The Lost Children of the Lidice Massacre
The Nazis arbitrarily slaughtered the Czech villagers, angering the world, even as Europe’s Jews faced similar fates in concentration camps
In 1947, 8-year-old Václav Zelenka returned to the Czech village of Lidice as the last of the town’s lost children. Five years earlier, he and the rest of Lidice’s 503 residents had been viciously attacked by the Nazis, but the young Zelenka had few recollections of the event. He had spent the remainder of World War II living with an adoptive family in Germany, never realizing that he was stolen from his community in Czechoslovakia.
In hindsight, Zelenka was lucky: He was one of only 17 child survivors of the Nazis’ June 10, 1942, massacre, an arbitrary act of violence that ultimately claimed the lives of 340 Lidice residents. Despite his initial reluctance to leave Germany, Zelenka readjusted to his former life—and later became the mayor of the rebuilt town of Lidice.
The world first learned about Lidice via a brutally detached Nazi radio annoucement broadcast the day after the attack: “All male inhabitants have been shot. The women have been transferred to a concentration camp. The children have been taken to educational centers. All houses of Lidice have been leveled to the ground, and the name of this community has been obliterated.”
Although the Nazis hoped to make an example of Lidice by erasing it from history, their bold proclamation, accompanied by ample photographic evidence of the atrocity, infuriated the Allies to such an extent that Frank Knox, secretary of the U.S. Navy, proclaimed, “If future generations ask us what we were fighting for in this war, we shall tell them the story of Lidice.”
When news of the Lidice massacre broke, the international community responded with outrage and a promise to keep the town’s memory alive. A small neighborhood in Joliet, Illinois, adopted Lidice’s name, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt released a statement praising the gesture: “The name of Lidice was to be erased from time,” he said. “Instead of being killed as the Nazis would have it, Lidice has been given new life.” In the English district of Stoke-on-Trent, Member of Parliament Barnett Stross led a “Lidice Shall Live” campaign and raised money for rebuilding efforts. Artists further immortalized the tragedy in works including poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s The Massacre of Lidice.
In comparison, the Allied response to the Nazis’ Final Solution, which claimed the lives of six million Jews (including 263,000 Czech Jews), was deliberately measured. On December 17, 1942, the U.S., British and other Allied governments issued a statement condemning the Nazis’ annihilation of European Jews, but they were hesitant to overemphasize the Jews’ plight. The people of Lidice were seen as universal victims—peaceful civilians who had the misfortune to witness the Nazis’ disregard for human life firsthand. Europe’s Jewish population represented a far more politically charged demographic. Amidst rising anti-Semitic sentiment and German propaganda accusing the Allies of bowing to “Jewish interests,” Lidice emerged as a neutral, indisputably despicable example of Nazi immorality. Discussion of the Holocaust, on the other hand, raised an entirely separate debate.
If not for an untimely love letter, Lidice might have escaped the war unscathed. Czechoslovakia was one of the Nazis’ first targets: Germany assumed control of the Sudetenland, a Czech territory inhabited by many ethnic Germans, in 1938, and invaded the remaining Czech lands in March 1939.
Lidice, a mining village about 12 miles from Prague, languished under the control of Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking SS official and deputy of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, but did not appear to be in immediate danger. As Heydrich worked to crush the Czech resistance movement, however, the situation grew tenuous. On May 27, 1942, operatives ambushed the hated Nazi; critically wounded, Heydrich died of sepsis on June 4.
An enraged Adolf Hitler ordered immediate retaliation. He decided to make an example of Lidice because he believed several residents were connected to the Czech resistance. In nearby Kladno, the Gestapo had intercepted a love letter written by a suspected participant in Heydrich’s assassination. The note was addressed to a local factory worker who, upon interrogation, implicated the Horáks, a family living in Lidice.
Known Allied sympathizers, the Horáks even had a son fighting in Great Britain’s Czech army, but after investigating the claim, the Nazis found no connection between the family and Heydrich’s death. Hitler, determined to punish the Czech people regardless of their complicity in the underground movement, moved ahead with his plan.
Just after midnight on June 10, Nazi officials arrived in Lidice and herded villagers into the main square. Men over the age of 15 were taken to the Horáks’ farmhouse, women and children to a school in Kladno.
By afternoon, the Nazis had systematically executed 173 men. Victims were brought out in groups of 10 and lined up against a barn, which had been covered with mattresses to prevent bullets from ricocheting. Officials offered mercy to local priest Josef Stembarka in exchange for calming his congregation, but he refused. “I have lived with my flock,” he said, “and now I will die with it.”
Women who refused to leave their husbands were also shot, and men who happened to be away from the village were later found and killed.
Determined to obliterate Lidice, the Nazis destroyed every building in sight and even dug up the town’s cemetery. They dumped massacre victims into a mass grave dug by prisoners from Terezin, a nearby concentration camp, and gleefully filmed the aftermath of the annihilation. This footage would soon become Nazi propaganda designed to quell further resistance.
In Kladno, the remaining villagers waited for news of their families. Pregnant women and babies under the age of one were separated from the others, as were several children with Germanic facial features.
No news arrived, but three days after the attack, Nazi officials separated the young from their mothers, assuring all that a reunion would follow relocation. The women boarded trucks bound for Ravensbrück concentration camp, and most of the children left for a camp in Łódź, Poland.
The young survivors arrived in Łódź with a message from their Nazi captors: “The children are taking with them only what they wear. No special care is to be provided.” Indeed, the only “care” given at the camp was extensive physical testing. German doctors measured the children’s facial features, identifying those with “Aryan” characteristics as candidates for Germanization—a process where suitably featured non-German children were adopted by German families.
In total, nine children met the criteria for Germanization and were sent to Puschkau, Poland, to learn German and begin the assimilation process. On July 2, the remaining 81 children arrived at Chelmno extermination camp. Historians believe they were killed in mobile gas chambers that same day.
By the end of the war, 340 of Lidice’s 503 residents were dead as a direct result of the June 10 massacre. 143 women and 17 children, including those born just after the attack, eventually returned to the ruins of their hometown and began the arduous task of resurrecting the community.
Today, Lidice—a small town of about 540 residents, rebuilt alongside a memorial and museum commemorating the tragedy—stands in defiance of the Nazis’ attempted extermination: 82 larger-than-life bronze statues, each representing a lost child of Lidice, greet visitors. Last year, on the 75th anniversary of the tragedy, mourners gathered everywhere from the Czech village itself to an Illinois neighborhood that has borne Lidice’s name since July 1942.
Anna Hanfová, one of three siblings selected for Germanization, was one of the first lost children to return. She spent the remainder of the war living in eastern Germany but maintained limited contact with her sister Marie and cousin Emilie Frejová, and when Anna returned to Lidice, she led authorities to both relatives’ new German homes.
Otto and Freda Kuckuk, a well-to-do couple with strong SS ties, had adopted Frejová. In Witnesses to War, author Michael Leapman writes that Frejová adjusted well, but Marie’s new life was more complicated: Her adoptive family treated her like a slave and convinced her that the Czech were a subservient race. It took several years for Marie to overcome this indoctrinated belief.
Václav, the third sibling, refused to cooperate with his captors; he drifted between children’s homes and incurred brutal punishments for unruly behavior. In late 1945, Josefina Napravilova, a humanitarian who located about 40 lost Czech children during the aftermath of the war, encountered Vaclav at a displaced persons camp. He was slow to trust her but later dubbed Napravilova his “second mother.”
Elizabeth White, a historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, explains the difficulty of the children’s rehabilitation process, as most selected for Germanization were taken from home at a young age and eventually forgot their Czech heritage.
“When [the children] were found and sent back, they didn't remember how to speak Czech,” White says. “One girl’s mother survived Ravensbrück but had tuberculosis and died four months after she came back. At first when they spoke, they had to use a translator.”
Martina Lehmannová, director of the Lidice Memorial, says that the Nazis embraced Lidice as a symbol of power. In comparison to many of their crimes, which were largely hidden from the rest of the world, the Nazis publicized the town’s destruction through radio broadcasts and propaganda footage. “They were proud of it,” Lehmannová adds.
As White explains, there were several reasons for the Allies’ relative restraint toward the Holocaust: Nazi propaganda insinuated that the Allies were only fighting the war to protect Jewish interests, and the Allies wanted to refute this claim. In the U.S., anti-Semitic sentiment was on the rise, and many people believed that Roosevelt was overly beholden to the Jews. The Allies also believed that widespread knowledge of the Final Solution would lead to demands for increased immigration quotas, which would aid Jewish refugees but infuriate isolationists and foster further instability.
“The Allies emphasized that the Nazis were a threat to all of humanity, that the war was about freedom versus slavery,” White adds. “When they would condemn Nazi atrocities, [they highlighted attacks] against peaceful citizens.”
Thanks to the visual evidence provided by the Nazis, the Lidice massacre became a powerful Allied propaganda tool. By focusing on atrocities against all innocent individuals, the Allies spurred patriotism without encouraging claims of their overzealous interest in Jewish affairs.
Although the Nazis failed to erase Lidice from history, White says the attack fulfilled at least one intended purpose: “Within Czechoslovakia, [the massacre] really did lead to the breaking of the resistance.” The Nazis’ harsh reprisal may have succeeded in deterring underground activity, but the Czech people did not forget the terrors inflicted at Lidice. As Lehmannová explains, the name of the town is very close to the Czech word lid, which means people, and in the aftermath of the tragedy, Lidice came to represent the Nazis’ crimes against all inhabitants of Czechoslovakia.
In 1947, Lidice was reborn after an outpouring of global support. Builders laid the foundation stone of the new village 300 meters from its original location, which now holds a memorial to the murdered townspeople. A garden filled with more than 24,000 donated rose bushes connects new and old.
“You can taste the feeling of dystopia on the empty space of old Lidice and the feeling of utopia in the new village,” says Lehmannová.
Since 1967, Lidice has hosted the International Children’s Exhibition of Fine Arts: Lidice, an annual competition in which youth from all over the world submit art based on themes such as biodiversity, cultural heritage and education. According to Sharon Valášek, Mid-West honorary consul to the Czech Republic, the Lidice massacre “became a symbol of human suffering around the world,” and the exhibition was conceived as a way of having people “think about human suffering in general, not necessarily just related to Lidice.”
Today, the thriving Lidice community stands as a testament to its residents’ resilience, but the rebuilding process was far from straightforward. In 1967, reporter Henry Kamm visited the fledgling town and spoke to Ravensbrück survivor Miloslava Žižková. She acknowledged the difficulties of returning to Lidice, noting that there was no school because “we are still missing one generation.” Žižková added, however, that Lidice was home: “This is where we have our roots.”
Just outside of the new village, a wooden cross marked the mass grave of Lidice’s murdered residents—including Žižková’s father and grandfather. Here, at least, survivors found a hauntingly tangible explanation for their return.