Lidice - Destruction of the Village 1942

SS- Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich was deputy leader of the SS under Reichsführer- SS Heinrich Himmler and head of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA). As such he controlled all the security forces of the Reich, including the police and the Gestapo, and he was one of the most powerful and dangerous men in the Nazi hierarchy. Still comparatively young, he was energetic, efficient and remorseless as a circular saw. Adolf Hitler said that ‘Heydrich had a heart of iron.’ Heydrich was the protagonist of Hitler’s great scheme of expansion to the east: Germany’s frontier would be expanded to the Volga and millions of Slavs displaced. A few who would be ‘racially suitable’ would be selected for Germanisation, and the remainder would be liquidated. The vacant lands would be colonized by Germans and over these vast territories Reinhard Heydrich would reign as viceroy, second only to Hitler himself. In 1941, it seemed that the war was virtually over, for a few more months, the inferior races would be needed to toil in the Indus trial machine, and then the time would be ripe, to put the master plan to the test.

Heydrich’s first step was to displace Baron von Neurath as Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia. Baron von Neurath, a former diplomat of the old school, was elderly, ailing and far too easy-going. It was not difficult to undermine his position and in September 1941 Heydrich arrived in Prague to take his place. He lost no time in instituting a series of ruthless in which over 10,000 arrests were made, and some 450 people liquidated.

But on 27 May 1942, Czech agents, Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis from Britain intercepted Heydrich’s car as it slowed down to take a corner in the Prague suburb of Holesovice, a grenade wrecked the car, and Heydrich was taken to the Bulovka hospital, which was only half a mile away. Hitler was informed by Karl Hermann Frank, the Sudeten German Secretary of State, of the attack on Heydrich, by telephone. Hitler was outraged to hear that Heydrich was travelling unescorted in an open car. Hitler ordered reprisals and appointed Karl Frank as the Interim Reichsprotektor and offered a reward of one million Reichsmarks for the capture, or information which resulted in the capture of the attackers. Hitler also ordered the instant execution of 30,000 Czechs.Karl Frank in his discussions with Hitler, put forward the view that an execution of that many people would seriously deplete the labour force in the Protectorate, and Hitler amended his demands to the arrest of 10,000 hostages.

On 27 May 1942, Heinrich Himmler sent to Frank a priority message which ordered Frank to target intellectuals and to execute 100 of them immediately. During the next few days over 3,000 Czechs were arrested of which 1,357 were executed, while 657 died during police interrogations, over 2,000 killed. .

Despite an early positive prognosis of Heydrich’ condition in the Bulovka hospital, his health deteriorated. He was in great pain and with a very high temperature, that even experimental sulphanomide drugs failed to arrest the blood poisoning, resulted from his wounds. At 04.30 on 4 June 1942 Reinhard Heydrich died, at the age of thirty-eight. After his body lay in state at Hradcany Castle in Prague, his body was taken by special train to Berlin.Heydrich’s funeral oration took place in the Mosaic Hall on the new Reichs Chancellery on 9 June 1942, and he was buried in the Invaliden cemetery.The day after the funeral, Frank received a top-secret instruction from Hitler, ordering him to ‘carry out a special reprisal action to teach the Czechs a final lesson of subservience and humility.’ He was to select some small working-class community near an industrial centre, and wipe it out completely. This fitted in with Frank’s own views: his hatred of Czechs was pathological, and he had suggested the same to Hitler himself.

Lidice, seems to have been selected because it appeared in the files of the security services. Two men from there, Josef Horak and Josef Stribny, had left Czechoslovakia in 1939 and were known to be serving in the RAF. Obviously, they must have been dropped by parachute and, having killed Heydrich, they were no doubt hiding in Lidice. Besides, the name had come up again quite recently, in connection with a note intercepted by the Gestapo. As it turned out this was actually a different village entirely, with the same name, but by the time the Germans had discovered this, the orders had gone out, and the arrangements were in place. Berlin was demanding immediate action, and it was too late to change. Two Gestapo agents were hastily sent to Lidice that night to arrange for the incriminating evidence to be found the next morning.

Until June 1942, Lidice was a pleasant little village, of no particular distinction, a village like thousands of other Bohemian villages, situated in the open rolling countryside about ten miles from Prague. A stream ran down the shallow valley, spreading out into a small lake above the mill, and beside the stream, colour-washed cottages clustered about the church. On the outskirts lay the larger farms with their out-buildings and orchards, and all round the undulating, un-fenced farmlands stretched away, broken here and there by dark strips of forest cresting the ridges. There were three inns- the Stags Head, opposite the church, was famous for its beer – a café, and a school which served the children of several neighbouring villages, though the classes had been reduced; since the Germans came, there was only elementary education for Czechs. Lidice was something of a social centre for the district, there was a library, founded by a former miner, and the church organist had trained two choirs and even established a small orchestra. The hockey club had a considerable local reputation, and the football team was well thought of. It was a close-knit community, with no marked social or religious divisions. The women did most of the work on the land, while the men were chiefly employed in the industrial centre of Kladno, which was located only four miles away.

On the afternoon of 4 June 1942, at about half-past four, the day of Heydrich’s death, two columns of troops in lorries appeared on the skyline above the village. They jumped down from the vehicles, and spread out through the village to form a cordon, herding the apprehensive villagers, until they were collected in the street. Gestapo agents questioned them curtly, carefully identifying each individual from type-written lists. Meanwhile the police ransacked every house, turning furniture and belongings upside down, and leaving chaos behind them. Then they returned to their vehicles and drove away. They took with them Madame Stribny and her brother, and the whole Horak family – eight men and seven women, one imminently expecting a baby. None of them was ever seen again. The dazed and shaken villagers were left to restore their shattered households as best they could, and to speculate about what the Germans had been looking for, and whether they would return. And after a day or two, as nothing happened, confidence began to return. Sergeant Baburek, the local policeman from Bustehrad, passing through the village on his bicycle, reassured them, he thought it unlikely the Germans would return to Lidice again.    

But that assumption proved to be false. Karl Frank telephoned the BdS (Befehlshaber der Sicherheitspolizei und des Sicherheitsdienst) in Prague, Horst Böhme, and instructed him to carry out the destruction of Lidice. By 22.00 hours on 9 June 1942, Gestapo agents from Prague were joined in Kladno by two companies of police troops and a squad of security police under the command of SS- Hauptsturmführer Max Rostock, and it was these troops that would carry out the executions. By truck, bus and car they travelled to Lidice, which they quickly surrounded, and set up road blocks on every exit. Staff cars sped into the village square with squads of SS and Gestapo officers, all the inhabitants were herded out of their homes, some in their nightclothes and were made to line up in the square, men on one side, women and children on the other. Once more, the Germans meticulously crossed their names off, one by one, against their lists. Boys over fifteen were put with the men, who were then locked in under armed guard, in the empty buildings of the Horak farm. The women and children were herded into the school, where they were locked in for the night, after their valuables were confiscated. Meanwhile, squads of Schutzpolizei were going through their homes, methodically collecting everything of value. The incriminating ‘evidence’ planted by the Gestapo agents was soon discovered. Bellowing cattle were rounded up and driven away, tools and agricultural implements were collected and carted off. All night the work of pillage went on, few of the villagers slept that night.

When the doors of the school were unlocked at 05.00 hours the next morning, the women came out to find their village a shambles, the streets strewn with the broken remnants of their belongings. They were bundled into a row of waiting trucks and driven away. One woman, looking out through a gap in the canvas cover of the truck, could see the backs of the men, lined up in the courtyard of the Horak farm. It was the last that any of them saw of the men of Lidice. The special extermination squad that had arrived in Lidice from Prague, had propped up a line of mattresses against the wall of the barn to prevent ricochets, and then they brought out the men and boys, ten at a time, lined them up, and shot them – 173 in all. From 10.00 hours until 15.00 hours the destruction went on, until every living being had been liquidated. Even the dogs in the kennels were shot. Some of the men were not even residents of Lidice, they merely happened to be visiting friends there that evening. There were also, some residents of Lidice who were away working late shifts in the mines and factories of Kladno. But they too were not spared, they were collected and shot later. The eventual total is thought to have been 192 murdered.    

The work of wiping Lidice off the map went on with professional efficiency under the eyes of Karl Frank himself, and the new Reichsprotektor Kurt Daluge, who had come out from Prague, to see for themselves. While the extermination squad dealt with the men and boys, other squads of Germans went round with cans of petrol setting fire to the buildings. After them came engineers with explosive charges to blow-up the still-standing walls, then pioneers with bulldozers, who flattened the ruins, uprooted the fruit trees, and filled in the lake. They even diverted the stream. Ploughs were driven back and forth across the acres of rubble, so that no recognizable outline should remain, and when the work was finished, they erected a high barbed-wire fence around the site, with notices in Czech and German, which read: ‘Anyone approaching this fence, who does not halt when challenged, will be shot.’ All that was left of Lidice was a great brown blotch of broken rubble, obscene and sterile amid the growing crops.

Karl Frank and Kurt Daluge had even arranged for a film unit to make a permanent record of the destruction of Lidice, and the camera-men did their work as efficiently as the demolition squads. They recorded it all: the piles of dead men and boys outside the barn, the tumbled graves in the desecrated cemetery, the pioneers, tired and dusty, but smiling cheerfully against a background of blazing homesteads, the officers in their smart uniforms, picking their way carefully among the piles of debris.

Meanwhile, the rest of the population of Lidice – 198 women and 98 children- had been driven to Kladno, where they were locked up in the gymnasium of the secondary school, and they were left there for three days, without food or adequate sanitation, fearful of what had happened to their men-folk in the village. Enduring these conditions, one woman gave birth to a premature baby. When eventually, they were let out, it was to be confronted by armed SS men, whose officer curtly told them: ‘The necessary measures had now been taken at Lidice, and they themselves would be sent to a distant camp. But owing to transportation difficulties, children under fifteen had to go by bus, while the rest travelled by train.’

The prospect of separation from their children brought a universal outcry of protest from the crowd of distraught and bedraggled women, whereupon the guards raised their rifles and fired a volley into the air. Silence was restored, the officers went on to say that if any difficulties were made, they would all be shot there and then. SS men pushed through the crowd, dragging the terrified children away from their mothers and bundling them into waiting trucks.

Having separated the children, the women were herded into cattle-wagons, one of them, Madame Hronikova, seeing a railway-man she knew well, was able to exchange a few quick words with him. She tried to give him a message for those left behind at Lidice. However, he was able to tell her, that her home no longer existed. Then the doors were locked and the train started its long journey to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. At Ravensbruck 35 of the older women were separated from the rest and were sent onto the Auschwitz death camp. When the Russians liberated Auschwitz in January   1945, only six of the women were still alive, and all of them perished not long after their liberation.  The rest of the women were swallowed up in the hell that was Ravensbruck, when they were liberated on 30 April 1945, only 143 were still alive, and some of them were mortally sick.

After the war ended, the search for the lost children of Lidice was taken up by the Allied Military Government. German prisoners were questioned, records searched. Posters were put up all over Germany: ‘The Women of Lidice are Asking you – Where are our Children?’ But it was two years before any of them were found, and more years still before the documents came to light which revealed what really happened. Of the 99 children who had been carried away from Kladno in June 1942, eight who were under one year old, had been taken to a hospital in Prague, to be raised as Germans. The rest were transported to Lodz in Poland, where the Race and Resettlement Office selected nine others as suitable to be raised as Germans, within German families. These seventeen children all survived the war, and eventually returned to their Czech homeland. The other eighty-two children were sent from Lodz by the Gestapo to the death camp at Chelmno on 10July 1942, where they were murdered in the gas-vans.

The Nazi authorities made no attempt to hide the destruction of Lidice by their hands. On the contrary, they broadcast their triumph over Lidice to the world. A few days after the outrage the German radio announced that ‘the inhabitants of the village of Lidice, near Kladno, had been found to be implicated in the killing of Reichsprotektor Heydrich and were moreover, in the active service of the enemy abroad. As a consequence all the men have been shot, the women taken to concentration camps, and the children placed in suitable educational institutions. Houses and buildings have been razed to the ground, and the name of the village wiped out. ‘

When the facts were known, a cry of outrage went up all over the world. Funds were raised and committees formed, pledged to remember and restore the destroyed village – pledges that were subsequently redeemed. Memorials were erected in many countries, thus the Nazis aim of wiping the name of Lidice from the map, failed completely


R.Cowdery and P. Vodenka, , Reinhard Heydrich Assassination,USM Inc, Lakeville 1994    

R. Livingstone, The Destruction of Lidice – A Final Lesson, History of the Second World War, Volume 3, Purnell, London 1966.

C. MacDonald & J. Kaplan, Prague in the Shadow of the Swastika, Quartet Books Ltd, London 1995.

R.Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, Holmes and Meier, New York 1985

K. Gorczyca, Z.Lorek, Day after day in the extermination camp Kulmhof, March 2005

Photograph – Bundesarchiv

© Holocaust Historical Society 2014