Josef Horak, a twentieth century Czech hero

Josef Horak

I was recently involved in making a film about Lidice, the Czech village that the Nazis wiped off the map in June 1942. In the course of my research I met many people from and connected with the village, including relatives of Josef Horak, one of only two men from Lidice to survive the Nazi massacre. The following programme tells his story.

The Horak family had an old farm in the village and this is where Josef and his younger sister Anna were born. From an early age Josef had ambitions to fly and as soon as he could, he enrolled for military academy. He was a good student, and joined the Czechoslovak Air Force.

The German occupation in March 1939 came as a shock. Without a shot being fired the Czechoslovak armed forces were disbanded. Like many professional soldiers, Josef decided to smuggle himself out of the country and fight for his homeland abroad. His sister Anna remembers the Christmas of 1939.

"We celebrated Christmas just as we did every year, with all the family together. Then on the 27th December Josef went off to work, and we didn't see him again. On the 26th he'd been playing ice hockey on the village pond. Then he was gone."

Via France Josef Horak found his way to Britain, where he joined the Royal Air Force's Czechoslovak 311 bomber squadron, first as a rear gunner, and then as a pilot.

In the summer of 1941 Josef was stationed near Swindon in Southern England, and it was at this time that he met his future wife, Wynne. Today Wynne is eighty, but as she remembers back, it's not hard to imagine her dancing with the handsome, dark haired young Czech officer, who gallantly held the door open for her at every dance for three weeks.

"One day this young man came over and said - could he ask me for a dance - and my mother said yes. We danced, and then he told me that he was the one who had been holding open the door for me. So then he came to tea - upset my mother (laughs). Tea was very short. She said to him - would you like a cup of tea? He said yes please, so he had a cup of tea and some cakes or something, and then mother said - would you like a second cup of tea? He said - no thank you, don't waste water. It was his idea of a joke, but it backfired somewhat. His English wasn't quite as good as it was later. But I think she forgave him for that. Josef said instead of getting engaged we'd be married. My mother said no, because if my father had been alive I wouldn't be allowed. But Josef just overruled everything - she said - and said - oh yes, we'll get married and I'll be a good son-in-law. And he was!"

Josef wrote a letter to his own parents in Lidice, apologizing for not asking for their approval for the marriage. He knew he would not be able to send the letter, so he kept it, hoping to give it to them when the war was over.

This was never to happen. In June 1942, six months after Josef and Wynne were married, Josef's friend and fellow pilot, Vaclav Student, came to break the appalling news of what had happened to Lidice, that the village had been destroyed and all the men shot.

"Pepik (Josef) walked off, and I went to follow him obviously, and Vaclav said to me - no, leave him for a few minutes, he wants to be alone. That was the time. He was in a terrible state."

The Nazis used Josef Horak and Josef Stribrny, another Czech pilot from Lidice, as their excuse for destroying the village. Three weeks earlier the Nazi chief of occupied Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich, had been assassinated, and they claimed that the two airmen had been parachuted in and carried out the assassination. This was a complete fabrication. Wynne Horak:

"The Germans knew perfectly well. It was just an excuse to destroy Lidice. It wasn't really anything to do with the Horaks."

The Horak and Stribrny families were picked out for the most brutal treatment of all, as Anna Horakova remembers.

"All my father's brothers and all the members of their families were all executed, apart from me. That was seventeen human lives."

Back in England, Josef and Wynne's life went on, with Josef serving in coastal command, looking out for U-Boots off the Spanish coast. A few months later their first son, Vaclav, was born. After Josef's best friend, Vaclav Student, was killed, it was the Czechoslovak Foreign Minister in exile, Jan Masaryk, who became godfather. Wynne Horak again.

"He was a very, very pleasant man, slightly American sounding, full of jokes. I think this one's going to be a footballer, he said, because he was kicking him. We had this little ceremony, went back to the hotel and everything was over. Busy people, busy lives."

The war continued. Josef was active in supporting the Lidice Shall Live movement, which had been launched in Britain in a wave of solidarity after the massacre, to make sure that Lidice would not be forgotten. In the meantime, Josef and Wynne's second son, Josef junior, was born.

With the news of the end of the war Josef's first priority was to get home. While Josef's sister Anna was slowly making her way back from Germany, after escaping the death-march from the Ravensbruck concentration camp, Josef, Wynne and their two children headed for Czechoslovakia from Britain. They knew what to expect in Lidice but were still appalled.

"It was devastating, because it was just a vast open space with a wooden cross, nothing else. Of course the children just thought it was a big field. They were too young to really comprehend anything. But the worst part was seeing only two men among all the women. It was so unbalanced. They were all such terribly lonely women."

The family gradually settled down. Here they are in a newsreel from Christmas 1946.

Josef Horak: "We have a little community here. We all try to help each other."

Wynne Horak: "Come over here dear. We want you to say a few words into the microphone."

Child:"What is a microphone?"

Wynne Horak: "If you speak into it, people who are not in this room can hear you."

Child: "Merry Christmas to you, the big wide world."

The newsreel gives the impression of a happy and optimistic family. But things rapidly changed. Josef continued as a professional pilot, serving now in the Czechoslovak armed forces, but little by little it became clear that the Soviet Union was gaining control in the country. Those who had fought in the west became enemies. Josef's sister Anna remembers.

"It was at a meeting of the Committee to Rebuild Lidice. After the meeting, I just had to leave. Otherwise I'd have lost my wits. Two women started yelling that my brother was guilty of everything that had happened in Lidice. That he had murdered our children and husbands."

And then came the elections of February 1948, and the Communist coup. Wynne again:

"We just woke up one morning and overnight everything had changed. People with armbands, people with sticks, a few with guns. They started shouting rude remarks all the time - Why aren't you working for the state, it's Sunday, you should be working for the state - and I didn't want to work for the state, thank you. I had two children to look after."

It was clear that Josef had no future in the Czechoslovak Air Force.

"They came into his office and gave him ten minutes to clear his desk. He was married to an Englishwoman so he was out."

Wynne managed to leave with the children by plane on 6th April 1948. In his diary Josef wrote down his feelings.

"Today was Wynne's 24th birthday. I could not even congratulate her and her birthday present from me - a gold bracelet - was taken from her at the airport. I realized how terrible it would be if I could not see them again, how worthless my life would be and my decision to cross the border before Monday was stronger than ever."

Josef smuggled himself into Austria, and with the help of the Lidice Shall Live foundation, he made his way back to Britain, an exile for the second time in his life. He was able to join the Royal Air Force again, although at a lower rank than he had enjoyed in Czechoslovakia. Just before Christmas 1948 Josef, Wynne and the children moved into a new apartment, but in just three weeks tragedy struck again.

"He crashed in bad weather, hit some trees. And a farmworker - he was trying to do his best obviously, poor man - put him on a door, carried him inside, and it gave him a haemorrhage and killed him."

Josef Horak died far from his native land. His sister Anna was not allowed to come to Britain for the funeral. She tried at least to send a wreath and a small box of earth from Josef's native Lidice, but they were handed back to her at Prague airport, where the guards told her that her brother had been a traitor and a deserter.

Wynne brought up Vaclav and Josef jr. in Swindon. The two boys quickly forgot their Czech, and it was only with the fall of communism that the two sides of the family were able to get together again. Vaclav died some years ago, but Wynne and Josef junior often visit Lidice, and they have again become close to Anna and her family. In 1991 a street in the new Lidice was renamed after Josef Horak.