Český Malín: The Czech village in Ukraine destroyed exactly 80 years ago

Memorial to the victims in Český Malín

Some 374 Czechs and 26 Poles were murdered by Nazi soldiers in the village of Český Malín in the Volhynia region of western Ukraine on 13 July, 1943. The reason for the massacre still remains unclear to this day.

Even now as the Russian invasion rages on, Ukraine still has an ethnic Czech-speaking minority, the majority of whom settled in Volhynia, a region of western Ukraine, in the second half of the 19th century. These Volhynian Czechs, as they are known, left Austria-Hungary for the Russian Empire starting in the late 1860s, escaping oppression at home in search of prosperity in Russia. They were welcomed by Tsar Alexander II, who needed skilled agricultural workers to farm and resettle the large amount of unused land in what is now Western Ukraine that had been taken from Polish aristocrats who rebelled against him in the 1863 January Uprising.

The Volhynian Czechs founded prosperous villages and communities with schools, churches, and libraries, some of which were set up near existing Ukrainian villages. Local Czech names for the villages were formed by taking the name of the original Ukrainian village and adding the word “Český” in front of it, as was the case with Český Malín.

The early 20th century had not been easy for the inhabitants of Český Malín. After surviving the First World War, when they were expelled from the village, Český Malín became part of the newly established Soviet Union, and with it subject to the national policy of the Soviet government against minorities. Czech education, culture and religion was limited and many lost their property and their homes, or were sent to the gulags. In 1938, a complete ban on teaching in or about the Czech language was issued.

The terror and hardship continued when in 1941, Volhynia was occupied by Nazi Germany. Then came the fateful day of 13 July, 1943, when 1,500 Nazi soliders marched into the village.

Burned to the ground

Český Malín after the tragedy | Photo: Paměť národa

What happened next is an all-too familiar tale of war atrocities which was repeated many times during World War II and is sadly now being repeated again in Ukraine. Women, children, and the elderly were burned alive. The only ones from the village to survive were a few people who had left early in the morning to go to the market, as well as 20 men that the Nazis kept alive because they needed them to load and transport goods they had looted.

One of these men was Josef Alois Martinovský, who recalled the events in his 1945 book, Kronika Českého Malína or ‘The Chronicle of Český Malín’:

“The Germans divided the men from the women and children. Behind us, mainly machine guns; in front, bayonets. We don’t understand what’s going on, we’re all anxiously waiting to find out what will happen. The six-year-old son of Jaroslav Stuchlý, who had been standing by his mother crying the whole time, suddenly breaks away from her, runs over to one of the soldiers and begs him, ‘Please, sir, don’t kill my dad.”

In 1944, officers from a Czechoslovak military unit in the USSR set up a commission which wrote a report about the events that took place in Český Malín, based on the testimony of surviving witnesses. This extract from the report provides further details of the atrocities committed:

“First, the Germans surrounded the Ukrainian village of Malín and from there, the village of Český Malín. In Český Malín, they went to every house and under the pretext of checking people’s documents, lined all the inhabitants of the village up in the street, from the youngest to the oldest, the healthy and the sick. Those who couldn’t walk were carried out. They grouped people together and marched them at gunpoint to a field in Ukrainian Malín. There they separated the children, women and elderly from the men and youths. Then they herded all the men and some of the women in groups into the church, school and other buildings in Ukrainian Malín, which they doused with flammable liquids and set on fire. Those who tried to escape or jump from windows were shot with machines guns.”

Survivors from Český Malín | Photo: Paměť národa

One of the survivors of the massacre was Josef Řepík, who was eight years old at the time. He had gone with his dad early that morning to a faraway field. Years later he recalled for the project Paměť národa (Memory of Nations) how a Polish woman stopped them on their way back and warned them not to return to the village because there were soldiers there on the rampage. They heeded her advice and hid deep in the forest, only returning to the village three days later.

“When we got back, we found a crematorium. Our barn and stables had been burned to the ground. The sheep had been locked in a shed and only managed to get out when the door collapsed in the fire. The skin on their backs was burnt, our dog also suffered burns.

“In the hall we found grandma. She wasn’t able to walk, so they had stabbed her with a bayonet – she was 77 years old. They had shot a duck, laid grandmother out on a bench, and put the duck under her head. It wasn’t enough just to kill her – those barbarians even made fun of the death of old people.”

Unanswered questions

To this day, the question remains why the village of Český Malín was chosen for the massacre. Why did the Nazis choose to wipe out a Czech village that provided food supplies that the Germans needed?

The reasons for the massacre are still unclear even today, but historians are leaning towards the theory that it was a mistake – the troops were meant to raze the nearby village of Ukrainian Malín and they confused it with the Czech village. That's indeed what they themselves later claimed. However, no documents have been found in the Kyiv archives that would help to shed light on this question.

Forgotten tragedy

Český Malín | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

Some 134 surviving inhabitants of Český Malín returned to Czechoslovakia in 1947. They settled in Šumperk, where they changed the name of the village of Frankšát to Nový Malín (New Malín).

Sadly, for many years, this remained the only memorial to the tragedy. On the basis of an agreement between Czechoslovakia and the USSR, 40,000 Volhynian Czechs were resettled in Czechoslovakia after the war, primarily to places abandoned after the Germans were expelled. But far from being welcomed, they faced considerable persecution upon their return.

The Communist authorities didn’t like what the Volhynian Czechs had to say about life under Stalin’s regime. And so instead of being honoured and awarded for their fight against the Nazis, many of them, like the Czech pilots who fought in Britain’s Royal Air Force during the war, were persecuted and had to undergo politically motivated trials.

Therefore, the story of the tragedy that took place in Český Malín remained largely forgotten for over 45 years. The wider public only found out about it after the fall of communism.

In 1998, a monument to the victims was erected in the village of Malín, as a reminder of the horrific event.