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Even during our short time here, we have discovered that it impossible to travel through Central Europe without seeing constant reminders of World War II and the occupation by the German Nazis. We have visited only a few of these sites, but they stand out very strongly in our minds: in France there was Oradour-sur-Glane; in Österreich there was the Konzentrationlager at Mauthausen. And now, here in the Česká Republika, there is Lidice.
Czechoslovakia never had a chance to defend itself against the Nazis during World War II. Instead, the entire country was basically "given" to Germany by France and England -- long before the invasion of Polska (Poland) that actually started WWII -- in an attempt to appease Hitler in the hopes that he would go away. He didn't. And for some reason, Hitler was particularly brutal to the peoples of Central Europe in Czechoslovakia, Polska, and Magyarország.
At the time, Lidice was a small town about 50 km west of Praha, near the resort town of Kladno. Again, it was a very ordinary town populated by very ordinary people. There was no large Jewish population or refuge for Jews here, no headquarters for resistance. There was only one thing that brought Lidice to the attention of the Nazis.
Reinhard Heydrich was the SS Security Chief in the region -- it was he who had convened the infamous Wannsee Conference outside of Berlin, where the "Final Solution" against the Jews was formulated. Four months later, on May 17, 1942, Heydrich was assassinated by two commandos from London. They were Czech. As a result of some vague and inconclusive investigations, the two Czechs were believed to have had some connection to the Horak family who owned a farm in Lidice.
On June 10, 1942, a few hours after midnight, the Nazis came to Lidice. Every man and older male child in the village was murdered on the spot. Every woman was sent to the Extermination Camp at Ravensbrook. The few children who were young enough and looked "Aryan enough" were kept for "re-education" -- taken to Germany and adopted by German families. The rest of the children were sent to the Extermination Camp in Chelmno. The entire village was set on fire and finished off with plastic explosives. The Nazis even destroyed the church and the cemetery. The name of "Lidice" was removed from every map, and until the end of the war the site was marked by signs declaring "No Entry."
The legacy of Lidice is as powerful as its martyrdom. Hitler's "Final Solution" was code-named "Operation Reinhard" in honor of the assassinated officer. The entire destruction of Lidice was filmed by the Nazis -- it became Document #379 during the Nuremburg trials after the war. Hitler's attempt to obliterate the name of "Lidice" ended up completely backfiring -- when the world learned the story, many villages renamed themselves "Lidice," and many newborn girls were also named "Lidice."
Of the 503 people who once lived in Lidice, 340 perished. 143 women returned from Ravensbrook after the war; and after two years of searching, 17 of the children were recovered. To this day, some of the children of Lidice who were adopted and raised as Germans have no idea who they really are.
A new town of Lidice was built a kilometre away from the original site. There is a National Park there now, where stone markers indicate the sites where the Horak farm, the church, the school, and the cemetery once stood. A series of Soviet-sponsored wall sculptures depict the tragedy, turning it into Communist propaganda. But the most powerful reminder is a statue erected on the 50th anniversary of the destruction of the village. It depicts the 82 children standing resolutely, their various faces expressing courage, terror, and absolute innocence.
We had read about Lidice and its statue years ago, and for Russell it was a pilgrimage to actually come here. Now, a few days before Easter, we saw that other visitors had placed stuffed animals and other Easter presents around some of the "children." The statue itself -- beautiful and haunting -- is one of the most emotional memorials that we have ever seen. It depicts the absolute tragedy of the event; yet at the same time, it captures the individuality, strength, and hope of the human spirit.
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