In the spring of 1942 Czech Resistance fighters assassinate the head of Nazi-Occupied Czechoslovakia. On the flimsiest of evidence, the Nazi high command sends troops to demolish the small Czech town of Lidice, execute the town's men, abduct and racially profile its women and children, raze and buldoze its buildings to the ground, even replacing "Czech dirt" with rich German soil. Overlooked is a sapling pear tree, its top branches burnt and scarred. The book follows the paths of characters, torn from their families, who search for loved ones and the truth and find meaning in the pear tree.
Reinhard Heydrich caught a glimpse of himself as he passed what was left of the hall mirror in his chateau in Panenské Břežany. Stopping to stare at distorted reflections, he inhaled sharply. Despite the evidence of his standing as the leader of Nazi-Occupied Czechoslovakia on his uniform, he was overcome by disgust at the images in the shards of glass: his nose appeared wide and crooked instead of long, narrow and straight; his face seemed broad and square instead of lean, smooth and oval.
Impatient to remove the offending pieces of glass, Heydrich withdrew his sidearm from its holster hanging on the coat rack next to the mirror, grabbed the barrel and struck down with the pistol grip, hammering at the jagged scraps until none was left in the mirror frame and grinding each of them into slivers with the heel of his boot.
Reversing the position of the gun in his hand, he pushed the nose of the barrel into the bullet holes in the wall as he recalled the flash of anger and self-loathing that had overcome him when he returned from the previous night’s bout of drinking, saw his reflection and remembered the taunts from his youth: Filthy Jew.
While replacing the gun in its holster, Heydrich glanced at a photo of his family that had been knocked askew. All because of that silly old woman, he thought as his finger traced the outline of the figure in the foreground of the photograph—his grandmother.
“Foolish old hag! Whore to a Jew! How could you? How could you marry again after Opa died? And leave us, your family, me to argue every day of my life that I don’t have tainted blood. Just so you could have a dalliance with a Jew!” He slapped the edge of the picture frame and sent it crashing to the floor.
Wiping his fingertips on his trousers, Heydrich made his way down the hallway to the bathroom, where he performed his morning ritual: He opened the medicine cabinet, pulled out a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and unscrewed the cap. Lifting it to his mouth, he poured out a small amount of liquid, then leaned his head back and gargled, forcing the harsh liquid against his tonsils and down his throat in the hope that the peroxide would granulate the tissue of his voice box and coarsen his troublesome high-pitched voice.
He spit out the foam, twisted the cap back on the bottle, placed it on the shelf and closed the cabinet door, pausing to scrutinize his image in the mirror and assure himself again that there was no sign of Jewish blood along the edges of his lips, his cheeks and chin, his slicked-back blonde hair, his spare and linear eyebrows and the narrow bridge of his nose. Jewish? Hah! No Jewish blood in him. Nor in his father. Nor in his mother.
Back in the hallway, he picked up his sidearm, wrapped and fastened the holster belt around his waist and adjusted the position of the gun. Checking on the preparations for his trip to Czechoslovak ReichsProtektorate Headquarters in Prag, he glanced out the window and saw a guard, a new recruit, loosening the stays that held open the cloth cover of his Mercedes convertible.
“Stupid,” he sputtered as he leaned out the window. “You,” he called to the recruit. “You!” he said more loudly when the recruit continued to raise the cloth. “Didn’t anyone tell you to leave the cover the way it is?”
“But, Herr Gruppenführer…” The recruit turned to speak to Heydrich, who had already slammed down the sash, rattling the windowpane.
“Leave it,” a Nazi sergeant admonished the recruit.
“But he doesn’t want to drive in an open car all the way to Prag, does he? Isn’t he worried about the Resistance?”
“Why would my Czechs shoot at me?” Heydrich interrupted, rais ing his cap to examine the crown and bill and brush them clean before he placed the hat on his head. “My Czechs are like blades of grass,” he said as he approached the driver’s side of the car and waited for the recruit to open the rear door. “They move whichever way the wind is blowing.”
While twirling his hand as if flicking a fencing foil, he stepped into the car and began the speech he repeated regularly to the men under his command.
“The winds of the Third Reich have blown the Czech government away. The Reich has swept up and destroyed the Resistance and sent the Czech Jews to the ghetto at Terezín. And the Gentiles? They love the Third Reich, now that their invalids and old people and widows get pensions, and their workers get better rations and theater tickets and vouchers for vacations. The Czechoslovaks may be grinning brutes, but they know they can’t afford to raise their heads against the Reich or pretend to play good soldiers. The racially good and well-intentioned Czechs should know by now that they will have the opportunity to become Germans. The rest? The mongrels? The Slovaks? What does it matter what they think? They will be gone … to the East … away from here.” He never tired of delivering this message and worked to fine-tune it. He was particularly pleased with the latest turns of phrase—“winds of the Third Reich,” Czechs as “blades of grass.”
Satisfied that the recruit had been sufficiently schooled, Heydrich sat back against the seat cushions, crossed an ankle over a knee, tapped the driver on the shoulder and waved a salute to the recruit and his sergeant as the vehicle pulled away from the chateau, traveled down the gravel path and through the iron gates, passing the wild-boar stone carvings with their bared fangs that he had specially designed as guards for the front entrance to the grounds.
Between gaps in the shrubbery, Heydrich could see his pregnant wife lead their three children to the stone kiosks at the edge of the swimming pool where they would change into their bathing suits. In the past Heydrich had enjoyed many women and had paid a high price for the pleasure: He had been forced to resign his naval commission for impregnating and refusing to marry the daughter of a shipyard director. How could he marry a woman who would give herself so easily? he had said at the time. But Lina—Lina at the age of 19 had so captivated him that he could entertain no other women, and he rushed to the altar with- in a year of meeting her.
Heydrich watched her now, her hair pulled back in a tight bun, holding 3-year-old Silke’s hand. He followed the path of his rambunctious sons—8-year-old Heider and 9-year-old Klaus—down the stone steps as the sun glinted off their glossy white hair. He was happy that he and Lina had reconciled after his commitment to the Reich and his workload had, only a few years ago forced a divorce, assured that he and his wife and family would lead the New Germany.
His wife and family hidden behind the trees that lined the drive to the chateau, Heydrich turned his attention to the stack of file folders on the car seat next to him, their top layers sliding away. Ever since his early days in the SS, he had carefully amassed information about aristocrats,Catholics, Communists, Conservatives, Jews, Socialists and even enemies within the Reich’s high command. He created “poison” files on Nazis who might not be loyal enough, had too many debts or had been too flamboyant with their scandalous behavior. As second-in-command in the Schutzstaffel, Heydrich used his dossiers to identify what SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler called the “lowest species of humanity” and impose “preventive detention” on thousands of criminals, politicians and enemies of the state, so many, in fact, that his orders quickly filled the prisons beyond capacity, and he had to convert an abandoned munitions factory at Dachau into a concentration camp.
Heydrich opened the first file and began reading, tapping a pen on his knee as he flipped pages. He reached into a pocket and rifled through a series of index cards until he found the kind he was looking for: one with a red tab on the right side and a black tab on the left. Carefully copying the name of an identified political operative from the first page of the file onto the card, he muttered, laughing to himself: “Sedláček? You thought I wouldn’t find out you’re a Marxist? Hah! See how you like planning the Communist takeover of the world with your friends in Dachau.”
Swaying slightly as the limousine slowed to make its turn on to Rude Armady VII Kobylisky and enter the road that curved along the bend in the Vltava River in the near Prag suburb of Holešovice, Heydrich pushed protruding papers back into their folders, opened the flap of his satchel, slipped them inside and rested his fingers on the buckled leather straps. He relaxed in the seat as the sedan followed the wide arc of the road and then slowed to a crawl to make the sharp turn into V Holešovičkách Street. Surprised there were so few people on the street or waiting for the tram, he glanced at his watch: 10:35 a.m. Well, he said to himself, they are all good Czech workers. They are already on the job. He was the one who was late.
He had to admit, if grudgingly, that Czechoslovakia had its charms. Prag itself was cosmopolitan and cultured in a number of ways, with many examples of magnificent architecture. The suburb of Holešovice was serviceable—its buildings part lackluster—and maddeningly slow in operation with trams that were aged and inefficient, but its design, with large green areas on both the north and south sides of the town, was refreshing. Its residents were for the most part pleasant and pas- sive, at least now that they knew who was in charge. But there wasn’t a Germanizable Czech among them. Except maybe, he thought, for that one.
Heydrich had let his eyes trace the two-story shops lining Rude Armady and the shoppers adjusting their string bags as they walked along the cobbles and spotted a young man with a high, smooth forehead, slim and pointed nose and softly curling lips standing partially hidden in a doorway, a coat covering his body down to his shins. But what was such a young man doing here? And wearing such a heavy coat? It was nearly the end of May. Heydrich looked away from the man with contempt. Stupid Czech! This man clearly did not meet RuSHA racial criteria! He should not be walking the streets of a small town in Czechoslovakia! He should be working in the steelworks or laboring in the camps in the East! Heydrich decided he would tell the head of RuSHA—the Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt unit of the SS responsible for Germanization and racial profiling—that its investigators needed to do a better job of applying tests for racial purity. Better yet, he would suggest that the Race and Settlement Main Office add more tests—ones for intelligence.
Czech Resistance fighter Josef Gabčík turned his head to the left and made a quick nod to his compatriot, Jan Kubiš, who was standing at the corner of V Holešovičkách Street rummaging through a worn rucksack. Gabčík shrugged the arm of the coat off his shoulder and raised a 99-mm automatic submachine gun. With his left hand under the fore piece of the weapon and the stock against his shoulder, he peered through the sight and aimed the barrel of the weapon directly at the side of Heydrich’s face. He smiled as he watched Heydrich’s head turn and eyes rest on him, at first squinting in surprise, then gradually hardening with the realization of what they were observing. The years of preparation in the Czech Army in Exile in Great Britain, the months of planning with the Czech Resistance, the weeks of hiding in the hills and forests of Bohemia, the days of indecision and apprehension were finally being translated into action: He was about to become an assassin.
Gabčík gently squeezed the trigger and waited for the recoil. But there was no sound or rebound. He squeezed the trigger again, but felt no response. He looked nervously at Kubiš, his eyes wide, his head shaking, his shoulders rising as if to ask a question. Then he released the fore piece and let the weapon drop to the side of his body, tugging the sleeve of his coat back onto his shoulder and hiding the weapon underneath. He was prepared for death, assuming it would come quickly by his own hand or an enemy’s weapon, and for flight and concealment until then. But he was not prepared for failure. Since he had been airdropped into Nehvidzy by British pilots in March, he had thought of nothing but the bullet-shattered face and body of Reinhard Heydrich. Yet here at the perfect spot and the perfect time for the assassination, he could do nothing but turn away from his quarry and run down Rude Armady to the next side street.
Heydrich fumbled with the flap of his holster and finally unsnapped the catch, withdrawing the pistol. With his hand on the handle of the sedan’s rear door, he paused slightly when he heard the clank of metal striking metal, a thump and then a scraping sound.
“There!” he called out to his driver. “He’s over…” An overpowering rush of air took his words away. A sharp, sudden roar deafened his ears. Reverberations distorted his orientation as the back of the car rose a foot off the ground and crashed back to the earth, a passenger-side tire flattened, the windshield cracked.
Heydrich fell out of the car onto his shoulder, straining against the acute bursts of pain in his side and abdomen. He rose to his knees and held his breath as he forced his legs to raise his body. Hugging his torso with his left arm, he placed his hand on top of the sites of pain and pressed down to make it easier to move. Catching sight of a long coattail, he lifted his pistol and fired off several rounds aimed at the middle of the flapping cloth.
A stab of pain. A loss of breath. He grasped his side, stumbling on the cobblestones and falling back onto his knees. Then his body lurched forward, his pistol hand crashing to the curb.
Lying on his side, Heydrich wrenched open his uniform jacket. Running his fingers gingerly along his shirt front, he probed his injuries. In an area dark with blood, he saw small bits of metal protruding from his skin: shrapnel from the grenade and the interior of the car’s rear door. The tips of his fingers felt tufts of material—strings of horsehair stuffing—and tiny curved pieces of metal—sections of the automobile’s seat springs.
He rose on an elbow and looked back towards the car. There, in the gutter and on the street and sidewalk were index cards, fluttering in the breeze, dotted with spots of his blood.
Stones skittered along the path next to the grain storage building at the edge of the Lidice creek bridge and bounced onto the backs of their intended targets.
“You’re not throwing at those geese, are you?” Chessie Sabel asked her son as she raised the cast-iron pump handle of the communal well.
She looked sidelong at Ondrej as he picked up a pair of small stones and massaged them in his palm.
“Well?” She pressed down on the pump and watched water splash into the wooden tub.
Ondrej stole a glance at his mother as he hefted a stone in his hand, working it between his thumb and forefinger and extending his arm out to the side, preparing to skim the pebble along the ground.
“Leave those geese alone. You know how Paní Nemeç is about her birds.”
“Yeah, until she chops off their heads and cooks them up for Christmas dinner.”
“I don’t want to hear any more about it,” Chessie complained, an edge to her voice. Ondrej had already raised Paní Nemeç’s ire. “That hooligan,” the old woman had told Chessie on more than one occasion, pointing a crooked finger at Ondrej. “Boys in my day had respect.” Paní Nemeç had sniffed, thrusting her hand inside the bib of her apron. “But then again, their parents knew how to keep them in line. Your mother would have known how to discipline your boy. Too bad you didn’t learn anything from her.”
It was hard enough to raise Ondrej without his father Václav, dead now for two years. As for her mother, Chessie tried as much as possible not to dwell on the things her mother had taught while she was alive. She certainly didn’t need that old stada baba Nemeç hectoring her about her mother or her son, especially now when she was so worried about him. Ondrej was at a crossroads, she felt. The Occupation and the war were forcing him to make decisions about himself he was not prepared for, and she didn’t know how to help him.
When the Third Reich annexed the largely German Sudetenland in the autumn of 1938, 7-year-old Ondrej had been too young to understand why people in his town felt so vulnerable. He overheard his father and other men fret about the loss of a third of the country’s perimeter to Nazi Germany, with the acquiescence of Czechoslovakia’s supposed allies Britain and France, leaving what remained of the united territories of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia to fend for themselves. But the Sudetenland was 90 percent German anyway, Ondrej had read in his history book. So, the boy had wondered, wasn’t it a good idea to let the Germans have it anyway?
Still, Ondrej did smart with shame in the early months of 1939 when he heard that Nazi troops had crossed the northern Bohemian border, invaded Prag, and within hours had established machinegun outposts overlooking the city from the Hradčany Castle district. The only opposition from Prag citizens? A few snowballs and slashed tires. Pitiful! Gutless, the older boys at school had said.
Rumors about old farmer Horák’s sons, Josef and Filip, impressed him. Although Ondrej’s father and other men in the town hushed as soon as Horák approached, Ondrej could not ignore fragments of their conversations: “Czech Army and Air Force units.” “Britain.” “Paratroopers” “Resistance.” His Czech countrymen perhaps weren’t cowardly after all.
But the actions of Czechoslovaks flew in the face of all he was learning in the classroom. Soon after the Occupation, he and his classmates were learning and speaking only German in the schoolhouse. The focus of their history lessons was on Germany, much of it centered on the betrayal of the bureaucrats in the loss of WW I, the unfairness of the Versailles Treaty, the subjugation of the German people. Current events classes highlighting the latest Wehrmacht victories in France and Africa replaced experiments in science and exercises in mathematics. Daily lessons stressed German superiority, national pride and dominance as the country’s armies swept over Eastern Europe. The red and black swastika took the place of the red, white and blue national flag of Czechoslovakia. Schoolyard play shifted from stickball to organized calisthenics and lockstep marching.
Ondrej’s father had interceded. Sitting across from the boy at the kitchen table, Václav urged his son to question what he was learning in school. He created and led Ondrej through mathematical calculations, told him about Czech and European history and tempered the Reich versions of the war.
After her husband’s death, Chessie tried to continue the lessons, but she could feel her son pulling away from her. He told her he was too tired to take lessons at school and at home, too. He was bored with all the Czech heritage. The country hadn’t even existed until after WW I. What great accomplishments or battles or culture could it point to? Why did he need to study math? No one else in class had to bother with it.
Ondrej soon was instructing her: the proper pronunciation of the German umlaut; the overpowering victories in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, including decisive Prussian defeats of the French on August 4, 5 and 6, the siege of Metz on August 30 and Paris on September 19; and equating her with his teacher Paní Blazek. His mother, like his teacher, wasn’t showing enough respect for the swastika or the salute to Adolf Hitler, or appreciating the progress of the Wehrmacht against the Soviets.
Chessie lately wished he was still lecturing her. Though she had felt diminished by his dismissiveness, she would have preferred it to his current obstinacy. These days, Ondrej gave one-word answers to her questions about his schoolwork. He spent much of his time trying to ingratiate himself with the older boys who hung around the town garage and the mechanic Zelenka—an uncompromising supporter of Nazi Germany—despite having to endure harsh taunts when he could not completely hide his youth.
In the past few weeks, her son had become agitated yet secretive. He refused to tell her why Paní Blazek was replaced by a new school- teacher, Magda Marik, in the classroom. From what Chessie could piece together in conversations with other parents, she learned that someone had reported Paní Blazek to the SS for dereliction of duty as an educator of pupils for the New Germany because she had failed to lead the class in the Nazi salute each morning. Chessie was afraid that person had been Ondrej.
Chessie drew the last burst of water into the nearly overflowing tub, straightened the straps and hoisted it onto her back. She looked around for her son and saw him running up the hill next to St. Martin’s Church. He takes after his father, she noted. Lanky for his 11 years, he would probably grow to be tall and muscular—and good looking, with his thick blondish hair and mischievous gray-blue eyes.
“Watch out for that tree.” She indicated a stalk a few meters high jutting up in front of Ondrej.
“Why? It’s just another one of those stink trees.”
“No, it’s a young pear tree.”
“It’s just like that one, isn’t it?” Ondrej pointed to widely spreading tree with dark green leaves crowding out the few remaining bursts of white spring blooms.
“Yes, it is.”
“Well, that’s a stink tree. So if this thing,” he rubbed his foot along the stalk and its fledgling branches, “is the same as that, it will smell bad, too.” Ondrej held his nose and danced around the stalk.
“Yes, it does smell awful now, but it will be beautiful when it’s fully blooming,” Chessie insisted. “It will sway in the wind like a twirling dancer, and it will have nests of mockingbirds…”
“Who likes mockingbirds?”
“Oh, just stop,” she said.
“You just like it because that’s where daddy first kissed you.” Ondrej skipped along next to Chessie. “On May Day, ‘when a girl should be kissed under a blooming tree so she will be beautiful all year round,’” he sing-song quoted the Czech traditional saying.
“‘It was late evening on the first of May,’ ” Chessie began a rhyme.
“Oh no. You’re not going to recite that old thing,” Ondrej groaned. “‘The eve of May was the time of love,’ ” Chessie continued as Ondrej made an exaggerated frown and stuck his fingers in his ears.
“‘The turtle-dove’s voice called to love.’” Chessie tugged his hands away from his head. “Come on,” she prompted, “you know the rest.”
“‘Where rich,’ ” she paused. “Come on—‘Where rich and…’ ”
She waited for her son to chime in, but he was already running ahead of her. Impatient as usual, she thought, ready to test the limits, whether they were in the schoolroom, on the playground or at home, in a hurry to shed his childish years and become a man. How she wished he had his father’s hand to guide him.
“Be careful,” Chessie shouted, as he darted across the hard-packed dirt road toward the narrow bridge spanning the spring-rain-swollen creek. He zigzagged in front of a pair of teenage boys who had just stepped off the bus that transported workers to and from the munitions and steel plants in Kladno.
She was nervous around the two boys: Ignáce Tichy, a short, thick—in body and mind—16-year-old, who masked his ignorance with insouciance and combativeness; and Vit Kaspar, tall for his 15 years—5’ 11”—and not as heavyset as Ignáce, nor as obviously aggressive, but edgy and volatile.
She watched now as the pair scuffed their blackened boots on the ground and stumbled over their loosened bootlaces and the unrolled cuffs of their dingy dungarees. She glanced quickly at the time on the church bell tower clock—10:45 a.m. They must have worked the midnight shift and spent a few hours in the tavern afterward, she thought, noting their unsteadiness.
“Be careful.” She stiffened when she heard Ignáce repeat her words and add the taunt “little man” directed toward her son, but then breathed more easily as she saw Ignáce turn his attention elsewhere.
“How’s that Resistance business, old man?” Ignáce asked farmer Horák, who rested on his cane while talking with his friend Urbie Maruščáková at the side of the bridge. “How’s that going for Josef and Filip? They parachuting in any time soon? From England? To save our country?”
Horák’s two older sons had not been seen in Lidice for almost 3 years, ever since the Nazis started rounding up Czech doctors and lawyers, professors, teachers and university students and editors and journalists. The boys had tried to turn the town against the Nazis and organize an opposition group, but the people of Lidice hadn’t gone along. Most of the townspeople didn’t support the Nazis—most resented them, in fact, for taking away their jobs and farms and autonomy. But they didn’t want the Czechoslovak Resistance in their backyard. That belonged in the big cities—Brno or Olomouc or Prag—not in a tiny village like theirs.
Some, like Ignáce, denigrated the Czech Resistance. It was a penny-ante movement, responsible for scattered work stoppages and rail disruptions, the mysterious appearance of flags or graffiti bearing the Resistance’s trademark—the single capital letter V—but nothing pivotal. Or so Ignáce said. Chessie suspected that Ignáce, and maybe Vit, thought more highly of the Horák boys than they let on. Stuck in a small town, working long hours amid sulfurous molten slag, the boys might very well have wished they, like Josef and Filip, were thousands of kilometers away, learning how to fly airplanes and shoot rifles and break enemy codes.
“What do you know?” Ondrej piped up. “You couldn’t be a soldier or a Resistance fighter in a million years. You’re just grubby old steelworkers.”
“And you could?” Ignáce nudged Vit with an elbow and laughed. “You bet I could.”
“Sure, sure, little man.”
“I’m not a little man.”
“Look pretty little to me,” Vit spoke more to Ignáce than to Ondrej. “Little man, little man, little man,” Ignáce began to chant.
Ondrej rushed at Ignáce, his arms wide, his aim to grab Ignáce by the waist and pull him to the dirt. As Ondrej approached, Vit turned his body toward the boy and thrust a foot in his path. Ondrej tumbled forward just as Ignáce swung his arm into Ondrej’s nose and cheeks, and Vit elbowed him in the ribs. Ondrej’s knees buckled and he fell onto his side, gasping for breath.
“Even littler! … Oh, Jesus Christ,” Vit howled as the knob of Horák’s cane crashed into his knee.
“So you think you’re big men?” Horák asked, lifting the cane a few inches off the ground.
Vit took hold of the cane and tried to wrestle it away from the old man, but Maruščáková landed a series of punches in quick succession on both teens.
Ignáce and Vit shrunk from the blows and backed away, wiping sweat and blood from their faces and hair.
“Christ. We were just having a little fun. Can’t you take a joke?” Ignáce said.
“It’s not funny,” Ondrej sputtered.
“I don’t know. You all look pretty funny to me,” Ignáce said, smirking. He turned to Vit. “Let’s get out of here. Go to my grandmother’s. She’ll be out with the old ladies. We’ll have the place to ourselves. She’s got some good homemade gin, you know? Doesn’t think I know where it is, but I do.” He slung his arm over Vit’s shoulder, sniggering and nodding in Ondrej’s direction.
With his legs curled in close to his body, Ondrej watched the teens walk away. He rose on his knees, got to his feet, then quickly hunched over, covering the front of his pants and the spreading yellow stains as he ran across the bridge.
Chessie watched him pass the church, turn the corner and disappear down the street toward home, mortified that she had stood immobilized, her body frozen, her pulse pounding, her mind so overcome with uncertainty and fear she had been unable to help her son. She turned her face toward Horák and Maruščáková. “I...”
Horák nodded in acknowledgment of her distress, leaned once again onto his cane and spoke to his friend. “Felt good to take on those two, eh, Maruščáková?”
“Still a ball-buster,” Maruščáková replied, tipping his hat in apolo- gy for the profanity to Chessie.
Chessie busied herself positioning the wooden tub on her back, then followed the men across the bridge and into town, parting ways with them in front of the butcher shop. In the middle of the street in front of the garage, she saw some boys bent over, with their elbows on their thighs, pointing and laughing at a departing figure. Her heart ached when she heard their jeering voices: “Piss Pants. Piss Pants.”
Secretary of State and Chief of Police for the ReichsProtektorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Karl Hermann Frank hurried across the square toward Petshův Palác, the imposing, roughly finished grey stone and brick building that had been transformed from the Petschek and Company Banking House into the headquarters for the Nazi secret police in Prag. He stiff-armed the front door and rushed up the main staircase three steps at a time.
He strode into the office of Senior Criminal Investigator SS- Hauptsturmführer Heinz Pannwitz, head of the Special Gestapo Committee charged with finding and making an example of Reinhard Heydrich’s assassins.
Although Frank had been among the first Bohemians to push for German annexation of the Sudetenland by organizing the Sudeten- German Homeland Front as far back as 1933, he had not moved up in the ranks of the ReichsProtektorate leadership as he wished. Hitler had passed him over for promotion twice. First, when Hitler decided to replace the tactful and diplomatic ReichsProtektor Konstatin von Neurath with someone who could take a more strong-armed approach, he opted for Reinhard Heydrich. Frank could almost understand that. When Heydrich died, Frank was certain that he would take Heydrich’s post. But Hitler had not replaced Heydrich with the radical German jingoist Karl Hermann Frank. No, Hitler had appointed Kurt Daluege. “Daluege, the engineer,” Frank mocked him in private. Daluege, the man Heydrich called Dummi-Dummi, Frank had told his wife. Daluege! Hitler let that man take Heydrich’s place and left him as the Czechoslovak Protektorate’s state secretary, the second in command.
Smarting at the insult, Frank felt that he had to prove himself—yet again—and he struggled to tamp down his feelings of desperation. He and Emil Hácha, puppet president of Occupied Czechoslovakia, had advised Hitler to stay mass executions after Heydrich’s death, arguing that such tactics would play into the hands of enemy propagandists. But Hitler was becoming uneasy, yearning for the Reich to act boldly, deci- sively, unforgettably. Frank needed to show Hitler he was the man for the job. He was the man who would find Heydrich’s assassins, drag them down the streets of Prag and hang them in the courtyard of Hradčany Castle. He was the man who would make the Czechs suffer for their audacity.
“First, we got nothing,” Frank heard Senior Criminal Investigator SS-Hauptsturmführer Heinz Pannwitz complain from the head of a mahogany conference table where he sat flanked by the other members of the Special Gestapo Committee. “And now this.” Pannwitz eyed the piles of more than 600 reports that had been delivered in the past 48 hours.
Frank and Pannwitz were initially shocked when the Special Gestapo Committee received only a handful of reports from citizens of the Czechoslovak Protektorate in the first few days after the assassination. They thought the Reich had sent a clear message about the consequences of continued silence when 100 Czechs were shot immediately and another 1,800 were executed within days of Heydrich’s death. Entire families were still being lined up and killed, including grandparents, teenage sons and daughters and children, and their names were broadcast on the radio, printed in the local newspapers, blazoned on posters in cities and small towns and nailed to trees and farm fences. The Gestapo warned that if the assassins were not found soon, every tenth Czech would be shot.
Still, it wasn’t until the committee promised huge rewards—up to 2 million Reichsmarks—that information started flowing, and even then, the amount of information that might actually lead to the assassins’ identities was small. The committee knew that the assassins were moving from place to place, hidden and protected by Czech families. The reports they hurried out to investigate took them to “hiding places” in abandoned buildings so full of cobwebs it was clear they had not been used in years.
Frank watched Pannwitz rub his cheeks and chin, then pull his hand away from his face in disgust at the touch of his budding bristles. No matter how often or how closely he shaved, Pannwitz always had dark shadows of whiskers, stains almost, that set him apart from the Gestapo leadership. To Frank’s mind, this perpetual beard served as an outward reminder of Pannwitz’ tenuous grasp on the proper New German credentials. The man had been a metalworker incapable of holding down a factory job, a student barely able to complete his high school studies, the product of an illegitimate birth by a poor German girl. Probably his only claim to investigator status in the Nazi police, and later the Gestapo, was his dubious paternal link (who could prove it one way or another?) to Prussian nobility and a decorated German general. That link would do him little good if he couldn’t speed up the search for the assassins. Pannwitz had better have something solid this time, Frank thought.
Pannwitz looked across the table at the fresh-faced Soldat who held a letter bearing the logo of the Palaba battery factory in Slaný, along with a handwritten note.
“The letter,” he told Frank, “is from the factory owner, uh, a Jaroslav Pála. As you can see from the signature on the company letterhead, Pála found a note that had been sent from one of his employees to another. The letter was intended for a woman—Ana Maruščáková.”
“What does it say?” Frank demanded. “The letter from Pála or ...”
“Just tell me.”
“A factory hand named Václav Říha sent this note to his girlfriend… to Ana … the one I …”
“Well, the note said, ‘I had to do it. We shall not meet for a long time.’”
Pannwitz took the letter from the Soldat and read: “‘Dear Annie. Excuse me for writing you so late, but maybe you’ll understand because you know that I have had many worries. What I wanted to do, I have done. On the fatal day, I slept somewhere in Čabárna. I’m fine. I’ll see you this week, and then we will never see each other again.’ ”
“Where is this...” Frank indicated the name on the page, “This Ana? Where is she from?”
The Soldat reached over to point out the address.
“Yes, yes, I see,” Frank said. “Lidice... So?”
Pannwitz rubbed the side of his nose. “Lidice. It is a small town not far from Prag. You probably have not heard of it before, but… ” He tapped a black leather binder that lay open on the table in front of him and let his finger trace down a list of names. “There.” He stabbed at several lines of type.
Pannwitz turned the binder as Frank leaned forward to see it more clearly. “It’s a list of the men who left the Protektorate to join the Czechoslovak Army in exile in Britain.” He sat back and smiled. “Look down to the H’s. Do you see it? The name Horák? Lt. Horák, a Czech pilot?”
Pannwitz waited until Frank was hunched over the binder. “You see? Where he is from?”
Frank nodded, sat back and rubbed his temples. “Lidice.”
Chessie sat back on her haunches and rubbed dirt from her hands onto her skirt while surveying her garden. The spring colors had waned. Petals had fallen from tulips, revealing ovaries and engorged stigmas at their tips as filaments and leaves dried up and died back. Yellow fronds of forsythia had been replaced by swaths of green. Tufts of grass camouflaged isolated stalks of purple crocus.
She covered the rows of summer vegetable seeds she had sown with a little compost and a sprinkling of water, pulled some early new green beans from their stalks and pinched a few sprigs of parsley, placing them in a wicker basket and taking them into her kitchen. At the washstand, she rinsed the greens and set them on a towel to dry and began pulling leaves and roots from a kohlrabi she had brought up from the root cellar.
A rumble of engines—automobile engines—caught her attention as they grew steadily louder. Whiffs of exhaust fumes irritated her nose. A pair of brakes scraped on their pads, a clutch popped, an engine gulped as it switched off, car doors squeaked on their hinges.
The vegetable still in her hand, Chessie moved to the front windows of her house and peered through the lace curtain. She stepped back quickly, trying to hide herself in the shadows when she saw that boxy black sedans, one after another, were rolling into the streets of her town, disgorging soldiers into the streets, soldiers with jagged double S’s on their collars.
The driver of a Mercedes limousine stepped out, opened the rear door of the vehicle and stood behind it, snapping his heels together. From the backseat, a Gestapo captain swung his black-booted legs onto the ground, pulled on a pair of leather gloves, slipped one hand into the sling handle of a riding crop and grasped a black visor cap with the other. The officer emerged from the vehicle, placed his cap on his head and ran his right hand over his uniform jacket. He straightened his back and dipped his head in acknowledgment to the driver, tugged on the fingers of his gloves and strode on the hard-packed dirt, his eyes unblinking, facing forward.
In the middle of the town square, the officer turned and slowly scanned the rows of townspeople, stopping only to peer into the faces of the young women. He removed his cap and took out a handkerchief to wipe the inside headband. Returning the handkerchief to his pocket, he twisted the cap in his hands, then said softly, “We are looking for Ana Maruščáková.”
Questions murmured through the crowd:
“Ana? Why Ana?”
“She’s hardly more than a teenager. What could they want with her?”
Little sighs of relief eased the tension, as if to say, “Thank heaven. They’re not looking for me.”
The officer placed the cap back on his head and asked, more loudly, “Which of you is Ana?”
The townspeople were silent.
The officer began pacing in front of the crowd, slapping his hand on his thigh. “Are you Ana?” he asked, pointing at a girl in the back row. “Or you?” he shouted, thrusting a finger into the face of a girl in the front.
A slight movement swayed the crowd. What was that? the officer wondered. The soft rustling of fabric by a nervous hand? A change in position to protect or hide someone? He scoured the bowed heads. There. He noted a slight twitch, a wary glance out of the corner of an old man’s eye, a barely noticeable head movement.
“You there.” The officer pointed.
“You.” He pointed to the mechanic Zelenka. “You have something to say?”
An undercurrent of grumbling led to a shove and a murmured, “Keep your mouth shut, Zelenka.”
“Come out here,” the officer demanded.
Under his overhanging brow, Zelenka’s eyes darted back and forth as he took a tentative step. Townspeople standing in front of him squeezed together more closely to block his way. Fists held onto his shirt and tried to pull him backward.
A pair of soldiers elbowed bodies out of the way, grabbed Zelenka’s arms and dragged him forward.
The officer raised Zelenka’s head with the tip of the riding crop and searched his face. “Who?” he demanded.
“Don’t do it, Zelenka.”
“Stop, old man.”
“Think what you are doing.”
Ignoring the susurrations, Zelenka tilted his head to one side. “There,” he said. “She’s that one.” He turned and pointed a palsied finger.
The voices burst like cherry bombs:
“I spit on you.”
An agonizing “No!” as Ana was pulled from the crowd.
The Gestapo officer extended his arm and spread out his fingers. “Enough!” he said sharply. He turned back to Zelenka. “Now, who is Horák?”
The voices whispered:
“Isn’t he the one who has sons with the exile government?” a man muttered.
“Hush,” a woman hissed.
Zelenka scanned the faces in the crowd.
“There.” He pointed to the hunched and grizzled farmer standing with both hands on the knob of his cane at the end of a line of Lidice men.
The officer shoved Zelenka aside.
“Where do you live?” the officer shouted at Horák.
“At the end of the town,” Horák replied.
“And you?” he asked Ana.
“Just there. The … the third house,” she stammered.
“Take him,” the officer ordered a group of soldiers, “take Horák to his house.”
“Ana.” He tapped the crop on the side of a boot as he moved next to her. “Let’s you and I go and have a talk in your house.” Putting an arm around her shoulders, he looked along the side of her face, following her gaze as it fell upon a middle-aged couple. “Your mama and papa?” he asked, noting the woman’s fluttering hands and the man’s attempt to bull his way past his neighbors into the line of soldiers.
“No mama and papa,” the officer said to them. Then he turned back to Ana. “It is just going to be you and me.” Holding her tightly against his side, he began speaking brusquely: “We have the letter.”
“The letter from Říha … your boyfriend from the factory in Slaný.”
“I don’t have…”
“Now don’t lie to me. I know you have a boyfriend. I know what he wrote to you. I know what he did. You may as well tell me your side. We already have Říha in custody.”
Ana shrank away from the officer.
“He will tell us … eventually … if you won’t.”
Ana shook her head and turned her frightened eyes to her mother and father, breathlessly uttering denials: “I don’t know anything. I didn’t do anything. He’s not my boyfriend. He’s just someone I know.” She tripped over the front step of her house. “What,” she asked as she and the officer followed two Gestapo soldiers through the doorway, “What has happened … to Říha?”
Until the officer shut the door to Ana’s house, Chessie had been afraid to scan the crowd for her son. She had been pushed by the SS into the front row of the crowd along with the other women from her street. As stealthily as she could, she moved from one row to the next, further and further back toward the buildings. She now stood in the last row of townspeople, her knees flexed, head bowed, arms close, sweat trickling down the sides of her body and accumulating under her breasts.
As soon as she heard the click of the lock to Ana’s front door, she began to move closer to the schoolhouse, steal glances at the children as she passed between the rows of frightened, angry neighbors. At last she saw Ondrej. He was on the top step of the schoolhouse, next to his teacher Magda Marik. His eyes were focused on an SS soldier who was standing a few meters in front of him. He was balancing himself against his schoolteacher, on tiptoes, his face shining with admiration.
“I’m sure you were just trying to help him,” the officer said as he held Ana’s elbow and pulled her out of the house.
“No…No…We never…He wouldn’t…” Ana flinched against the pressure on her arm. She turned to the crowd of her neighbors and friends and saw some accusing faces. Surprised, she shook her head. “I didn’t do anything. We didn’t do anything.” Her eyes scanned the townspeople seeking confirmation. “You know me. You know I wouldn’t do…”
“Mama?” she called out when she saw her mother’s face.
Ana’s mother pushed the people standing in front of her, but her husband held her back. “We can’t help her. We can’t help her here. Not now. We can’t do anything. Not now,” he said quietly, gazing at Ana and the Nazi officer. “It will come out,” he insisted, holding his wife’s arm. “It’s Říha’s fault. They will see that. They will see that.” His voice trailed off. His eyes filled with tears. He raised his hand as if to wave to Ana until his wife grasped and held it between her breasts. He raised her fingers to his lips, all the while watching mournfully as the officer led Ana down the street to his car, opened the car door and put her in the backseat.
Until then, Ana’s father hadn’t even noticed that soldiers were also guiding Horák to the car. What did Horák have to do with this? he wondered. Did he know Říha? No, it was his sons. The sons who left the country to join the Czechoslovak Army in exile in Great Brita