With Wednesday being the 73rd anniversary of the Lidice Massacre, this might be a good time to go into exactly why there is a Lidice monument and rose garden just a mile west of Route 66 at Prairie Avenue and Hosmer Lane in Crest Hill, IL. Or, for that matter, why the entire subdivision in which it is located is named for Lidice (no, it’s not because the neighborhood is or was predominantly Czech; this goes beyond nationality).
The story of the massacre itself is predictably gruesome and told below, for those who aren’t familiar with it; but the story of the memorial is one of compassion, defiance against tyranny, and hope. If you’re not Czech or Slovak or don’t live in Crest Hill, you’ve probably never heard of Lidice before; but 73 years ago, the name was on everyone’s lips.
The year was 1942. The U.S. had only been directly involved in World War II for six months; the Navy was still trying to recover from the destruction of the fleet at Pearl Harbor, and the Army was still gearing up, training men and acquiring materiel. Americans were throwing themselves into war work, worried about spies landing on any of our shores. The great Allied invasion at Normandy was still two years away, and the Czech government and its army – or what was left of it – operated in exile out of England. Most of the world didn’t know yet what was happening in the concentration camps or the sheer scale of the atrocities, the genocide – but it knew about Kristallnacht and the large-scale arrests of Jews, dissidents, intellectuals, so-called ‘degenerate’ artists, homosexuals and others whom the Germans despised, knew that thousands of people had been trying to escape Germany well before the invasion of Poland and ‘annexation’ of other lands, that much of Europe had been taken and that England was struggling in the war. The world knew enough to be afraid. And Hitler’s army seemed invincible.
Imagine, then, what the reaction of the free world was when Nazi radio immediately and deliberately broadcast the sordid details of the Lidice massacre in revenge for the assassination of one of its generals and the refusal of Czechs to give up any information on the partisans who had killed him. When it told the rest of the world that the German army had not only slaughtered as an example an entire village that hadn’t been involved in the assassination and desecrated its churches and cemeteries, but also leveled all its buildings, plowed them into the ground and removed any trace that the village had ever existed – not only wiping it out physically and removing its name from German maps but going so far as to even change the course of a stream than ran through it. And that the Nazis still had 88 children taken from the village, most of whom they intended to kill because they were ‘unsuitable’ for Germanization, while a precious few would be given to German families to raise, never knowing that they had been stolen from their butchered parents.
The news swept around the planet. The world was outraged. So intense was the criticism, so furious the promises of reprisals against the Germans that the Nazis hesitated for a moment in deciding what to do the remaining Lidice children (but not for long: most were executed a few weeks later).
At the time of the broadcast, Dominic Romano was developing the Stern Park subdivision in what was then a cornfield in unincorporated northern Joliet. Horrified by news of this particularly brutal massacre, two days later he renamed the entire subdivision for the destroyed town. Romano was the first person in the world to rename a town or part of a town in honor of the extinguished village; many would later follow his example, and for a while it seemed like new towns named for Lidice sprang up in all corners of the free world.
A few months later in 1942, the exiled president of Czechoslovakia came to Joliet and attended the dedication of the original monument in an empty cornfield (the subdivision later grew around it). After the war ended, the village of Lidice was rebuilt in Czechoslovakia, and a handful of exiled women and children who had survived the Nazis returned to begin life anew. Still later, a Park of Peace and Friendship was opened there and a monument to the dead was erected, with thousands of rose bushes planted at the memorial.
Meanwhile, the Lidice subdivision and the area around it separated from Joliet and incorporated in 1960 as the city of Crest Hill. The original Lidice monument was toppled by vandals in 1995, more than half a century after its erection. In time, the monument was replaced by the Czechoslovakian American Congress with a new one of granite, funded by donations from individual members and Czechs all over the Midwest, and was moved to its present location at Prairie and Hosmer. The city of Crest Hill then created a small plaza and park around the monument. The goal is to eventually have 82 rose bushes planted around the monument to honor the 82 murdered children. Crest Hill is now a sister city of the rebuilt town of Lidice in the Czech Republic, as are several other towns and cities all over the world.
The Lidice Massacre and the destruction of the village was ordered by Adolf Hitler, who was enraged over the killing of one of his highest-ranking generals, Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich, Hitler’s third-in-command and a major architect of the Holocaust, had been appointed Acting Reichs-protektor of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia (Bohemia and Moravia) in September 1941. The Czechs hated him, in part for the capture, imprisonment, and sometimes execution of more than 5,000 anti-Nazi partisans. The Czech government in exile plotted his death in England, both to rid the country of him and to show that the Nazis weren’t invincible, thereby boosting morale at home and gaining credibility for the exiled government. The plan was code named Operation Anthropoid.
It was never clear why the Germans chose Lidice for the reprisals. However, when the Gestapo learned that Josef Horák and Josef Stríbrný, two villagers who had fled in 1939, were rumored to be in England where the Czech Army operated in exile, the Nazis decided that this information implicated the village. But the men who fled had not returned; worse, there was no proof that they or any remaining villagers had anything to do with the assassination. Just the fact that two villagers had run off three years earlier to be partisans in England was enough for the Nazis. The village was doomed, but the doom took a while to play out.
Heydrich and his driver were attacked while driving in his car on the morning of May 27, 1942. They were assaulted by Jan Kubiš, a Bohemian, and Josef Gabcík, a Slovak, both parachutists with the Czech Army who had been flown in from London the previous December. The two had spent the winter and spring of 1942 hiding in the general area of Lidice and Kladno, doing reconnaissance to learn Heydrich’s routine and habits.
Heydrich was wounded but not killed. Gabcik and Kubiš fled the scene, narrowly escaping with their lives. The injured Heydrich was taken to Na Bulovce Hospital in Prague. By the end of the day, SS-Gruppenführer Karl Hermann Frank had declared a state of emergency in the region, and Prague was under curfew. The next day, the Nazis engaged in a massive manhunt involving 21,000 men to find the assassins; in all, some 36,000 homes were searched and 157 people were killed, but the Nazis had nothing. Hitler was enraged that the partisans would dare to attack one of his top generals. His first thought was to demand the annihilation of 30,000 Czechs. However, upon conferring with Frank, it was decided that such drastic action would unduly reduce the Nazis’ local labor force. Nevertheless, while Heydrich lay in the hospital, clinging to life, more than 3,000 Czechs were arrested; nearly 2,000 of them died either by outright execution or in prison.
Heydrich died of his wounds on June 4, 1942 due to blood poisoning (septicemia); the suspicion today is that the grenade was loaded with deadly botulinum toxin. By the time of his funeral on June 9, more than 1,000 people had been killed just during the manhunt alone – but the search had failed, and still no information was forthcoming. The infuriated Hitler wanted an entire village leveled and its residents exterminated in repayment for Heydrich’s death. On the evening of June 9, 1942, the Nazis surrounded Lidice without warning, entered the village, and separated the women and children from the men and boys over age 16. The 173 men and boys were moved to the Horák family farm. The 203 women and 105 children were taken to a village school.
At daybreak on June 10th, the men and boys were shot by a firing squad, at first in groups of five, then in groups of 10 to speed up the process. An additional 19 men, who were working during these executions, were rounded up and sent to Prague to be shot. Meanwhile, four pregnant women were sent to the same hospital where Heydrich had died to have their fetuses forcibly aborted, after which those women were sent to different concentration camps. The other women and children were moved to a school in nearby Kladno, where they held for two days after the children had been taken from their mothers. The Germans wanted no survivors left in Lidice.
On June 12, the remaining184 women of Lidice were sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp, where they were isolated in a special block, then put into forced labor. Meanwhile, a total of 105 Lidice children had been taken; 17 were separated and sent away to an unknown facility and 88 were sent to a holding facility in Lodz, Poland. In Lodz, six children deemed suitable for Germanization were immediately separated from the rest; (that is, they looked German/Aryan and were young enough that they might not remember their parents or their upbringing); these few were supposedly to be handed over to German SS families and raised as Germans, but somehow they ended up in the German Lebensborn orphanages instead. The other 82 suffered from illnesses and lack of hygiene and received no care while being held.
Immediately after Lidice had been emptied, the Nazis leveled the area: the entire village and landscape was destroyed and bulldozed or ploughed flat, including churches and graveyards. Nothing was allowed to remain, to the point of even changing the course of a stream that had flowed through the town. The Nazis altered the very landscape, wiping the village off of the map both figuratively and literally, so that it looked like the village had never existed (German maps were later changed to eliminate all mention of the former village).
Once the destruction was completed, something even more mindboggling occurred: Nazi radio announced the village’s total destruction and the executions to the Allied forces and to the world, to discourage further insurrections and intimidate its enemies. Shock ensued not only at the outrage committed to the village but also over the fact that the Nazis had so boldly admitted massacring the adults, kidnapping the children and leveling the town – and broadcast it all to the world, shamelessly. It was as if they were bragging, and nobody could touch them. No wonder it incited a storm of fury.
A week later on June 18, Kubiš and Gabcík died along with five other partisans in a gun battle with the Nazis at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Cathedral in Prague. Kubiš died during the battle, whereas Gabcik committed suicide to avoid capture. They had been betrayed to the Germans by one of their own, but not in Lidice, which was already gone. The small village of Ležáky was also destroyed two weeks after Lidice, because Gestapo agents had found a radio transmitter there for the underground team that had parachuted in with Kubiš and Gabcík. On July 2, 1942, the remaining Lidice children were moved to the Chelmno extermination camp, just over the border in Poland, and 82 of the last 88 were gassed to death by order of Adolf Eichmann, another of the major organizers of the Holocaust.
It would take another three years for the Germans to learn that they weren’t invincible, and Hitler would die in his bunker with the war being lost around him. Later still, much would be made of the fact that world headlines and news reports at the time showed a significantly greater reaction to the Lidice deaths than to the Jewish Holocaust. To be fair, although a handful of Allied leaders and their spymasters knew that the Jews were being murdered out of existence in German territory, there were few reports leaking out of Germany at the time and almost none made it into the news. The average person didn’t know what was happening. Not yet. Even those few in the free world who did know or suspected had no idea of the true extent of the genocide, until the Allied armies began liberating the extermination camps and finding the bodies, the gas chambers, the ovens, and the chillingly well-kept documentation. The information was simply too horrifying to believe without actually seeing the dead – or the camps – in person. And those who did see were marked for life.
It would be worse still, however, if the living failed to learn from history and act accordingly. Every time such massacres occur, the question presents itself: how much longer will humanity allow them? Thus, it should be no surprise that the Lidice monument in Crest Hill shares a sentiment with monuments to other genocides and massacres elsewhere in the world. Engraved on the granite west of Route 66 are the following words:
Lest we forget
Truth shall prevail
Until next time,
Marie and Joe