Breathing in history

When I was a kid I loved history. As an adult, my relationship to it grew distant: it was a a thing to enjoy in books. In the three hours we spent with our guide Mirek in New Town Prague, I walked with history in a way that I never have before. Mirek is a 29 year old Czech man who loves history and music. At the National Theater he explained how the people of his country spent 40 years raising money to build the Theater so that they’d have a place to play their own music and perform their own theater, rather than the works required by the state.

As we continued deeper into Nove Mesto (New Town), Mirek told us of changes in architechural styles over the centuries and the shift to a preference to functional, and less decorative, buildings. We didn’t go far before a structure jumped out at me, mostly for being so out of place. Here was an old brick church, darker than the surrounding buildings. It stood well off the stree.  up on a foundation of nearly black bricks, its walls and window arches soaring above the sidewalk, traffic and trams. Capped with a steep red roof and a narrow spire, it was an outlier in this part of town where other buildings were only a few hundred years old. As we walked, it held my attention – so much so that I was late in seeing the church on our side of the street until we were at its foot.

Like its neighbor across the street, Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral was above street level and we climbed stairs into its courtyard. Here, Mirek wove his story into the time of World War II, talking about the Czech national heroes who fought to save their people by assisinating the “Butcher of Prague.” I’d read Madeline Albright’s book Prague Winter last year, and details started to come back to me. Yes, two men were inserted into the country, they hid through a network of supporters, they rode bikes to the road where they attacked Reinhard Heydrich (he died a week later from his wounds).

“They had to run, they had to hide,” I said to Mirek. “Didn’t they hide in a church?”

“Yes. This one.”

Suddenly the street noise dropped away. There were red poppies laid at the base of the cross in the enclave and two dark black columns standing seven feet tall in the courtyard where red candles, fresh tulips and a wreath were laid. Our small group stood listening to Mirek tell the tale of these men who hid in the church as Nazis blanketed the area looking for them, offering large amounts of money and safety to anyone who would give information. The two black columns, inscribed from top to bottom with names, is the list of all of the people the Nazis questioned and killed in their search for Czech’s national heroes.

To hear Mirek tell it was moving – here was a young man who’s grandparents lived through the war, a man who came from Sudentland, an area of the country that figured heavily in the story of Nazi occupied Czech. Bits and pieces of reading that had been recreational for me came crashing together with the story being told to me by a man with personal history. Standing in the courtyard the story was challenging enough, now we were going inside.

We’ve been in quite a few churches here in Prague, but this felt doubly silent and sacred. Here was a place where patriots had fought: 7 Czech soldiers against 800 Nazi troops. Four of the men were in the gallery, and my eyes lifted not to the ceiling frescoes, but to the narrow place from which I could imagine no escape, even though I tried. The four men fought, firing their weapons. Those who weren’t killed in the fighting took the poison pill they carried, choosing death over surrender. The four in the gallery eliminated, the Nazis sought the other three, knowing from their informant that they were hiding in the basement crypt.

The rug near the alter was rolled at the edge as Mirek approached, like a lip curled up. Even before he touched it, it spoke of much use. Pulling it back, he revealed the floor hatch that lead to the basement. Finally the Nazis would find this hatch. We had to go outside to enter, a dark door providing access to a small, simple, powerful interpretive site. The story is laid out in panels along the wall of the entry room: the loss of Sudentland through diplomacy, the sudden Nazi occupation of Prague, the training of Czech troops by Allied Forces. While there were many people involved in Operation Anthropoid, the two who stormed the car of Heydrich throwing in a hand grenade that would lead to his death days later, were featured in the story. The journey of Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis was traced up to the fateful time.

The brief tunnel into the catacomb room is closed off by a swinging metal door that latches in a way that feels final. First in, you see the tiny opening in the ceiling, where there once was a ladder, that the three men used to access and hide in the room. For days, people had brought them food as they huddled hungry and cold, wondering if there would be a way forward for them. When the Nazis found the room they also found a window to the street outside, which they used to pump water into the room, filling it chest deep. I remembered reading Prague Winter, hoping as I read the story that they would find a way out, that they could escape and flee. One of the people on our tour asked as much. Mirek replied, 800 soldiers outside surrounding the building. Prague occupied by Nazis. Where would they go?

The story does not end with their miraculous escape. It ends with their deaths, with their bodies behind paraded in the street by Nazis. Busts of the seven men quietly fill the small subterranean room, red poppies commemorating the soldiers. It was impossible to know, and impossible not to wonder, if any of the people visiting this site were descendants of these soldiers or the people who died as the Nazis sought them out.

Out under the blue sky, the sounds of trams and traffic bringing me back to the present, Mirek shared how proud the Czech people are of these men and the people who helped them. They showed that Czech would fight.

We continued our walk through New Town, other challenging topics coming up as we went. Mirek shared them all in a way that presented the history of his country and clearly showed his love for it. Later, I asked Mirek how it feels for him to tell these stories that are so fresh from his country’s past. He said it is an honor to be a person his age in this time who cares about history and who can share it. A friend told him, Mirek, you are meant to drink beer and tell the story of the Czech people. That, he said, was a good compliment. As we walked and talked, history lived and breathed for me in the best and hardest way it can.

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