A visit to the Cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius, symbol of the Czechoslovak resistance against nazi invaders
Unlike in several historical churches in Prague, the entry to the Orthodox cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius is free of charge: an invitation – or a stimulus – to discover the place that hosted in 1942 a key event in the dismembered Czechoslovakia, occupied by Nazis. The cathedral is best known for its crypt, its underground core, that, unlike the imperial one in Vienna or the Escorial in Madrid, doesn’t carry the memoir of kings or emperors.
We find ourselves on Na Zderaze street, at the crossing with Resslova street, halfway between the riverside and Karlovo náměstí. At the bottom of the stairs before the entrance of the basilica, there is a gate leading to an underground chapel now transformed in a museum recalling the atrocities perpetrated in the Czech territories during the Second World War. A series of panels retrace all the stages: from the conference in Monaco and the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 to the Hitlerian diktat in 1939, when the Führer received president Emil Hácha in Berlin, announcing the invasion of the country, the birth of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.
The highly feared Reinhard Heydrich – a young and powerful Nazi leader who would go down in history as the “Executioner of Prague”, second in command after Heinrich Himmler in the SS hierarchy – arrived in Prague as Head of the Protectorate in the spring of 1941, replacing Konstantin von Neurath, considered to be too soft by Berlin.
A perfect symbol of the Aryan race ideal, Heydrich – blond, tall, Germanic, married with children and ruthless – had a place of “honor” in the material conception of the Final Solution, as part of the Wannsee conference on January 20, 1942. He was a symbol. The Führer adored the “Blond beast”, receiving absolute loyalty in return. And indeed, Heydrich distinguished himself for his ferocity in playing the role of governor of Bohemia and Moravia, through many killings not only of members of the opposition but of innocent citizens as well.
Thus, a plan to give a military response and organize the so-called Anthropoid Operation, aiming to eliminate Heydrich, rose within the Czechoslovakian government found in exile in London. Anthropoid means in Greek “human aspect” and, therefore, it underlines the inhumanity of the Reichsprotektor.
A group of seven young Czechoslovak soldiers, refugees in Great Britain, were chosen to carry out the operation and before being parachuted over Bohemia they were trained in Scotland, by the Royal Air Force.
The vital task of killing the “Blond beast” was entrusted to Corporals Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, who carried out the task on March 27, 1942. These two ambushed Heydrich in the northern suburbs of Prague, while the Reichsprotektor was aboard a convertible Mercedes Benz, driven by a chauffeur and heading – as every morning – to his office at the Castle.
With their companions by their side, the two men managed to escape for a few weeks the German manhunt, ending up in refuge in the crypt of Saints Cyril and Methodius. While the terrible Nazi retaliation was unleashing throughout the country, culminating with the destruction of the village of Lidice and the massacre of its inhabitants, Kubiš and Gabčík were betrayed by Karel Čurda, one of their companions, himself a member of the exiled Czechoslovak army. He was parachuted over his homeland by the British to support the resistance. Instead, he reported the hiding place of his companions to the Germans in exchange for a substantial monetary reward.
Once discovered, Kubiš and Gabčík, along with their four companions (Adolf Opálka, Jaroslav Švarc, Josef Bublík, Jan Hrubý and Josef Valčík) put up a strenuous resistance lasting several hours against the Germans, a thousand SS officers that surrounded the crypt in the meantime. But, eventually, there was nothing else to do: three of them died fighting, other four committed suicide, preferring this ending to being captured.
Even today, on Resslova street, the shots of the German machine guns are still visible on the right side, on the exterior of the cathedral, where weekly, almost eighty years after the events, wreaths of flowers and candles are being placed in the memory of the Czechoslovak heroes, one meter from the pink and white cobblestones that draw the year 1942 on the sidewalk.
The anguish is tangible in the museum, not only through the mix of history and images that retrace the events in the crypt (there is even a small cinema hall at the entrance), but also through objects belonging to the young soldiers and even a faithful reproduction of the bomb they threw at Heydrich’s Mercedes.
The small museum under the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius is, in a way, a continuation of the religious place above, mainly because silence is required inside, meant to honor the fallen who resisted inside the crypt until the last man. We get the impression of truly living History, if only because going inside means reliving the hope and fear of those who secretly hid within in June 1942.
The entrance to the crypt is metaphorical and full of meaning, diffusing a feeling of being trapped, as victims of claustrophobia and fear. The entrance itself is like a point of no return, a dividing gate between the two worlds. In the back, in the museum area, the freedom; in front, the prison.
Humid and dark, the crypt opens to a long corridor that ends at the foot of a staircase leading to the apse of the church. The second exit – the one eventually used by the Nazis to get inside – was blocked by Kubiš and his companions with a massive marble slab, nowadays placed at the foot of the staircase.
Despite the turmoil of feelings, there is a sacred air filling the basement of the cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius, an ambiance midway between mysticism and anguish, enhanced by a golden and suffused light. It’s a perfect harmony between the window overlooking Resslova street, letting in fragile glimmers of lights, and the lamps illuminating the bronze busts of the heroic parachutists remembered one by one in their short biography engraved on a dark marble slab.
There is a wreath of flowers under each monument, by now withered, months after the commemoration of last June. However, it’s clear that the flowers of liberty that bloomed from the Czech Resistance have not faded since that distant summer in 1942. Otherwise, there are flowers, ribbons, photographs and candles that resist to the underground cold of the church and to time, as an endless memoir of the sacrifice made by that handful of men who knew on which side to be on. On the side of freedom.
by Amedeo Gasparini