Friday, June 18, 2010

18 June 1942: Nazis Kill Heydrich Assassins in Bloody Church Shootout

As soon as Czech parachutists Josef Valčik, Jan Kubiš, and Josef Gabčík, launched their attempt on the life of the Nazi "Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia," SS Lt. General Reinhard Heydrich (full story here) on May 27, 1942, they became the subjects of the largest and most vicious manhunt in occupied Europe.  The hunt was accompanied by unprecedented terror (the so-called Heydrichiade), almost all of it directed against the innocent: most infamously, the gratuitous destruction of the village of Lidice.

The three men and their comrades from the other parachute teams at first went underground in safe houses, but as conditions became too dangerous, they found refuge in the crypt of the Orthodox Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius (named after the apostles to the Slavs). (The Germans persisted in calling it by the older name of Karel Borromeus Church, after the saint Carlo Borromeo, of the Counter-Reformation era, when Bohemia was forcibly recatholicized.)  As the terror mounted, the parachutists were tormented by feelings of guilt and considered confessing and then committing suicide.  Ultimately, they were persuaded to continue resistance, not least because there was no evidence that surrender would stop the reprisals.

By mid-June, just as there was hope (some realistic, most of it fanciful) that the parachutists would be able to flee the country, they were betrayed by one of their own, Karel Čurda, who, depending on which sources one believes, was moved by a combination of fear, anguish over the reprisals (including threats to his own family), and greed:  the Nazis were offering a reward of 10 million Czech Crowns (1 million German Reichsmark) for information leading to the assassins. He identified the assassins but did not know their hiding place; that indirect information the Nazis secured from another victim by torture.

Nazi forces—according to German sources, some 800 strong—converged on the church early on the morning of 18 June.  An assault on the nave was repulsed by parachutists in the gallery, and the Germans secured the interior of the building only after heavy losses in three hours of fighting.  The three parachutists took poison.  Only by chance—the discovery of an article of clothing indicating that there were more than three men hiding in the building—led the Germans to the crypt, where four other parachutists were still concealed.

After the Czechs repulsed with gunfire all attempts to enter, the Germans sought to drive them out (for the order was to take them alive) by pumping tear gas into the crypt through a streetside ventilation slit.  Using a ladder, the parachutists pushed away the gas hoses.

After the attackers managed to pull away the ladder, they began pumping in water with fire hoses. 

The parachutists repulsed another assault by German troops who entered the crypt.

Contrary to some depictions, the parachutists' lives were not endangered by the water (which reached a height of only a few feet).  But, trapped, having failed in their desperate attempt to find a rumored escape tunnel to the river, and low on ammunition, they took their own lives with their revolvers.  Again contrary to some depictions, Kubiš and Gabčík did not die together in the crypt. Kubiš poisoned himself after the battle above ground.

I still remember very clearly the day my father took me to the site, still under the communist regime. I was impressed that he knew the event and topography so well and could immediately identify the street (Resslova) even though he was not present at the time and had not been there in years (indeed, decades).  There wasn't much to see. This was of course well before the street became the fashionable place that it is now, anchored today by Frank Gehry's iconic "Fred and Ginger" edifice (1, 2) farther down, on the river. In fact, that was (if I may put it this way) one of the "discreet charms" of communist-era Central Europe. One had the feeling both that things had not changed, and that one was in the midst of history unfolding, because everything—from the drab, dirty gray or beige façades to the distinctive smell of coal smoke in the air—was so different from what one was used to in the west.  At any rate, I distinctly recall my emotions upon seeing the pockmarks from gunfire around the ventilation slit, with its simple, understated memorial plaque—especially by virtue of the contrast when we later walked a few blocks farther and saw parents and children happily playing in the park on the island of Slovanský Ostrov.

When I returned to the site last year, it had acquired a much higher profile.  The whole complex  is now known as Národní památník hrdinů Heydrichiády - místo smíření (the National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrichiade—Site of Reconciliation).  When one enters the church, one encounters a modest exhibit of placards (added in the 1990s), detailing the planning of the assassination, the event itself, and the aftermath. One can visit the interior of the church itself.

The focus, though, is the crypt, which has become a shrine. I had the good fortune (if one may put it that way) to be alone in the crypt for quite some time.

Here, too, one finds displays on the events—photographs and explanations, a bloodstained book belonging to one of the parachutists, a facsimile of the antitank grenade used in the attack, and so forth. Whether the average visitor spends a lot of time reading the "signage," I don't know. I certainly did, but that was not why I was there.

I knew the history, so what I came for was the sense of place.  There is something peculiarly moving about having heard and read about a great human drama and then setting foot on the ground where it actually occurred:  to see the catacombs, which first housed monks' bones, and then living parachutists, and, as the water level rose, their ammunition; the slit through which parachutists and Gestapo exchanged fire, through which the poison gas drifted and the water flowed; the hole that marked the beginning and end of the desperate search for the secret tunnel that could lead to salvation.  It was scarcely less moving to see the many simple tributes from around the world, whether from former allied soldiers or just lovers of freedom and admirers of heroism.

As other visitors joined me in the cool crypt on that warm afternoon, I happened to notice two women speaking English. After some hesitation, I couldn't contain my curiosity and asked them what had brought them to this dark place on such a fine day. They responded that they had never heard of the episode until coming across a brief reference in a tourist map or guidebook, and had been so touched that they wanted to see it for themselves.  I filled them in on more of the story.  When I mentioned that I was next planning to head to the Army Museum in order to pursue the story, we agreed to go together. The car in which Heydrich was assassinated was no longer on display, but we were able to see the other displays on the war years, and above all, the end of a 2008 special exhibit on the anniversary of the "Mobilization" for war in 1938.  After that, we parted ways: they for dinner with friends, I, for the Heydrich assassination monument.

I was, truth be told, deeply moved to find that the story of the parachutists and the ordeal of the Czech nation during the "Heydrichiade" had so touched people who had not natural personal or intellectual connection to those events of a lifetime ago.  I had the sense that I had accomplished something, in several ways, that afternoon.

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Postscript:  This spring, Radio Prague reports, the site has undergone a complete overhaul. Separation of interpretive and memorial functions is intended to strengthen each:
Colonel Aleš Knížek of the Czech Military Institute was behind the facelift.

“Museum items were removed from the actual crypt itself and placed here in this anteroom. Our aim was to make the crypt more solemn – it will now contain only seven busts of the parachutists who died here in this church. The anteroom maps the Czechoslovak resistance movement, and contains items that they used here in the crypt, as well as in the assassination of Heydrich.”

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