The Czechs love an anti-hero.
There’s Svejk of course, the bumbling soldier with a talent for finding ingenious ways not to make it to the front while appearing to try his incompetent best to get to the action. Then there’s Jara Cimrman, the celebrated Czech genius responsible for the invention of yogurt, the CD (which stands for Cimrman’s disc), dynamite and roller skates. Impressive, considering he never existed. And until more recently there was Vaclav Havel, one of the most strikingly self-effacing politicians ever to appear on the world stage despite his achievements.
Don’t be fooled though: the Czech nation has produced heroes too. If you need proof, pay a visit to the crypt of Sts Cyril and Methodius Church, where the Czechs (and Slovaks) who played a part in the Heydrich assassination had their last stand.
The story, for those of you who don’t know it already, is this. In 1942, a group of British trained Czech and Slovak soldiers attempted to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi responsible for ruling over the Czech lands. Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš played the main roles in the attack which they initially thought had failed. Although he was not killed instantly , Heydrich did eventually die eight days later.
Retribution for the assassination was brutal. The villages of Lidice and Lezaky were wiped out in retaliation; the inhabitants were either killed or deported to concentration camps. Over 1000 others were executed during the period of martial law which followed Heydrich’s death.*
The parachutists were hidden in the basement of Sts Cyril and Methodius Church on Resslova Street until their whereabouts was betrayed.
Today you can visit the crypt of the church where the men held their dramatic last stand. Despite surrounding the building with hundreds of soldiers, the Nazis failed to take them alive. That last sentence may sound corny but what Gabčík, Kubiš and his comrades did is extraordinary. Perhaps that’s why so many contemporary visitors have left messages of condolence there along with flowers and even a guitar plectrum.
If you’re strolling along the street from Karlovo Namesti to see Frank Gehry’s Fred and Ginger, make sure you stop to look around this remarkable place.
While we’re on the topic of the Heydrich assassination, British comedian Alexei Sayle’s recent autobiography includes a very funny account of his family being shown the location at Kobylisy where the attack took place when they are escorted around Prague by their Communist hosts who thought this was a landmark of far more interest to their British guests than say Petrin or Prague Castle.
The book’s called Stalin Ate My Homework. I receive no commission for making this recommendation.
*These figures are quoted from Wikipedia so they must be true.