When the Butcher of Prague Czeched Out

Imagine for a minute, you are looking at one of history’s most evil men.  You’ve lost everything to this man, you had to flee your country, spend months planning to return and confront this man, you return to your country and go into hiding, looking for the right moment to take action, and there you are pointing a gun right at him…

And better yet, he doesn’t even see you.

All you simply have to do is pull the trigger.  It is something soldiers have had to do for hundreds of years.  Point the gun at the enemy, aim, and shoot.  But this is no ordinary enemy…

One of the things I love about traveling is experiencing moments when history makes an impact.  It is part of the appreciation factor that I discussed in another post.  Seeing sites like the Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower are great.  They show the awesome ingenuity of the human mind.  But sometimes it is a crypt or a small church balcony that give just as big or bigger reward than the famous sites.  Places where the impact is less about the skill of the mind or the hands, but a matter of guts and sacrifice.

Places like these often have wreaths, candles, and bullet scars.

He is called by some ‘the man with the iron heart’.  But the man with the piercing, arrogant eyes on the other end of your gun looks flesh and blood.  And you are positive the dark heart inside him is no match for any bullet.

At the meeting where the deaths of millions were decided, he was the ‘chairman’.  When people talk about the systematic murder of these millions, he is called the ‘architect’.  This is no ordinary enemy…

All you simply have to do is pull the trigger…

 

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Saint Cyril and Methodius is a modest looking cathedral in the New Town (Nové Mêsto) district of Prague.  Cyril and Methodius were two brothers living in the 800’s who were responsible for bringing Christianity to this part of the world and in the process creating an alphabet to translate the bible into the slavic language.  This alphabet would eventually transform into today’s cyrillic.  While modest, it is the central cathedral of the Czech Orthodox faith.  The entrance to the cathedral is up some steps and thru a small enclosed courtyard.  However, you may notice a group of people at street level along the side of the cathedral looking at something.

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All over Europe, we probably walk by buildings all the time with small hardly noticed defects that were the result of a bullet or shrapnel taken from World War II.  Most of the time, you wouldn’t notice without the aid of a tour guide.  But the scars on St. Cyril and Methodius are quite evident.  The bullet craters are grouped around a small window, a window which gives a small beam of light into the crypt below the cathedral.  Above the window is a plaque with seven names.  Beginning with Adolf Opálka… Jozef Gabčík…

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Jozef Gabčík.  It is possible that there was no man who ever got this close to one of the Nazi elite while aiming a gun with the intent to kill during the entire war.  All he simply had to do was pull the trigger.  On the other end of Jozef’s Sten submachine gun was SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, otherwise known as the Butcher of Prague.  Sitting in the passenger seat of his Mercedes convertible, he was dead to rights…

Doesn’t it always seem like the villains of the world are harder to kill than the non-villains?  When I think of the scene of Heydrich in his convertible totally unaware of what was about to happen and Gabčík standing there with his submachine gun, I make the comparison to JFK and Oswald.  In one case, a beloved president’s life was snuffed out just like that (ok, he was technically alive for another 30 minutes).  In the case of Heydrich…

All he simply had to do was pull the trigger…

Gabčík did pull the trigger.  But rather than the pulsating rhythm of bullets firing and the satisfying sight of Heydrich’s body being pummeled with steel, Gabčík’s gun jammed…

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Jan Kubiš.  That was the third name on the plaque.  Jan had a particularly circuitous route to this moment of time.  He originally fled for Poland when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia.  He fought for a Czech regiment allied with the Poles but when the Nazis invaded and defeated Poland, he escaped to France.  He fought with the French in northern Africa and the mainland, but when Hitler invaded and defeated France, he again had to escape.  This time to England where he began training for this mission along with Gabčík.  Many of us never have to lift a gun to defend our own country.

Can you imagine the shock that Gabčík must have felt when the gun jammed?  Suddenly Heydrich went from sitting duck to predator.  Car brakes squealing, Heydrich’s pistol firing back at the stunned Gabčík.  Meanwhile, Kubiš, who was carrying a briefcase with an anti-tank grenade for any armored escort vehicle, was watching this horrible turn of events unfold.  He tossed the briefcase towards the car but it hit the rear of the car, short of the most devastating mark.  The grenade exploded and Kubiš was hit by some of the shrapnel.

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Below St. Cyril and Methodius is a crypt which is now a museum.  It is free of charge but a prominent donation case encourages visitors to willingly support.  You are greeted at the entrance to the crypt by blackness and a puzzling doorway.  The door itself is designed like the wing of a Spitfire fighter plane, but the impression it is supposed to give when entering is one of no return.  It gives a glimpse of light but then suffocates it again in darkness.  Such would have been the fleeting hope on May 27, 1942 moments before Gabčík’s gun jammed.  There can be no hope in a crypt, only waiting for death.  Death in the crypt waited for four Czech freedom fighters including Jozef Gabčík.

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JFK died in 30 minutes from his injuries.

The bomb thrown by Jan Kubiš did not hit the mark, but shrapnel can sometimes forgive poor aim.  But shrapnel doesn’t discriminate.  Kubiš was not the only one injured by the shrapnel.  Moments after the explosion, still fighting like a wounded rabid dog, Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague, the Hangman, the Architect of the Holocaust, finally fell to the ground…  Kubiš and Gabčík managed to escape, wounding Heydrich’s driver along the way.

It took seven days for the monster to die.

Seven Days.

Have you ever had one of those dreams where you are trying to dial a phone number over and over but your fingers can’t get it right?  This is especially a frustrating one for us people who remember the rotary dialing phones.  Or dreams where you are trying to run but can’t seem to run as fast as you know you can?  We are fortunate that we can wake up from these dreams.

For those seven days, Gabčík must have replayed pulling the trigger.  It would have been a living nightmare where the gun jams over and over, your mind begging to see those bullets finally exploding out of the barrel and into that evil chest, shredding that uniform, sending medals clinking uselessly to the street.  But for Gabčík, there would have been no waking up from that.  Only seven days later when the word of Heydrich’s death would be announced, perhaps there was a small window of hope.  But the inevitable reprisals would have extinguished that like the doorway of that crypt.

Gabčík, Kubiš, and five other Czech freedom fighters would seek refuge in St. Cyril and Methodius cathedral.  Kubiš and two others would stand guard from the balcony and the rest would hide in the crypt.

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The crypt still looks like it would have 74 years ago, except for the busts of the Czech heroes.  It is an uncomfortable place to be in for even 15 minutes as a tourist, nevermind having to live here under threat of death.  The narrow window with all of the bullet marks is the only source of sunlight.  Eventually it was the betrayal by a fellow Czech, Karel Čurda, that led to their discovery.  Čurda was himself a freedom fighter, but for one million Deutschmarks, he exposed the safe houses all over Prague.  Čurda was hanged for treason in 1947.  He managed to outlive those he betrayed by five years, for on June 18, 1942, the Nazis stormed the cathedral and the seven Czech heroes were either shot or committed suicide.

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Whether it was allowed or not, I managed to climb the stairs up to the balcony, the spot where Jan Kubiš would have shot himself in the head with his last bullet as the Nazis stormed up those same stairs.  On the balcony were several chairs and sheet music stands.  A lone woman stood there preparing something with her sheet music.  She barely looked up and I took this to mean that my presence was ok.  I looked down over the church.  A cleaning lady was vacuuming.  A handful of worshippers were still lingering about.  The priest went to and fro picking up books.  On September 4, 1942, Bishop Gorazd of the St. Cyril and Methodius cathedral was shot by Nazi firing squad.

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After a few minutes of imagining the horrendous cacophony of gunfire, storming boots, and shouting that would have went on that day (worse than the sound of the vacuum cleaner), I descended the stairs and sought out what I hoped would be the entrance to the crypt.  A small slab with two iron bars and a crack down the middle lay under two feet of a small table by the small gift shop.  It looked too small to be a crypt entrance, but the crack indicated somebody possibly tried to break the slab at one time.  A crack like that would have taken great impact.  The impact that experiences like these leave on me are profound and are one of the reasons I love to travel.  You will remember the Prague castle and Charles Bridge for all their picturesqueness but it is the connections made with real history that make the travel experience rich.  And in Prague, one of those connections is the St. Cyril and Methodius cathedral.

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