Defiance and heroism in the heart of Europe

A defiant and courageous act in the summer of 1942 is still one of Prague’s proudest and most storied events, and is a source of Czech national pride as a whole. Ollie Heppenstall interviews the curator of the Ss Cyril and Methodius museum, the site of one of modern history’s heroic final stands.

Heydrich museum curator adjusted

Jan Lienhart in the crypt museum

The year is 1942. The place, Prague. Europe is a continent under the iron heels of the Third Reich. Seven Czechoslovak paratroopers, trained in Britain and acting on the wishes of the Czech government in exile, are taking refuge in the crypt of the church of Saints Cyril and Methodius. They are making their final stand against 800 German troops who have been hunting them for the best part of a month. They are outgunned, outnumbered, and outmanoeuvred.

Their reason for taking flight? They had not long before assassinated SS Obergrupenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich, who had been installed by Hitler as the Nazi governor and head of police (Stellvertretender Reichsprotektor) of Bohemia and Moravia, what is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia). Immediately following his appointment in September 1941, Heydrich had quickly become hated for his merciless clampdown on the Czech resistance to Nazi rule – hundreds of civilians had been ruthlessly killed on Heydrich’s orders.

Heydrich museum latin

Bulletmarks from the paratroopers’ battle scar the crypt

His assassination had taken place on May 27th. Two of the paratroopers, Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik, had lain in wait for Heydrich on his daily commute to Prague Castle, Kubis equipped with a suitcase bomb, Gabcik concealing a machine gun under his coat. As Heydrich’s convertible Mercedes-Benz came around the corner, Gabcik had drawn his gun but it had suffered a malfunction. As Heydrich’s driver drew his own pistol, Kubis had thrown the suitcase bomb at the car. The fragments tore through the car, embedding fragments and shrapnel in Heydrich. The driver had chased Gabcik but was killed by two pistol shots. Heydrich himself had staggered out of the car and collapsed. Both assailants were able to escape, but both were under the impression that they had failed in their mission. However, Heydrich died of his wounds in hospital on June 4th.

Heydrich museum cross

A memorial at the church

The assassination of the head of the German occupation force, an act of defiance of the highest order, had attracted the attention of the entire Nazi hierarchy.

The seven paratroopers behind it would meet their end in the crypt; after four were killed in the gun battle that ensued as the Nazis forced their way in, the remaining three would commit suicide to evade capture. In the weeks leading up to their demise, the people of Prague and the surrounding area had suffered immensely following Heydrich’s assassination; the village of Lidice had been obliterated in June of 1942 and nearly 400 people had been killed, arrested or deported to concentration camps.

Fast forward to today and the small church and crypt where the seven paratroopers made their final stand is preserved not only as a museum about the resistance in this part of Europe between 1939 and 1945, but also as a memorial to the paratroopers. It is something of a shrine to Czech patriotism; all around the crypt are wreaths, flowers and other commemorative gestures to the seven men whose bravery is recognised and revered 75 years later.

Heydrich museum front

The Church of Ss Cyril and Methodius

The crypt’s main curator, Jan Lienhart, a Charles University graduate who studied historical international diplomacy, said: “The museum is not only about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, but is also about the resistance movement in the Czech Republic between 1939 and 1945.

“I got involved with the museum because I wanted to interact with people and provide an education about an incredibly important part of both world and Czech history.

“I have three job roles here, as a security guard, as a technician and as a guide. My favourite part of working here is that it’s not only a passion of mine but I act as a tourist guide, I get to talk to all sorts of people from all kinds of backgrounds.”

The bullet holes in the crypt walls may be a physical testament to what happened underneath the church in June 1942, but the story of the seven paratroopers’ daredevil mission and defiance until the end sits firmly within the long Czech history of resistance to oppressive rule.

Comments

  1. John Dilley says:

    Fascinating read from stat to finish.

    Like

  2. John Dilley says:

    Should of course read….fascinating read from START to finish…

    Liked by 1 person

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