The literary legacy of Lidice


This weekend is the 70th anniversary of the Nazi destruction of the village of Lidice. Shortly after the massacre, the British novelist Kathleen Hewitt wrote: “The tragedy of Lidice is part of a tragedy so great that one hesitates before daring to comment on it.” But she added that “words are potent weapons, as it is of words that history is made.” Since the Nazis tried to wipe Lidice from the map, many, many words have been written about Lidice; it has captured the imagination of writers like few other wartime atrocities, and dozens, perhaps hundreds, of novels, stories, poems and essays have responded to the tragic events of the night from June 9 to June 10 1942. David Vaughan looks at the literary legacy of Lidice.

If the Nazis wanted to wipe the village from the map, they were spectacularly unsuccessful. They tried systematically to obliterate every physical reminder that the village had once existed, but at the same time they made no secret of what they had done. The result was that the name of Lidice became engrained in the consciousness of the free world.

Lidice was a crude act of revenge. The Germans wanted to cow the Czechs into submission after the assassination of the Deputy Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich. Through radio they trumpeted details of the massacre to the world, making it one of the first Nazi wartime atrocities that came fully to the awareness of the international public. Several well-known writers reacted immediately to the crime, among them Viktor Fischl:

It is no more; it is no more,
the tongueless bells no longer ring,
only the smoking walls remain
and one stray dog who walks alone
searching in vain from stone to stone.

Fischl was a Czech poet, working for Jan Masaryk, the Foreign Minister in the exiled Czechoslovak government in London. As soon as he heard about the atrocity, in the course of a single night Fischl wrote a long poem, called The Dead Village. The poem is an elegy to the village and murdered villagers, but its tone is ultimately one of defiance.

Is it no more, no more? O springs of the dead village,
O hives of the dead village,
O corn of the dead village,
O glory of the dead village. O glory of the living village!

Reinhard Heydrich
"The Dead Village" was translated into English by Laurie Lee, best known today for his classic of life in rural England between the wars, “Cider with Rosie”. The two had met through their mutual friend, the poet Stephen Spender. Fischl’s poem was also to become the starting point for Humphrey Jennings’ powerful film, The Silent Village, which was shot in the months immediately after the massacre, and recreated the Lidice tragedy in the Welsh mining village of Cwmgiedd. At the same time British miners were busy establishing the Lidice Shall Live movement, and it was in this mood of solidarity that the international PEN Club, on the initiative of the British writer, diplomat and politician, Harold Nicolson, compiled a literary tribute to Lidice, including poetry and prose from some of the best known writers of the time, among them Thomas Mann, Cecil Day Lewis, and Iceland’s Hallidor Laxness. Here are a few lines from Nicolson’s introduction:

The graves at Lidice, the charred remnants of the village, will live for ever in the memory of the Czechs, and the Czechs possess the most retentive memories in Europe. But something else will also remain. There will remain the fact that the conscience of the world was outraged by this act of vengeance; and that the tragedy of Lidice marked, in the words of that Great German, Thomas Mann, “the gradual growth of an awareness of universal human responsibility.”

The following short poem by Cecil Day Lewis is typical for the anthology, combining raw anger with a cry for justice. Entitled simply “Lidice”, it starts with two lines from Walt Whitman: “Not a grave of the murdered for freedom but/ grows seed for freedom”:

Cry to us, murdered village. While your grave
Aches raw on history, make us understand
What freedom asks of us. Strengthen our hand
Against the arrogant dogmas that deprave
And have no proof but death at their command. Must the innocent bleed for ever to remedy
These fanatic fits that tear mankind apart?
The pangs we felt from your atrocious hurt
Promise a time when even the killer shall see
His sword is aimed at his own naked heart.

Lidice memorial
The anthology also includes one of the best known poems to respond to the massacre, “The Murder of Lidice”, by the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. It is not great poetry, but what is striking is its appeal to Americans to realize that Lidice is not as far away as they think. Here are the last few lines:

Oh my country, so foolish and dear,
Careless America, crooning a tune,
Please think! – are we immune?
Catch him! Catch him and stop him soon!
never let him come here!
Ask yourself, honestly: what have we done? –
Who, after all, are we? –
That we should sit at peace in the sun,
The only country, the only one
Unmolested and free?
Catch him! Catch him! Do not wait!
Or will you wait, and share the fate
Of the village of Lidice?
Or will you wait and let him destroy
The village of Lidice, Illinois?
Oh, catch him! Catch him, and stop him soon!
Never let him come here!

Lidice memorial
Also from the United States came the first response to Lidice in the form of a novel: “Lidice”, by Thomas Mann’s brother, Heinrich Mann, written from his exile in California. Both brothers had been granted Czechoslovak citizenship in 1936 after fleeing Nazi Germany, so their bond to the country was strong. Like other writers responding from Britain or America just after the massacre, Heinrich Mann had no way of knowing exactly what had happened, so he avoided trying to describe details of the massacre itself. In fact, he even drew the false conclusion that the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich had been instigated from within the ranks of the SS itself, like the earlier purges of the “Night of the Long Knives”.

The novel’s strength lies in its bitter satire on the character of Heydrich himself, “the Butcher of Prague” – and of other Nazi officials. The novelist focuses on the strange mixture of ham theatrically and kitsch suburban taste, combined with a total lack of moral scruple that seem common to so many of the Nazi elite. Much of the novel consists of dialogue, partly to reinforce the theatrical theme, but also to sustain a sense of pace and urgency. Here is a very short extract in my own working translation from the German, where Heydrich is talking to his more lenient predecessor as Reichsprotektor, Konstantin von Neurath:

Heydrich: “I can’t help but call you a traitor. You have treated the Czechs like a nation; but they are simply degenerated Germans. They shouldn’t be placated, but reeducated – or simply hanged and shot. Students, professors, intellectuals in general, should only be allowed to appear as naked corpses. You didn’t grasp that till too late.”

Lidice massacre
Heydrich goes on to describe intellectuals as a waste product, adding with great pride that when he was a student he was thrown out for failing his exams. The old-fashioned aristocrat von Neurath humbly agrees to carry on with the execution of Czechs.

All the literary reactions to Lidice I have mentioned so far have come from writers who heard about the events from a distance. They have little of the power of the accounts written by witnesses. Immediately after the massacre, with the village still in flames and the corpses of 173 Lidice men lying behind the Horák family’s barn, the Gestapo summoned a group of 30 Jewish prisoners from the Terezín ghetto, about fifty kilometres north of the village to bury the dead. Among them was František Kraus. He was a writer and journalist, and before the war he had been one of the founders of this very station – Radio Prague. Kraus went on to survive Auschwitz and his account written just after the war of what he witnessed in Lidice in a piece called “But Lidice is in Europe!” must be the most powerful and moving piece ever written about the massacre. Here he describes the collapse of the parish church:

Suddenly the church breaks apart: a new metallic thundering breaks up the walls, the ringing of the bells resounds clearly, there is a thumping in the tower, flames roar up again, then suddenly the ringing stops, torn away from the roof the bell hurtles down, breaks through the wooden floor and ends with huge clattering on the stone floor, white smoke rolls out of the fallen nave… Next to me stands Karl Langendorf, young, beautiful, the composer, he stands there like a marble statue, his mouth wide open, he raises and lowers his fists… Then low singing sounds from his lips, it is Antonín Dvořák’s Requiem… Requiem aeternam dona eis domine et lux perpetua luceat eis… A cloud of decay, dust and powder stands over his head, beside him the red poppies fade and marguerites lower tired, innocent heads, to lie down and die… Te decet hymnus, Deus in Sion, et Tibi reddetur… Terrible is the roaring sky over Karl Langendorf, but he goes on singing, he drowns out the terror of this time… Dies irae, dies illa solvet saeclum in favilla, teste David et Sibylla… Ploughed up and torn up, rent asunder and treeless, is the spot of Bohemian land in the heart of Europe.

Jaroslava Skleničková
The apocalyptic tone of František Kraus’s eye-witness account contrasts with the memories written down six decades later by Jaroslava Skleničková, the youngest of the women of Lidice sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. She was prompted by her husband Mirek to write down her memories for the sake of her grandchildren. Here are a few lines from her book, “If I had been a boy I would have been shot…”, which we serialized on Radio Prague in 2011. She describes the last time she sees her father.

At the gate, I stopped with Father. He kissed me and said: “God willing, we will see each other again Jaří, only never forget God.” His words were difficult for me to grasp, for we were definitely to return home in two days’ time. We went to the village green together. There was a group of men standing outside the parsonage. Father had to join them and my mother, my sister and I were taken to the school. When we entered, there was a Gestapo man just inside with a large suitcase into which we had to put all money, savings books and jewelry, including that which people were wearing. I said to myself that when a thief breaks into your house, it’s hard to him to find things – but here the thief has people bringing everything to him in person.

Lidice has continued to spark the imagination of writers – far too many to discuss in a short radio programme. I’ll end by mentioning just a few from the more recent past: we have Louise Doughty’s powerful 2003 epic of the Roma Holocaust, “Fires in the Dark”, in which a Romany boy witnesses the burning of the village; then there is Joseph Hurka’s “Before” published in 2007, which also features a fictional young boy, who witnesses the massacre and is haunted by it. His memories come to life, when, now living in the United States, he has a brain hemorrhage many decades later. Symbolically, Hurka’s novel is set on the eve of 9/11.

He was shouting, terrified. They were only the black walls on fire: no houses, no people left. He could not remember where he was. He could remember Anna’s name, for she was there, suddenly, alarmed, leaning over him, but he was not sure if he was in Massachusetts or Seattle, or perhaps Prague.

Lidice memorial
In Wales, several writers have taken Humphrey Jennings’ 1943 Lidice-inspired film The Silent Village, as a starting point, among them Ewart Alexander, with his play, “Atrocity”, which is set during the making of the film, and most recently Rachel Trezise, whose short story, “A Child Called Lidice”, was published in 2009. Here in the Czech Republic, Zdeněk Mahler’s book, “Nokturno”, in which one of the Lidice men survives because he is prison for having accidentally killed his son in a fight, was turned into a successful film in 2011.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg…