling stone walls of the barn that was used as a backdrop for the shooting of the 172 men in Lidice.
But let me give you some background. Reinhard Heydrich was Hitler’s second-hand man. And suffice it to say, he did not take it lightly when two Czech paratroopers assassinated Heydrich in late spring of 1942 while on his way to work in an open car. Hitler ordered his forces to “wade through blood” in order to find the assassins. Having acquired a list of safe houses that were used by the paratroopers during their mission which listed Lidice as the location of two of the homes, the Nazi’s decided to “make an example” out of Lidice.
On June 10, 1942, all men over the age of 15 were executed via firing squad 10 at a time. Women and children were separated, the women being sent to the concentration camp, Ravensbruck, and the 80 of the 90 or so children in Lidice who were not selected for “Germanization” were sent to Chelmo, where they were put in gas chambers three days later. The town was then ransacked and burned to the ground.
Lidice was erased from the map. Even the men who had been away for the day working in a neighboring town were tracked down and shot. And two boys who had been transported with the rest of the children to Chelmo were shot after the Nazis discovered through police records that they had turned 15 two days prior.
This is not the WWII history I learned about. Sure, I have read and been taught plenty of the cruelties of the Nazi regime and concentration camps, but I have never witnessed it, let alone heard the story from a survivor. Our program set up a meeting with Jaroslava Skleničková, one of the last living survivors of Lidice. She was 16 at the time of the massacre and was sent to Ravensbruck with the rest of the women where she spent three years making uniforms. Since Jaroslava only speaks Czech, the girls on the program took turns reading her memoirs out loud. Reading her story recounting the massacre and three years at the work camp was an experience I will unlikely soon forget.
And what makes it so absolutely incomprehensible is that Lidice was by no means an isolated incident. Mass killings and the obliteration of entire towns occurred all over Central Europe during WWII. Some of my classmates recently gave a presentation on the book “The Neighbors” by Jan Gross which is a historical account of the massacre in Jedwabne, Poland where an estimated 1,600 Jewish Poles were brutally murdered (some were stoned to death while most of the others were herded into a burning barn) in eight hours not by the German occupiers, but by their fellow Poles and neighbors. Although the massacre happened in 1941, the book wasn’t published until 2001. Before then, it was essentially unheard of. How could this, along with all of the other fatal pogroms throughout Poland, be so easily swept under the rug?
WWII seems like a totally different war to me now. I will never understand the hate and the evil that existed and I am thankful for that- I do not ever want to know that hate.
This week has been emotional, informative, but most of all, a little confusing. I’ve learned about WWII since I was in second grade, but how have I never understood its true hideousness? Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), I think this new understanding of WWII will continue to reveal its true ugliness as I learn more and more about Central European history. In a few weeks my program takes us on an organized spring break to Poland and Austria, one of our stops including Auschwitz. I better start emotionally preparing now.
On a much lighter note, this weekend I will once again have the chance to explore the beautiful city of Prague. With nice weather in the forecast, I hope to find some parks and maybe even check out the Mardi Gras celebration in one of the outer Prague neighborhoods. My mom and sister will be visiting in two weeks so I better prepare!