They called him the “Butcher of Prague” and the “blonde beast.” A man known to carry out his tasks with brutal efficiency, even Hitler called him the “man with the iron heart.”
Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich, a high ranking German Nazi during World War 2, arrived in Prague with the intent of suppressing Czech culture and deporting and executing members of the Czech resistance. Also nicknamed “the hangman”, Heydrich was one of the most fearsome members of the Nazi elite. One of the chief architects of the Holocaust, he was the leading planner in Hitler’s Final Solution.
On May 27, 1942, Heydrich was attacked in Prague by a team of British trained Czech and Slovak soldiers sent by the Czech government in exile to kill him. The project was called Operation Anthropoid and revenge was swift and lethal. The Germans falsely linked the assassins to two Czech villages. One village was burned to the ground, men and boys over 16 were shot, and most women and children were taken to Nazi concentration camps.
Heydrich died one week later of his injuries.
So why does this man – and this horrific event in history matter to me? Because if it weren’t for the man in this picture, I might not be alive today.
If a picture can say a thousand words, then this one can tell a thousand stories. One day while picking through my Mom’s old ruffled family photo album, I came across this photo of her as a young girl. She’s being held by her Uncle Lola (Alois), her mother’s older brother. It was taken in Prague along the river Vltava circa the 1940’s.
My Mom describes Uncle Lola as “A tall, not too handsome man, but with a beautiful and kind heart.” He lived in a small European size flat with his wife in a 5th floor apartment in Prague. They had a child (boy) called Jan, who contracted scarlet fever but was treated with penicillin. Unfortunately he was sent to school too soon which seemed to affect his heart. Poor Jan died at the age of 8. The death of Jan had a great impact on Lola’s marriage. It slowly fell apart. His wife left him, and he remarried a gold digger who just wanted his pension. In the end, he suffered a stroke and died a lonely man somewhere in a hospital in Prague. A sad ending to the story of a man I never knew.
An only child, my Mom didn’t have much family in Czechoslovakia. Both her parents were Czech. Her Dad (who died months before I was born…my Opa) went to law school at Charles University in Prague then worked as a lawyer. Her Mom (my Omi), was his secretary and later on became his wife.
The family grew up in Czechoslovakia during turbulent times when the country was invaded by just about every brutal regime on the planet. What little they had was soon confiscated by whatever forces happened to be invading at the time.
To this day, my Mom has very fond memories of Uncle Lola. She remembers him, his apartment – even being at the funeral of his son. But it’s time spent with him around Prague that holds the most meaning. On May 27, 1942, Uncle Lola had taken my Mom to the Prague Zoo. An armed German soldier approached them as they were making their way home. Remember that the Germans were bloodthirsty for revenge and weren’t about to spare anybody. Which makes the next part of the story even more unbelievable.
There was a heated conversation, and understandably my Mom (then a child) was quite terrified. I’m sure Uncle Lola was too, although whatever it was he said to the Nazi saved both himself as well as my Mom. Looking at what happened that day, and the deadly consequences on innocent Czech civilians of Operation Anthropoid, there’s no reason that they both shouldn’t have been shot on the spot in cold blood.
I wish I had known Uncle Lola. Because I would have thanked him. If it wasn’t for his smarts and quick thinking, I might not even be here today.
After having led what seemed to be a life full of tragedy in a very dangerous and turbulent time in history, I felt it necessary to tell his story. Because a picture isn’t always just a picture. There are real people, stories and memories behind pictures too.
Pictures tell the story of our past – and help us to understand our present.
The story of a moment. Imagine for a brief second, how it would have felt – to have been confronted by a revenge thirsty Nazi officer during a time of total hysteria? How would you react knowing, that the next words coming out of your mouth could mean the difference between life and death?
Uncle Lola – today I honour you. Your bravery shall not be forgotten for you are a true hero. Thank you.