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To that long night came no morning

March 27, 2006

Within a few months, work commitments and other irritants permitting, RL and I will again find ourselves in Prague, the world’s most marvellous city (after Melbourne, of course). This time we hope to visit the site of Lidice.

Until the night of June 9th, 1942, Lidice was a small mining town about 30 km from Prague. That night, and in the day that followed, it was erased from existence, along with its entire population. Its name was excised from the land registry, and removed from all maps. Later, many towns around the world would take the name Lidice, but their namesake was never rebuilt.

I first learned about the story of Lidice from a film that I happened across, late one night channel hopping in Melbourne. Not a well-known nor a cultishly ‘famous’ film: Operation Daybreak (1976), directed by Lewis Gilbert, and starring Timothy Bottoms, Anthony Andrews and Martin Shaw (of The Professionals fame — or shame? He’d previously done great work for Polanski in Macbeth, as well. No shame there).

Operation Daybreak tells the true story of a group of Free Czechs who were parachuted into Prague by the British to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Reichsprotector of occupied Bohemia and Moravia and heir-apparent to Hitler, during the northern winter of 1941-2. With the help of the Czech undergound, they did what they came to do, but at terrible cost, to themselves and to the Czech people. After the assassination, while awaiting airlift by the RAF, the partisans were betrayed by one of their own. They were killed in the Cathedral of St Cyrill’s, in the crypt of which they made their final stand.

The finest moment of the film comes at the end, where the two surviving assassins swim into the rays of the dawn light that shine into the flooded crypt. In movements of extraordinary tenderness, they embrace each other, each placing his cocked pistol at the temple of the other, and there end it.

RL and I visited the crypt at St Cyrill’s a few years ago. It was smaller than the film suggested, but otherwise Gilbert had been remarkably faithful to the real. We saw the scars in the stone walls where the doomed men, in their desperation, had tried to dig their way out.

Lidice was obliterated in reprisal for Heydrich’s assassination. It seems it was a largely random choice by the SS, though they claimed the villagers were in some way complicit with the assassins.
The massacre at Lidice, as filmed by the Nazis

The SS were nothing if not thorough. All the men and boys over the age of 16, totalling 172, were killed; 195 women were taken to Ravensbruck concentration camp, 90 children to the camp at Gneisenau.Those children sufficiently Aryan-looking to appeal as potential members of the master race were fostered out to German parents.

Many artists have commemorated the destruction of Lidice: but none has captured the reality of the massacre with such beauty, and such terror, as the great Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu in his brief, eight-minute valediction, Memorial to Lidice, written during the following year, 1943. Every note, every chord, every cadence resolves into anguish.

You can download an MP3 version from this site.

Prague, Lidice. The one an indrawn gasp, the other a sigh breathed out. From the city of dreams to the village of dust. So often the chance turnings of our lives leave us to confront the beauty and the terror in inexorable juxtaposition. It is impossible for us to reconcile them.

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