After the disgraceful Munich Agreement of 30 September 1938 the Wehrmacht marched into Prague in spring 1939. Betrayed and abandoned by its allies, the democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia ceased to exist.

Packing what was left of their furniture, the Popper family moved northwest of Prague to the village of Bustehrad to be near Papa’s native soil and his only pond, hoping the signs and effects of anti-Semitism would be less severe there.

At the beginning of the occupation the pond, on which Papa had drifted in a washtub in his boyhood, his father too and his grandfather and great-grandfather before him, was confiscated.

“How can a Jew breed carp?”, the mayor asked one day and pronounced that they were taking it over, just as official thugs had taken away the furniture from the Poopers’ home in Prague.

The Butcher of Prague

In a move timed to humiliate their neighboring nation to the utmost, hours before the feast day of St. Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia, and a few days ahead of the three year anniversary of the disgraceful Munich Agreement of 30 September 1938, Hitler’s “man with the iron heart” , one of the main architects of the Holocaust, was appointed Deputy Reich Protector of what remained of the once democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia. Shortly after his appointment, the infamous war criminal, SS-, SSObergruppenführer und General der Polizei, as well as chief of the Reich Main Security Office, Reinhard Heydrich, fed up with Czech anti-German resistance and sabotage, made it clear that the “soft approach” to the “Czech vermin“ was over. Instead, a final solution to the Czech question would be gradually implemented, Heydrich confirmed to his aides in a speech at Czernin Palace in Prague on the 2nd of October 1941.

The operation by British-trained Czechoslovak parachutists in which the Butcher of Prague Heydrich was mortally wounded on May 27, 1942, brought brutal reprisals and yet another wave of terror. The occupation was bad everywhere, but in Ota’s home village of Bustehrad, a neighboring village to the village of Lidice, it seemed worse.

A desperately empty place on the school bench

The massacre of the small village of Lidice began on June 10, 1942 a few hours after midnight. 173 men of Lidice were shot on that fateful day in the garden of Horak farm. The children were taken from their mothers and, except for those selected for re-education in German families, and babies under one year of age, were poisoned by exhaust gas in specially adapted vehicles in the Nazi extermination camp at Chełmno upon Nerr in Poland. The women were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. Ota recalls:

“All of Bustehrad, along with my father, my mother, my brothers and me, saw Lidice burn. We heard Lidice shrieking from over the hill. I had always gone with Prihoda to school, and suddenly his place on the school bench was desperately empty. We used to play soccer in Lidice, Papa had buddies there, and small light-haired Mama often returned weeping from her forced labor in the Lidice field because over the graves the dense grass grew tall from the blood and bodies of the victims. We could never forget the destruction of Lidice. It remained in our hearts like a tick under skin, a tick with a black hooked swastika instead of fangs and legs. Papa was shaken after Lidice. His eyes were filled with that damned hundred years of sorrow, and he stopped going to the pond because he no longer believed that the carp would one day be his again.”

Die Jugend mit Hacke und Spaten, and the greedy Hanáčková

Having rid Lidice of its inhabitants, the Nazis began to destroy the village itself, first setting the houses on fire and then razing them to the ground with plastic explosives. In 1943 all that remained was the site where Lidice used to be, an empty space. Ota recalls:

“With hoes and spades they turned the soil so that even God wouldn’t recognize it. They dynamited the pond where I used to go with the boys of Lidice, scattering its water as they scattered the church. They diverted the brook from Hrebec, and paved the roads with white marble tombstones so they could walk on the names of those who had been sleeping peacefully. And they sang and sang, stopping only to prepare more dynamite. After all, it was impossible, using only hoes and spades, to wipe out white villages from the face of the earth. The Lidice fields were all around me. Mama had worked there, and potatoes and small white flowers grew up everywhere. Potatoes even grew on the graves of executed men and boys, and when the woman dug them out they resembled human hearts. That was a warning and nobody took those potatoes home. Only the greedy Hanackova tried it, lugging a bag to her house, and she was dead within a year.”

Out of 503 inhabitants, 340 innocent Lidice citizens were murdered by the Nazis. Out of the 105 Lidice children, 82 died in Chełmno, six died in the German Lebensborn orphanages. 143 Lidice women returned home after the war ended, and after a two-year search 17 children were returned home and restored to their mothers.

The Führer Gives a City to the Jews

Ota was still only twelve years old when another horrible blow struck. In February 1943 his two older brothers, Hugo and Jirka, “die jüdischen Mischlinge ersten Grades” under the Nuremberg racial laws, had to go to the “city the führer gave to the Jews“, to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the garrison city of Terezín. Hugo was sent to Germany as a forced laborer while Jirka got another “gift” from “Mr. Hitler” – he was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the last transport from Terezín on October 28, 1944. Ota remembers the night before his Papa was to report to be transported to Terezín ghetto too.

The carp for Wehrmacht had come home

“I was down the stairs, and Papa stood there holding an ax and bundle of sacks. I felt scared as he nodded me. He started out and I followed, the hard snow crackling under our feet, crack-crack. Papa did not speak as he headed for the pond, which stood out behind the poplars, as if in a fairy tale, all frozen over and lit by the moon. There was silence, enormous silence everywhere. Near Hudecek´s house Papa began to tap on the ice, walking far out on the pond. The ice beneath his ax sounded like a church organ. ‘The carp are suffocating,’ he said, turning to me. ‘Nobody cut holes for them.’…He knelt down on the ice and rolled up his sleeves. He stroked their heads and backs, mumbling ‘My darling carp. Little carp.’ He played with them, and they flocked around his hands like his children, gold and silver in the moonlight, shining like saints. I never saw such carp again. Papa rolled them over, lifted them, then let them go as he hummed something…In the morning when the moon dropped low, it got even colder. We were frozen to the bone as we lugged the last wet sacks home. Mama scraped the ice from us, and we thought of the pond that was empty now. The carp had come home. Papa had stolen his own fish. In the morning, we went to see Papa catch his bus to Prague. He carried a small suitcase, and for the first time his shoulders sagged. But to me he had grown enormously during that night. ”

Papa and Ota’s brothers miraculously survived the war. Jirka was among the not-so-many survivors of the death march from Auschwitz-Birkenau to Opava in Silesia in early 1945, while Hugo and their father managed to escape from Terezín shortly before the endless war finally ended. It is estimated that 272 thousand Czechoslovak Jews died due to racial persecution, representing three quarters of all Czechoslovak victims of WW2. The Republic of Czechoslovakia failed to protect its citizens since it had ceased to exist.

Nobody has calculated what the terrible tragedy implied in terms of the number of the “desperately empty places on the school benches”, not to mention human suffering that hardly anyone can imagine let alone measure.

Ota was only 42 years old when he prematurely passed away. After his memoires were discovered it was found that he edited his immortal book endlessly as if cutting a diamond into a perfect shape. Facing serious mental illness, Ota apparently needed to come to terms with the world.  While not primarily aiming at pleasing others perhaps he decided to look at the world through rose-tinted glasses as no other option was available to him. Gently and kindly he appears to have come to the conclusion that if you do not have anything nice to say then say nothing. Universal Jewish wisdom stands on Ota’s side: it is good for a man to cling to a good heart. If the heart is good then all else is good.  Ota is an example of a man whose good heart changed the world for the better.

The Munich Agreement of 30 September 1938 is a matter of the dire past now. It remains a mere distant reminder for us that nations, big ones in particular, can sometimes pursue their own interest ruthlessly. Agreements easily become mere scraps of paper and relying on these may turn out to be foolish. Nevertheless it is vital to have allies, not only allies whom we need but also good allies who need us. At the same time, we, the smaller nations, must be extremely grateful for every helping hand and tossed coin when danger threatening our very existence emerges. Nevertheless, the most effective help will always be found at our own hands. It is primarily up to us to take up arms if all other solutions have failed. It is also true that small nations with similar historical experiences can help one another more effectively as they can better understand each others’ concerns and needs.

Another lesson learned, confirmed by old Jewish wisdom, is that a good neighbor is always better than a good friend. A good friend always has good advice at hand but a good neighbor is at hand when needed. A good neighbor is harmless and we can easily reciprocate. It is therefore our human duty to be good neighbors as far as it depends on us. However, the world, its people and their generations are changing and not always in the right direction. Therefore without strenuous efforts for our own sovereignty and security, without our ability to strive constantly, we would most likely vanish sooner or later. When it comes to ensuring our very existence and prosperity, do we have enough ability, enough reason and acumen and will, determination and endurance enough? The future knows the answer.

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