Saturday, June 10, 2006

A piece of Bohemian history

Gabčík and Kubiš receiving medals from Dr Edvard Beneš,
president of the Czechoslovak government in exile

Last weekend, Kim and I were walking up the river and decided to stop into the Orthodox Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, which is famous for being the site of the last stand on 18 June 1942 between the paratroopers who had killed Reinhard Heydrich and the Nazi troops who had been hunting them down. Seven Czechoslovak paratroopers died in the church, of whom two had actually carried out the Heydrich assassination. They were Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík.

There is an exhibit in the church’s crypt where the paratroopers had been hiding and where four of them died. I had been through the exhibit a few times before, but this time was a little bit different.

The first thing was that I noted the address of a safe house in which Jan Kubiš had been hidden right after the assassination. None of the safe house addresses had ever meant anything to me before, but this one did because it is on my block, just 2 doors down from where I live now.

I asked the man working in the museum if they still showed the last part of the Czech film Atentát (Assassination, 1964) that depicts the siege of the church. He said that they were now only showing the film for school groups, but would we like to go up into the church? The church itself is not normally open to tourists, but he was about to take a Ukrainian church group in there.

This was where the visit got really different. The Ukrainian church group had its own guide so the museum man showed a few things to me and Kim and gave us a bit more information than was in the exhibit down in the crypt. For the first time I got to see the top side of the entrances through which the paratroopers and later the Nazis had entered the crypt. The man also explained to us further how the Nazis had found the church.

The exhibit in the crypt says only that another paratrooper, Karel Čurda, had given away the location of the paratroopers’ hideout. But the museum man told us that the Nazis had obtained only the name of the church, and they had not known that the paratroopers were there. When a couple of Nazis walked into the church to have a look round, three of the seven paratroopers were on watch in the choir loft. It was only because they opened fire that the Nazis realized that resistance fighters were there and called for back-up.

The rest of the story is well-known, that the three paratroopers who were upstairs were killed in the firefight, and that the four paratroopers down in the crypt eventually committed suicide to avoid capture. Karel Čurda was hanged for high treason in 1947.

The Heydrich assassination itself remains controversial because the Nazi reprisals, which were expected, were brutal, horrific and excessive. Over 5000 Czechs were murdered in the reprisals. The incidents that are the most infamous as Nazi atrocities are the destruction of the villages Lidice and Ležáky.

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