Lidice: A village immortalised through tragedy

Lidice Memorial and museum

The massacre of Lidice, a small village just North West of Prague, on the night of the 9th of June 1942 was the darkest moment in Czech wartime history. Following the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the German Reichsprotektor of the Czech Lands, on the 27th of May 1942, the Nazis began a massive retaliation campaign against the civilian Czech populace. Lidice bore the brunt of this savage response, accused of harbouring one of the perpetrators of the assassination.

At the height of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, German troops stormed into the village and forcefully removed the villagers from their homes. Women and children were taken to the local schoolhouse, while all men over 15 years of age were lined up against a farmhouse wall the following day and shot. 173 lives were taken that day.

The village itself was completely razed and today little remains but open fields where children once played and householders went about their daily business. Recently, in honour of those who lost their lives and to provide a stark reminder of the atrocities of war, a new museum has been opened in the modern Lidice, which was rebuilt in 1949 close to the site of the original village. The museum aims to bring home to visitors the true nature of the massacre. It uses state of the art multimedia technology to depict the events of the time and the experiences of the Lidice women and children in the years that followed as vividly as possible. One of the creators of the new exhibition is documentary film director, Pavel Stingl. He explains how he first became interested in the village's history:

Pavel Stingl
"It's a long history. First of all I must tell you that I was shooting a big documentary movie about Lidice, but it was a new point of view for the Lidice story because until the end of Socialist times we didn't have a chance to say that there was also a reaction about Lidice in Western countries. And this movie, this documentary for Czech television was about the parallel life of the village of Lidice in Great Britain. I then had a good understanding of the story and the stories of different families, which was very interesting."

His involvement in the production of the documentary about the Lidice massacre for Czech television led Stingl's interest in the topic to broaden and he wished to make the atrocities which occurred more widely known on an international scale. Although an exhibition describing events already existed in the modern village, Stingl believed that to appeal to the younger generations it would have to be made more relevant.

"At that time, there was a very old museum which had been here for 50 years. This museum wasn't so bad, but the main point of its old style was a daily meeting with the people who were a part of the story, the Lidice women. Now the Lidice women have almost died out or are ill and are unable to go to the museum everyday to meet people there. And of course we have a new generation, a coming generation, who have not experienced wartime. Therefore I made a proposal to renovate the museum into something of a modern museum."

At the time of the massacre, the Czechoslovak government was in exile in London. The news of what had happened in Lidice came as a grave blow, and provoked a strong response from the Czechoslovak community living in Britain, as well as from the British population in general. One such reaction came from the young poet, painter and film director Humphrey Jennings who undertook to produce a film, entitled "The Silent Village", about the massacre. Jennings came upon the rural Welsh village of Cymgiedd which closely resembled Lidice and perfectly suited Jennings vision for the film. With the utmost support from the villagers and the local miners' trade union, he used the villagers themselves as an amateur cast, and recreated the events of Lidice 2000 miles away in rural Wales. Arwel Michael was a boy living in the village of Cymgiedd at the time the film was produced. He recalls his own role in "The Silent Village".

"It was made out as if it was Lidice itself then. It was something that Humphrey Jennings was putting on in the UK to highlight to the people what had happened here, because everyone know what had happened in Lidice and at this particular time, no one knew whether or not the Germans would have come across to the UK. Although they were held at bay for a while we weren't fully sure whether they would be coming to the UK or not. So this was really highlighting to the people at large what went on."

The film has been shown in the Cymgiedd School ever since it was first produced, to remind local children of their village's involvement in informing people of the Lidice tragedy and their remarkable connection with the small Czech town. But in recent years, the links between the two villages have been renewed and now, over 60 years after the tragedy, Arwel Michael was one of the first people to visit the recently opened museum. He gave me his impressions of the exhibition.

"Generally the video visual side of it, and also some of the remains that they have found from Lidice, the few remains that they have found, are poignant to look at because they were artefacts belonging to some of the people who were obliterated from the face of this earth. I think it's fabulous. I think that Pavel Stingl has really captured the atmosphere, the authenticity of what had gone on. I think it's the best project I've ever seen of trying to relate to the public at large what might have been going on. Its more than a film, the atmosphere within that museum now is unbelievable."

The new museum shares one aim at least with what Jennings' film achieved back in 1943; making events relevant to the general public. Although the multimedia exhibits are intended to appeal specifically to the younger generation, Arwel Michael believes that modern society as a whole has a lot to learn from the Lidice museum.

"I think they can learn from what the horrors of war will bring to people, the general public at large. I think it will be highlighted. A lot of politicians in our world need to come to see this in Lidice and to appreciate what war does to the average person in the street, because they don't want war, but when wars come along they are drawn into it and they are the ones who suffer."

Many of the Lidice women who remember the night of June the 9th 1942 have now passed away and those who remain are now elderly, some too frail to recount the tragedy. However, there are still some who well remember the tragic events. One such lady is Wynne Plocka, formerly Horak. She is English, but was married to Josef Horak, one of two airmen from Lidice, who had fled to England at the beginning of the occupation. She recalls returning to the site of the former village of Lidice in 1945.

"Just an empty field, just a wooden cross. And only women, mourners. That was the most terrible thing. Apart from Josef Stribrny and Josef Horak, no men, absolutely no men at all. No children. And then just a few children came back, three or four. But now history is being amended and the true story is coming out, and the fantastic work Mr. Stingl and Mr. Vaughan have done on the museum is really out of this world. Before it was just a room with photographs and now it can actually bring home to people the terrible tragedy that occurred."