When writing and researching material for 'Victoria to Vikings - The Circle of Blood', my sole purpose was to unearth stories concerning the British monarchy, post Queen Victoria. It was a massive undertaking involving abdications, assassinations, both World War 1 and World War 2, but I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of satisfaction at my discoveries.
But in doing so, other stories bubbled to the surface. Stories that have been not exactly hidden, but certainly lost in what was the enormity of a horrific World War. Some were heartbreaking, to say the least, but they were not pertinent to my story, so they were reluctantly put aside. One however stayed in my mind, lurking in the background, begging to be told. It's not a pretty read but I want ... no I need ... to share it with you. It concerns 82 young boys and girls in a Ludice village, now Czech Republic, during World War 2 in the aftermath of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the most fearsome member of the Nazi elite who took his orders from only Hitler, Göring and Himmler. He was the man Hitler called "the man with the iron heart."
To tell my story, I need to backtrack a little, as I am prone to do, to August 1938 when the German authorities announced that residence permits for foreigners, including German-born Jews of foreign citizenship, were being canceled and would have to be renewed at their discretion. Poland stated that it would renounce citizenship rights of Polish Jews living abroad for at least five years after the end of October, effectively making them stateless. In this so-called "Polenaktion" of 28 October 1938, more than 12,000 Polish Jews were ordered to leave their homes in a single night, taking only one suitcase per person with them in which to carry their treasured belongings. As they were herded from their homes at gun point, the streets were filled with people shouting "Juden Raus! Auf Nach Palästina!'" ("Jews out, out to Palestine!") As they were brutally taken away, their remaining possessions were seized as loot both by the Nazi authorities and by their neighbours.
The deportees were taken to railway stations and put on trains bound for the Polish border, however, when they arrived, Polish border guards instantly turned them around and sent them right back into Germany. This see-sawing stalemate continued for days in the pouring rain, with the Jews marching without food or shelter between the borders. Four thousand were granted entry into Poland, but the remaining 8,000 were forced to stay at the border, waiting in the harsh conditions to be allowed to enter Poland. A British newspaper told its readers that hundreds "are reported to be lying about, penniless and deserted, in little villages along the frontier near where they had been driven out by the Gestapo."
Three months later, on 3rd November, a seventeen-year-old boy by the name of Herschel Grynszpan living in Paris with an uncle, received a postcard from his family from the Polish border, describing the family's expulsion: "No one told us what was up, but we realised this was going to be the end. We haven't a penny. Could you send us something?" Instead, on the morning of Monday 7th November, he purchased a revolver and a box of bullets, and resolutely proceeded to the German embassy and asked to see an embassy official. After he was taken to the office of Ernst vom Rath, Grynszpan fired five bullets at Vom Rath, two of which hit him in the abdomen. The boy made no attempt to escape the French police and two agonising days later, Vom Rath finally died.
Word reached Hitler on 9th November at a dinner party with several key members of the Nazi party. After whispered words, he left abruptly without giving his usual address, leaving Himmler to deliver the speech instead. At 1:20 am that same night, Reinhard Heydrich received his orders from Hitler.
What followed was the Night of Broken Glass, or Kristallnacht. The SA and Hitler Youth shattered the windows of about 7,500 Jewish stores and businesses, looting and destroying, hence the name Kristallnacht (Crystal Night). Jewish homes were ransacked all throughout Germany and following the violence, police departments recorded a large number of suicides and rapes. The rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland as well as over 1400 prayer rooms, Jewish cemeteries, and more than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps; primarily Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen. Even Queen Victoria's grandson, former Kaiser Wilhelm II commented, "For the first time, I am ashamed to be German."
Hitler's green light for Kristallnacht changed the nature of the Nazi persecution of Jews from economic, political, and social to physical with beatings, incarceration, and murder. The event is often referred to as the beginning of the Holocaust. In this view, it is described not only as a pogrom but also a critical stage within a process where each step becomes the seed of the next.
In London, the Czechoslovak government-in-exile resolved to kill Heydrich and two men, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, headed the team chosen for the operation. They waited patiently until 28th December 1941 to put their plan into action. On that night, they parachuted into the protectorate and hid until May 27th when Heinrich was due to meet with Hitler in Berlin. They knew that Heydrich would have to pass a section well suited for an attack where the Dresden-Prague road merged with a road to the Troja Bridge because motorists have to slow for a hairpin bend. As Heydrich's car slowed, Gabčík took aim with a Sten submachine gun, but it jammed and failed to fire. Instead of ordering his driver to speed away, Heydrich called his car to halt and attempted to confront his attacker. As the car stopped, Kubiš threw a bomb from behind. Heydrich suffered severe injuries to his left side with major damage to his diaphragm, spleen and left lung, and after slipping into a coma, he finally died of sepsis on 4th June.
And now we come to the story.
Hitler's response was immediate. He ordered a quick investigation and his Intelligence team linked the assassins to the towns of Lidice and Ležáky. A Gestapo report stated that Lidice, 22 kilometres (14 miles) north-west of Prague, was suspected as the assailants' hiding place because the two Czech army officers, then living in England, had come from there. After a thorough search, the Gestapo found a resistance radio transmitter in Ležáky and on that day, their fate was sealed.
On 9 June, after discussions with Himmler and Karl Hermann Frank, Hitler ordered brutal reprisals. Beginning on 10 June, all males over the age of 16 in the villages of Lidice and Ležáky, 173 men in total, were gunned down and murdered. The remaining 184 women were then taken away to concentration camps while the 88 children were dumped in an unused factory in Lodz, Poland. Of the children, only four were deemed 'Aryan' enough to be Germanized and the remaining 82 children were taken to the Chelmno extermination camp to be gassed.
Marie Uchytilova-Kucova was a Czech sculptor as well as academic sculptor professor born in 1924. The artist was deeply touched by the unimaginably cruel crime committed in Lidice. In 1969, Marie decided to commemorate the victims by creating a bronze monument for all the young lives lost. It took two decades, until March 1989, for Marie Uchytilova to create eighty-two plaster statues of children which were all above life-size height. While the artist was working on the artwork, numerous people visited her atelier, and they began collecting money for the monument. She however never saw the money but continued to cast the first three statues in bronze using her own savings. That same year, Marie unexpectedly died and the project looked like it would remain unfinished.
After the sudden death of the sculptor, her husband continued the work on his own. In 1995, 30 children in bronze were finally ‘returned’ to their mothers in Lidice. From 1996, more statues were installed, while the last ones were uncovered in 2000.
Currently, there are 42 girls and 40 boys murdered in 1942 overlooking the valley. They stand now as a silent memory to the lives lost in a cold and mindless massacre, forever standing sadly as haunting bronze statues.