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.
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!
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.
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!
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.”
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.
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.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg…