Saturday, September 04, 2010

Nazis in Prague

I don't have much experience being overwhelmed by history, but I've just been in Berlin and Prague, two new places for me, and I was stunned. I'll leave Berlin for another time, but I was wandering into Prague without a map or guidebook and had no idea where I was even going. By chance I entered a small museum underneath a church, and read the spell-binding story of the assassination of one of Nazi's golden boys, and one of the architects of the Nazi's "Final Solution," Reinhard Heydrich. Why this hasn't been made into a big Hollywood movie, I'll never know. Some Czech soldiers were trained in Great Britain for operations behind enemy lines, and were parachuted into the outskirts of Prague not long after Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Nazis. After six months of hiding and gathering intelligence, they were able to kill the truly despicable Heydrich, which set off the most ferocious and brutal hunt for the perpetrators. Just a week after the assassination, the Nazi's chose, almost randomly, a small village called Lidice (pronounced Lee-DEET-suh) as a message for the rest of the population. The Nazis came to the village on June 10, 1942, and took every woman and shipped them to concentration camps, sent most of the children to be gassed, and lined up every man from the village who was 15 years or older and shot them dead - 173 men and boys, to be exact. They were making an example of Lidice, so after all that, they burned every house, THEN dynamited every building, chopped down every tree, even dug up the graves from the cemetery, and removed the name of the village from every map. About a week later a traitor turned in his fellow paratroopers, and it led to a pitched battle in the crypt of the church where the museum was housed. They'd been hiding in the crypt of the church, and after reading this story you walk through a door and into the crypt where the final battle took place. Most of the paratroopers took their own lives, using a combination of a cyanide pill and a shot to the head. Once the Nazis found out who had actually been protecting them (the villagers of Lidice had no involvement) they would kill the entire family, including children.

I walked out of the museum in a bit of a daze, imagining what that period must have been like to live through, and the first person I came across was an old woman who had probably been in Prague at the time. Amazing. I remember growing up and thinking that World War II was in the distant past, like gladiators or something. But the older I get the more recent it seems. Everyone talks about the beautiful architecture of Prague, and it is spectacular, but it won't be the most memorable aspect of my visit. (When I saw the Taj Mahal in India, I met a homeless kid with elephantiasis in the train station. Twenty years later, I can't think about the Taj without remembering that kid.)

After walking until I almost dropped, I ended up at the Prague Castle, and as I approached it looked like a bunch of Nazis in uniform, standing at attention. It took a minute to realize they were actors making a film, but it was SO creepy. Amazingly enough, they were making a film about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich and the resulting destruction of Lidice. The actors took a break and were milling around in front of the gate, carrying their fake rifles, smoking cigarettes, and looking very much like Nazis. And it hit me - they ARE very much like Nazis: a bunch of average, fresh-faced, ruthless killers who love their friends and families and kiss their kids on their foreheads at night. That is the great mystery that so captures me. What happened then, and what happens now, that allows such barbarity from such a large group of people that it MUST include average people? Who are the people supporting North Korea, or the Burmese tyrants, or Saddam Hussein when he was in power? We like to think that it's THEM. They're different than us, and they have different values, and no, I'd never do that. Yeah, Rambo, you woulda stood up to the Nazis, sure. But there's a reason they call people heroes - because it's so incredibly rare. Those people that razed Lidice - they're just like us.

So the next day I drove to Lidice, to see what's left, to stand where the mass grave had been, and to think and feel. What happened???

Much love,

My first night of "wild camping" in a forest outside of Dresden, the day before I crossed over into the Czech Republic.
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A closer view of the van. Lots of storage space; the back seat folds down to a bed; includes a sink, two-burner stove, refrigerator, and a big solar panel that charges the second battery.
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I bet this truck would have some stories to tell. The Czech countryside looked quite rustic compared to Germany's.
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A detail of the truck.
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Harvesting some funky tall crop. What the heck is that?
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The crypt where the paratroopers were killed by the Nazis, and busts of the two that killed Haydrich. These two are national heroes.
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Another view of the crypt.
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A tight view of Prague's beautiful architecture.
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Old world charm, version 2.0. Gopal's Vegetarian Indian Cuisine is just up the street, and Starbucks and TGIFriday's are just back a ways.
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Nazis in Prague.
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It gave me the creeps seeing these pretend-Nazis hanging out, even though I knew they were actors.
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This is the Presidential Palace, I think. I saw photos of Haydrich and Hitler at this gate.
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Still, it's nice to see a Nazi secure enough in his own sexuality to carry a pink umbrella.
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The Prague skyline from the castle.
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Cowboys. In Prague.
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This is around the corner from the castle. I wondered why so few people were around.
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This building is inside the castle compound.
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The giant church that is next to the Prague Castle. Notice the guard in the lower right, who was keeping his eye on me.
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Prague skyline.
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 A traffic mirror, reflecting an old building, covered with stickers.
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A long stairway down from the castle to the river below.
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If you look carefully you can see that the driver is updating his Facebook page. That's just wrong.
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These shops are lit up like an operating room. The good news, I guess, is that they sell fewer t-shirts than the shops at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.
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An indoor/outdoor restaurant, one of what seemed like hundreds in the city center.
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Some famous building on a big square, that I imagine is also famous. (Is it obvious that I don't have a guidebook?)
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There are a number of floating hotels on the river. The near boat is a restaurant, and the boat in the upper left is a hotel, called a "botel."
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Goodbye, Prague.
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The village of Lidice, before the Nazis came.
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Lidice as the church, homes, and other buildings are blown up.
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After the destruction. All meticulously recorded by the Nazis.
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The site as it looks today.
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This is a tribute to the 82 children of Lidice who were gassed just days after being taken from their mothers. 
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Hard to imagine...
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(The End)