Jiri Sulc: Retelling a story of wartime heroism

Jiri Sulc

The young Czech writer Jiri Sulc recently shot to fame when he won the annual Czech Book Club award for his bestselling novel Dva proti Risi - translating literally as "two against the Reich". The book tells the story of two of the Czechoslovak patriots parachuted to occupied Bohemia and Moravia from London at the height of the Second World War. Their goal was to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich - "the Butcher of Prague". He was the man that Hitler had put in charge of the occupied Czech Lands, and at the Wannsee Conference of January 1942 Heydrich was the prime instigator of the genocide of Europe's Jews, the "Final Solution". The assassination is one of the best known episodes involving Czechs in the Second World War, so, when I met up with Jiri on a brief visit to Prague from Brussels where he now lives, I asked him why he chose to retell the story.

"I believe that it is a very strong story, a very interesting story about things which should be known and shouldn't be forgotten. So I hope it might make people intrigued to read about it and to remind themselves of the events of the war."

You have written the book in a way that manages to be absorbing as a detective or adventure story. It is also a very patriotic story. You draw a heroic picture of Czech wartime resistance. Was this also part of your plan?

"What I tried - and I hope that I was able to manage it - was to write it in a way that might be interesting for younger people, and for the younger generation. So I thought that this sort of writing might help them to be interested."

Here is an extract from one of the most dramatic moments in the book, just before the two central heroes, Kubis and Gabcik, assassinate Reinhard Heydrich.

A ray of light danced along the fence before moving shakily to Gabcik's arm. For one very brief moment Gabcik stiffened as he stared at it on his raincoat.

He's coming!

'Jan,' he called, without turning, his eyes watching the road. He knew from countless measuring and trial runs that the car would be at the bend in less than thirty seconds.

He swallowed hard as the dancing light flicked off. Even as he heard Kubis's briefcase snap open, he reached under his raincoat and cocked the Sten.

Fifteen seconds.

A tram clanked up the hill behind him. A cold shiver ran along his spine. It was crammed with Czech civilians and looked as though it would reach his line of fire any second.

Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik
Cold sweat broke out on his forehead. They wouldn't get a second chance. It was just bad luck that the tram was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had to do it.

Gabcik lowered his right arm allowing the raincoat to slip off it and fall to the pavement.

The Mercedes was approaching fast. He could now make out that there were two figures inside - Klein at the wheel, Heydrich next to him. They would pass close to him. Very close.

He drew a deep breath, gritted his teeth and made for the curb.

By now the car was slowing down for the bend as Klein began to turn the steering wheel.

Liben,  the place of the assassination
Josef Gabcik raised the gun.

What happened next?

"What happened was that the Sten of Josef Gabcik failed. He didn't succeed in killing Heydrich. However, there was the second guy, Jan Kubis, who had a home-made bomb prepared. He managed to throw the bomb, which luckily succeeded in wounding Heydrich. As it turned out, it was a fatal wound, and Heydrich subsequently died about a week later."

Part of the tragedy of the assassination is the brutality of the Nazis' reprisals - starting with the murder of the entire male population of the village of Lidice, and then in the course of the coming months around 3,000 civilians were shot in occupied Bohemia and Moravia. To this day there are still people who would ask whether it was worth it. From the way you have written the book and explained the reasons for the assassination in the novel, you clear feel it was worth it.

Reinhard Heydrich
"The truth is that there are disputes about the price which the nation had to pay. However it has to be considered who Heydrich was and what was the nature of the period when the assassination took place. It is quite easy to say now that it was not worth it, because the war was won afterwards and one Heydrich didn't mean too much. But I believe that Heydrich was worth it because he was one of the most efficient Nazi leaders. The loss of him was very costly for the Nazis."

Here is another extract, just a little further on in the same chapter. The Sten gun has failed and it is still touch-and-go whether the assassination is going to succeed.

The Mercedes was nearly past the bend now. Another second or two and it would be out of range. It was now or never.

The bomb had to be thrown in such a way that the tape would unwind, taking the safety pin with it. As the Mercedes shot out of the bend and began to pick up speed down the straight, Kubis raced two or three paces in pursuit of it, flung the bomb and watched as it flew almost horizontally through the air, the safety tape unravelling behind it. The car roared on.

He clenched his teeth.

It's going to miss!

Tears welled up in his eyes.

Heydrich's car after the assassination | Photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 146-1972-039-44,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0
The tape had unwound now as the bomb began to fall. Designed to explode inside the car for maximum effect, if it did so outside it would almost certainly be ineffectual.

Kubis's eyes were transfixed on the bomb and the passenger door of the Mercedes.

A foot! It had missed the top edge of the door by a bloody foot.

As the safety tape unwound fully and fluttered to the curb, the bomb hit the outside of the car.

And exploded.

It is interesting that these extracts are not a translation, but that you originally wrote the book in English. This is something that intrigues me, given that you are a Czech writer.

"It is true. I tried to write it in English. The version you have just read is not my complete effort. I had to use a professional English proof-reader. But I tried to write it in English, because although the story is generally known worldwide, the details and the circumstances of the operation and maybe even the aftermath are not as well known. I hope it might be interesting for foreign readers to read such a novel."

Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius
You've spoken a little about your motivation for writing the book. I gather that you went to school in Resslova Street, the street where the church of Saints Cyril and Methodius stands, just off Charles Square in Prague. This is where the parachutists Gabcik and Kubis eventually hid in the crypt and ultimately shot themselves when they were found by the Gestapo. To this day you can see the bullet holes in the wall of the church. I understand that this made you interested in the story from your childhood.

"I was about fifteen, and to see the bullets in the wall was something which was very touching for me. Until those days, the Second World War - or any other war - seemed like a long time ago. It didn't mean much to me, or if it did mean something, I was interested in the operations and the larger scale of events. When I saw the remains of the battle, and I imagined that each bullet could have been an attempt to kill a particular person, because there were seven parachutists hiding in the church, and the final battle took a couple of hours before they decided to shoot themselves, I realized that war did not only mean big-scale operations - tanks going one way or the other - but also particular people who were behind the events. That was something that was very gripping for me and I started to think about things in a slightly different way."

One of the things I really enjoy about the way you tell this story is that you always have a few paragraphs from the point of view of the Czechs and then you turn to the point of view of the Gestapo as they are trying to find the assassins.

"I realized it would be a mistake to omit this part of the story, because in general, in many movies and many novels, the Gestapo is a bunch of men in dark coats and I thought that they were more colourful. I just wanted to show that these people were also people, human beings. These people made the system work. It was not just Hitler, Himmler or Heydrich, but it was thousands and millions of people who helped to keep the machinery going."

Karel Curda
And there is one particularly fascinating and tragic figure, whom you develop quite a lot in the novel. Karel Curda was another of the parachutists sent from London to occupied Bohemia and Moravia. He ended up betraying the assassins. In the book you look at what made him in the end, having risked his life for the Czech cause, betray his friends and his nation.

"In general opinion Curda is the traitor. He is a figure that is only black. There are no positive features seen in him. But when I started to write and study the sources, I realized that it is unfair in a way towards him, because there were thousands and millions of people, who did virtually nothing against the Nazis. Curda escaped from the occupied country, he escaped to Britain, joined the exile army, he underwent parachute training and was parachuted to the occupied territory. But he broke, and I think it should be seen that people are fragile and times were very hard. The way to becoming a traitor is sometimes very complicated. I believe that this guy played his part, but failed in the end. But there were others who did nothing, and I think these people shouldn't be the judges of these men."

When you won the Book Club prize, you suddenly shot to stardom here in the Czech Republic. Are you working on other books and if so, in which language?

"It was a shock for me that the book was so popular. I didn't expect something like that, so definitely I would be very glad if somebody would be interested in other books of mine. Definitely I would like to continue writing, probably now in Czech, because the Book Club is the only publisher that was willing to publish my book. I spent quite a lot of time offering my book both to agents and publishers in Britain, but without any success. So if there was interest, there is both the English version of this and I think I might be able to write a couple of other books in English, but at the moment I'm considering sticking to the market and especially to the readers who are interested in my book - and those are in the Czech Republic."