Marion Hume | October 24th, 2012
I am standing on the spot where the course of history changed. I am in Prague, perhaps 100 yards from Frank Gehry’s famous 1996 building, The Dancing House, but it is not modern architecture I have come to see.
Instead, I have walked into the crypt of a church you could easily stroll past and never notice; The Orthodox Cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius, where the bravest of men - seven in all - held out for eight hours against 800 soldiers deployed by the Gestapo.
A few months ago, I picked up a book called, HHhH by the French author, Laurent Binet; the initials an acronym for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (”Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”). SS Obergruppenfuhrer and General of Police, Reinhard Heydrich was the “butcher of Prague”. In 1941, over in Scotland, two parachutists, one Czech, one Slovak, were trained to assassinate him. Sergeant Jan Kubis and Sergeant Jozef Gabcik dropped down on the 28th December 1941. Aided by on-the-ground resistants, they lead Operation Anthropoid.
Binet’s novel tells you the end right at the beginning; the men died, as did some 5,000 others, massacred in retaliation for the death of one of the pillars of the Third Reich, although Heydrich did not die in a hail of bullets on 27th May 1942 at 10.30am as had been planned. The tommy gun the British had issued to Gabcik jammed at the crucial moment. Kubis hurled a grenade into Heydrich’s open-topped Mercedes and the most vicious of men died a particularly ignoble, lingering death on the 4th of June, caused by a fragment of upholstery fabric penetrating his skin and triggering septicemia.
In this church, the men and their accomplices, aided by the good bishop, the priest and the church elders, hid and held out. Their end outdoes any Hollywood action movie; betrayed by an informer, the Nazis, including the Prague SS Guards Battalion, surrounded the church at 02.00 on the 18th June 1942. They entered the main door at 04.15 hours and three men defended the nave against them all until 7am. Meanwhile, down in the crypt, the other four were digging towards the Prague sewer and were just centimeters from reaching it. Then, as the Nazis found the stairway downwards, two men held them off while the other two kept digging. The Prague fire brigade were forced into action, flooding the crypt as the men kept digging, shooting, even hurling grenades rained down on them back up into the church as the water level rose. At 10.00am, down to their last four bullets, they shot themselves rather than be taken alive.
The Nazis executed the bishop, the priest, the elders and their families, everyone in Prague who had helped the parachutists and every soul in two Czech villages, erroneously associated with Operation Anthropoid. Nazi boasting of the killing frenzy meted out upon the village of Lidice, where even the cemetery was destroyed, took on international significance. Locations around the world were renamed as Lidice, so that Hitler’s plan to wipe the village both off the map and from memory was thwarted. The governments of Great Britain and France declared the Munich Agreement void, a turning point in WWII.
Yet down here, alone, in the dank crypt, you think not of the great sweep of history but of a few individuals. You can almost hear their heartbeats. You sense their fear and their resolve. Today, silver coins fill each of the many bullet holes that scar the walls. The tunnel they dug is filled with poppies and messages of remembrance.
Under the Soviet regime, the church was a place of illicit pilgrimage, with a memorial service held at 10am on the 18th June each year. In 1994, it was declared a national memorial to the heroes of the Heydrich terror and a place of reconciliation. With the global success of HHhH, presumably there are more visitors these days, although there are none here on this Thursday afternoon. The great act by a small church is recounted in a study centre which contains such artifacts as a single shoe. On the wall outside, there is a plaque commemorating the parachutists and Bishop Gozard, who wrote to the authorities on the 19th June 1942 offering his own life to save others. He was executed by firing squad. The killing went on.
HHhH was awarded the Prix Goncourt in the original French and in translation, is a bestseller around the world. I found this reenactment of the events of 18th June 1942 on Youtube. It may have been filmed at the actual church or it certainly looks similar. Here’s The Guardian’s review of HHhH although given the cover of the English language edition makes it look like some neo-Nazi tome, you may want to resist reading it in public.