I am forever walking out of hotels in the rain on dark, early mornings.
My driver picks me up. The streetlights glow against the rain-slicked cobbles of Mala Strana, where my hotel is, in the oldest section of Prague.
I’m on my way to meet Miloslava and Jaroslava, and my stomach is in knots. For hours and hours on end, I have studied and researched the terrors they, and thousands of women like them, lived through. I am aware that the memories they carry will always be beyond my comprehension in spite of my endeavors to understand.
I feel small. Again, the question: What am I doing here?
These women endured the worst nightmares. And here I come trotting along, about to ring their doorbell, like I can even begin to have something to offer on the subject — or in return.
We are driving up the winding hill just beside and behind the castle, and yet again I’m watching Europe go by through foggy windows. I’m thinking about the day to come, and wondering what I’ll do with myself this afternoon. I’ve been on the go nonstop for days. Maybe a rest would be nice. But … Prague. It’s hard for me to think about resting here.
“Why are you going to Lidice?” my driver asks. “Do you like history?”
“I study war,” I say, “and Lidice plays a part in that, as you probably know.”
“Yes, I do. Why do you spend your energy on such a negative topic?”
“I have to. I need to understand human behavior and the road to collective cruelty so I can do my part in making sure it all never happens again.”
A long, glistening red tram snakes through the intersection. I’m sipping my coffee and eating the hard-boiled egg I’d rolled into a white square napkin at the breakfast buffet before dashing out into the rain, wishing I had some salt.
“I know how to prevent war,” he says.
“How?” I ask.
“Teach the children quantum physics, and there will never be war again.”
“Why is that?”
“Because when the children grow up believing they are connected by the quantum power of our universe, they will not ever want to fight one another.”
In 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, the highest ranking police and security official in the Reich, subordinate to Himmler and Hitler only, was assassinated in Prague. He died as a result of an attack by a group of Czechoslovakian soldiers — referred to commonly these days as “the parachutists”, a reference that originated with German propaganda and has trickled down into widely accepted popular vernacular. The men had arrived in Czechoslovakia after training in England in conjunction with the Czech government in exile in London and the British SOE. After they were air-dropped, the parachutists were swept up by a gang of quiet Czechs who had survived Heydrich’s brutal infiltration of the the Resistance. They provided homes and supplies.
The two men who carried out the fatal blows of that special op were Jozef Gabčík, a Slovak, and Jan Kubiš, a Czech from Moravia.
They could not have known that mere months before they assassinated him, Heydrich had laid out the blueprint for what would become the Holocaust.
Hearing of the death of his henchman, who he had nicknamed “The Man with the Iron Heart,” Hitler lost his mind, and the Nazis went on a rampage. The town of Lidice was chosen to bear the weighty revenge of these madmen in their retaliation for the success of Operation Anthropoid.
Lidice was a sleepy little village outside Prague until June 10, 1942. That’s when the Nazis rolled through town armed with a taste for revenge and orders from the top: wipe Lidice off the map.
The men were rounded up and shot on the spot, on the grounds of Horák’s farm. The women were taken to Ravensbrück, and the children were gassed at Chelmno, with the exception of the handful taken for adoption into German families.
The village itself was destroyed — blown up by explosives — and every bit of it was dismantled. Today it is a rolling sea of green grass, and all that remains is a small brick portion of the cellar on Horák’s farm and the bodies of the men who were executed that night. A couple hundred feet away, smack between their grave and the markers where the old church used to reign, there’s the same small stream that babbled sweetly through the town back then. It’s hard to imagine the purity of it, just rippling along on a night like June 10, lit up with reflections of hellfire, burbling beneath the choking smoke of gunpowder.
Lidice had 503 inhabitants.
340 were murdered.
173 men and boys over the age of fifteen were murdered in Lidice.
19 people working outside the village at the time of the massacre were executed in Prague.
82 children were gassed at Chelmno.
6 children died in German orphanages.
196 were sent to Ravensbrück.
143 women returned from Ravensbrück.
17 children were eventually found and returned from adoptive homes in Germany.
(There are varying reports on the numbers above.)
In addition to Lidice, the small village of Ležáky was destroyed. Throughout Czechoslovakia, thousands were rounded up, tortured, executed, imprisoned, and sent off to camps in retaliation for the death of Heydrich.
Interviewing survivors has nothing to do with interviewing.
You enter the room, make your introductions, sit, make eye contact, and listen. You hold a space for memory to walk down its own lane.
The survivors journey back there, way back there. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe the past comes to them, because if you are still enough, you can watch as the landscapes begin to fill the room. You sit in utter humility as the visitors arrive, and you watch as the survivors’ eyes might once again begin to look into the eyes of their parents, sisters, brothers, and neighbors. The ghosts march in, and the atmosphere becomes alive with the memories of the living who are dead now.
That’s why it’s not just an interview. For the survivors, it can all rise again, and they might step boldly forward each time they speak. Facing the demons.
The trauma of what was taken from them can collide with the trauma of what happened next. And they step forward, right into the ring of memory: the flesh-and-blood Nazi, their own bloodcurdling shock and terror, the sound of the guard dogs snarling, the crack of the whip, the thud of the body collapsing next to them in the appellplatz.
Maybe Miloslava is returning back to the vast interior of the textile factory at Ravensbrück, where her young fingers worked hastily, literally saving her from the brutal beatings that punctuated the perpetual hum of the machinery lined up in front of the starving laborers during their twelve hour shifts.
Maybe Jaroslava is returning to the moment, after the liberation and that long walk home with Miloslava and their mother, when they finally discovered the reason they’d been imprisoned in the camp those three years. Embedded in that same moment was the news that their father had been killed, and their village had been destroyed.
For most of us, the Nazis are vile but vague — a seething mass of horrible people with guns, ovens, and swastikas who tortured Jews.
For survivors like Miloslava and Jaroslava, who happen to not be Jewish, the Nazis are vile but very real.
They have pores in their skin and hairs on the backs of their knuckles. Their teeth may be slightly tinged here and there, maybe even crooked. The women of Lidice and Ravensbrück — women like Miloslava and Jaroslava — know two kinds of Nazis: male and female. Maybe her hair curls and flicks up from underneath the brim of her SS hat in the cold winter wind as she guarded the prisoners. And certainly his gun is the same color as the jackboots he wears that kick people around.
One of those guns killed Miloslava and Jaroslava’s father. He lies in the grave under the rolling grass of Lidice with 172 other men.
Their father, Jaroslav, had crinkles at the corners of his eyes when he smiled. In all the photos the sisters share with me, he is smiling. In my imagination, he laughs jovially, too. I am grateful to be shown the photos of the village and this family. Because Jaroslav and his wife, Anna, had sent a steady flurry of family photos to his mother over the years, Miloslava and Jaroslava have a seemingly complete set of duplicates to the family photographs that went up in flames on June 10, 1942. The photographs are like flat little black-and-white frozen time capsules of the sisters’ smiles in happier times.
When they speak now, I see the same smiles. And I sit in awe on the sidelines. Absorbing the impalpable palpability of their memories. It is a holy space. Sacred. An intersection of now and then, a union born of trauma — and the courage born from that.
For the duration of our time together, Miloslava flips through the album. Page after page. Again and again. As she turns each page, I see hands aged for seven decades since the war. I see knuckles and nails that worked together with finger bones, tendons, muscles, and a weary heart. I drift off to where she once sat, in the textile factory at Ravensbrück, stitching together pieces of the contrasting uniforms that symbolize the Reich in our consciousness; those worn in the camps by prisoners, and those worn by the SS or the Luftwaffe. My heart wanders with those possible memories of her fingers and the pages they now turn, and I wonder if it’s true that I can feel the holes left behind in her world. My ears listen to Jaroslava who does the speaking. She recounts the things she chooses to tell me through the careful and capable translation of her great-niece, Sárka.
I just listen, watch, and feel.
This has been excerpted from Erin’s book The In Between. To view Erin’s artwork, research, and films made while traveling through the history of World War 2, please visit her website: www.erinfaithallen.com
All photographs (with the exception of Kubiš and Gabčík) are © Erin Faith Allen.