Beautiful Absence: The Aesthetics of Dark Heritage
The former Czech village of Lidice is today a peaceful countryside, a neatly cropped rolling field punctuated by a postcard-cute babbling brook and a scatter of trees. The massive lawn rolls over some nearly imperceptible depressions and a couple of neatly landscaped foundations, but only a few benches and sidewalks disrupt the bucolic landscape. Nestled in a modest rural setting seemingly far from nearby Prague, the space is a quiet and even peaceful place of reflection that is far-removed from its quite unpleasant heritage.
Like many dark heritage sites, the horrific narrative of mass murders and the complete razing of Lidice in 1942 contrast with an aesthetically pleasant contemporary space. Lidice perhaps magnifies the role of imagination because it has exceptionally sparse material remains in the midst of a pleasant countryside; nevertheless,the imaginative experience of comprehending inexpressible barbarism in the midst of settled contemporary landscapes is common to many dark heritage sites. Lidice illuminates the ways contemporary landscape aesthetics and material absences profoundly shape dark heritage experiences.
In 1942 Lidice was a small village of about 503 residents that had been part of Nazi Germany’s Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia since 1939. On May 27, 1942 the German Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich’s car was attacked in Prague by a pair of soldiers who had been trained expressly for the attack. Heydrich was an organizer of Kristallnacht, the attacks against Jews throughout Germany and Austria in 1938, and in 1942 he presided over the Wannsee Conference, which outlined the Nazis’ “practical execution of the final solution” to eliminate Jews. Beyond his role as one of the most prominent architects of the Holocaust, Heydrich’s brutal efforts to “Germanize the Czech vermin” included widespread executions and the arrest of between 4000 and 5000 Czechs who were sent to the Mauthausen-Geusen concentration camp.
The Czech government in exile trained two men for the 1942 attempt on Heydrich’s life, which was known as Operation Anthropoid. A bomb lobbed at Heydrich’s car on May 27th wounded him severely, and he died of an infection on June 4th. A curfew was declared on the afternoon Heydrich was attacked, and a series of reprisals began as the Nazis launched a massive manhunt for the killers. Hitler personally ordered any village harboring Heydrich’s killers be leveled entirely, with all adult men killed, women transported to concentration camps, and “suitable” children placed with German families.
Lidice was falsely suspected of hiding the killers (who were eventually killed in Prague June 18th), and the Nazis encircled the village on the morning of June 10th. A Nazi film crew documented the devastating attack, which began by marching the village’s men to a barn wall with mattresses leaned against it; by afternoon 173 men had been shot, and another eight who were not yet home were located and killed soon afterward. Of the women, 184 were sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp; seven children were handed over to SS families for “Germanization,” and 81 children were gassed to death at Magirus. Eventually 340 people were killed, and 143 women survived the war along with 17 children.
The Nazis rarely transformed a landscape so completely. The Germans immediately set the village afire, and in an effort to wipe the village from existence and memory alike they uprooted the trees, seized livestock and killed pets, dug up about 400 caskets from the cemetery, exploded the structures’ remains, and bulldozed the village. Jessica Rapson’s excellent dissertation examining the Lidice landscape and similar “topographies of suffering” indicates that “it took over a year to complete ordered alterations to the topography of the land, which was to be covered with soil imported from Germany.” The entire village’s rubble was re-distributed, filling in Lidice’s familiar pond and redirecting the stream that ran through it. The remaining ground surface was reshaped with 84,000 square meters of imported soil that was meant to become arable fields. By one account about 100 laborers in the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labour Service, or RAD) spent 20,000 hours on the Lidice effacement.
Lidice was subject to international memorialization almost instantly (e.g., a Joliet, Illinois community was re-named Lidice in July, 1942 in a ceremony at which Wendell Wilkie spoke). At war’s end it remained empty, paying mute testimony to an especially barbaric episode in a war with no shortage of terror. In June, 1945 the New York Times’ Edward D. Ball visited Lidice and found “a gently sloping wheat field, polka-dotted by a million blood-red poppies.” Ball reported that a “freshly-painted sign” indicating “Here used to stand the village of Lidice” stood in the middle of a field, and “workers from neighboring villages have cleared away a plot twenty-five feet square in the center of the stubble field as a simple memorial to Lidice’s dead.” A two-foot high crucifix had been placed in the field, with a placard indicating that “Here lie the bodies of Lidice’s victims, murdered June 10, 1942, by the German invaders.”
Many of the postwar visitors to Lidice confirmed that the landscape had been largely allowed to return to nature, with modest memorials and no material remains of the village. Czech Jew Joseph Wechsberg had been in the United States in 1939 when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, but he returned to visit Lidice in 1945 expecting “heaps of rubble like those we had seen in Normandy and Germany. Instead, there were fields, carefully plowed and cultivated, trees and a few shrubs, and sheeps grazing.” In June, 1945 Seaghan Maynes visited Lidice and likewise reported that “in the hot sun, a flock of sheep watched by a shepherd and his dog, grazed in the field which was once the main street.” Maynes observed that “nothing is left bigger than a brick but in the middle of the cornfield a shrine has been erected in memory of Lidice and its dead.” Five years after the massacre, the Associated Press’ James M. Long indicated that “nothing remains save a huge timber cross” alongside “a few grass-covered foundation stones of a church and untold memories.”
A rose garden was added alongside the site of the village in 1955, and a memorial was completed in 1962. The museum and memorial complex is a somewhat overdone monument, which Jessica Rapson suggests reflects the space’s role as a stage for post-1948 Communist government events. Nevertheless, a visitor in 1962 described Lidice as “a green park on a sloping hillside.” In the early 1990s one of the site’s most intensively visited memorials was installed when a statuary group of 82 bronze figures of children was placed overlooking the village site. The group memorializes the Lidice children who were murdered in exhaust gas trucks at Chełmno in 1942.
Memorials were proposed almost instantly in the shadow of a reconstructed Lidice, but Edward Ball indicated that the “ruins of the old Lidice will remain untouched as a cemetery for the bones of the innocent martyrs and the ashes of their homes.” After the war the foundations of the Horak farmhouse were excavated, exposing the remains of the structure where Lidice’s men were shot. The farmhouse foundations and those of the church and schoolhouse are the sole remnants of the village’s architecture, isolated traces of the massacre on a carefully manicured landscape.
These material traces are very modest presences on an otherwise vacant village landscape whose materiality and heritage must be evoked imaginatively. Preserved concentration camps have their own distinctive absences, of course. For instance, in his analysis of tourism at Auschwitz, Derek Dalton suggests that arriving at the camp is akin to “entering a surreal empty film set” in which “the dead inhabit every inch of this place, so it is no wonder that we anticipate seeing them here.” Dalton suggests that a visit to Auschwitz starts with a historic film whose aesthetic representations of the Holocaust are familiar to any visitor, but the film’s purpose is to evoke the corporeal presence that is now lost in the preserved camp (and Lidice likewise begins with a short movie).
James Edward Young’s study of holocaust memorials argues that for first-time visitors, Auschwitz and Majdanek can “come as a shock: not because of the bloody horror these places convey, but because of their unexpected even unseemly beauty.” Indeed, much the same reaction seems true for Lidice, but it lacks the preserved material culture of the two camps: “Guard towers, barbed wire, barracks and crematoria—mythologized elsewhere—here stand palpably intact.” Eduard Stehlik concludes that “nowadays, the place where old Lidice was looks more like a well-manicured park than a place of bestial crime.” Nevertheless, even concentration camps often have spaces of lush vegetation that are mediated interpretations of the camp landscapes.
Perhaps a visitor’s fundamental experience of Lidice or nearly any site of trauma is visuality that becomes a platform through which we imagine the other senses that formerly filled such places; for instance, Lidice was once filled with the sounds of terror, gunfire, and explosions, and a distinctive smell of firearms and flesh once sat along the little hillside. Lidice challenges the visitor imagination, because unlike concentration camps with the material symbols of terror the pictures of the Czech village before the war and in the wake of the Nazis’ attack seem to have no visible connection to the contemporary space. Yet Lidice’s pure absence may in some way amplify that imagination of trauma, and few people arrive at Lidice without knowing the site’s history; the countryside absence is not simply experienced as a walk across any pastoral landscape. Amidst the open rolling lawns, the emptiness of Lidice may actually underscore the astounding psychosis of hatred that was played out by the Nazis’ obsessive reconstruction of the prosaic village landscape. In 1948 Joseph Wechsberg had reached the same conclusion when he concluded that the Nazis’ “efforts to alter the whole landscape after the annihilation of Lidice is perhaps more terrifying than the tragedy itself.”
Perhaps the peaceful Czech countryside belies the depth of terror that occurred here in 1942, but it may be that no images of the holocaust or material traces of terror can be true to the experience of the dead. Instead, the absence of the village and its residents may be the most powerful dimension of the experience. A visitor assessing Lidice on Trip Advisor indicated that the site is distinguished by “the feeling of emptiness. Part of the memorial area is an empty field left as after the Nazi precise wipe action. You know there was a life, houses, people and today, there is an empty space, something obviously missing.” The vacant hillside is perhaps counter-intuitive in its spare aesthetic and the disarmingly beautiful Czech countryside, but that absence may respect that we can only imagine the inexpressibility of pure horror.
Edward D. Ball
1945 Blood Red Poppies in Wheat Field Cover Site of Exterminated Lidice: Sheep Graze on Site A Crucifix Over Plot Women Seized, Men Shot. New York Times 2 June 1945: 7.
1972 Lidice: Sacrificial Village. Ballantine Books, New York.
Andrew Charlesworth and Michael Addis
2002 Memorialization and the Ecological Landscapes of Holocaust Sites: The cases of Plaszow and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Landscape Research 27(3):229-251. (subscription access)
Witnessing/Remembering Trauma in Memorial Space. Law Text Culture, 13(1):187-225.
2011 Jewish Press and the Holocaust, 1939-1945: Palestine, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Madelon de Keizer
2013 The Thread that Binds Together: Lidice, Oradour, Putten, and the Memory of World War II. In Dynamics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary Europe, eds. Eric Langenbacher, Bill Niven, and Ruth, pp.120-135. Berghahn Books, New York.
James M. Long
1947 Where Lidice Was. The Evening Independent 16 June:1.
1945 Sheep Now Graze in Main Street of Lidice, Czech Shrine Village. The Montreal Gazette 2 June:12.
New York Times
1942 Nazis Blot Out Czech Village; Kill All Men, Disperse Others. New York Times 11 June 1942: 1-2.
1942 Lidice the Immortal. New York Times 12 June 1942: 20.
1942 Rebirth of Lidice Hailed by Leaders: Willkie in Speech and Roosevelt in Message Call Illinois Village a World Symbol. New York Times 13 July 1942: 1.
1945 “Open Cathedral” at Lidice Planned: Tribute to Village Destroyed by Nazis. New York Times 24 Sep 1945: 5.
2012a Topographies of suffering: encountering the Holocaust in landscape, literature and memory. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London.
2012b Mobilising Lidice: Cosmopolitan Memory between Theory and Practice. Culture, Theory and Critique 53(2):129-145. (subscription access)
2012c Emotional Memory Formation at Former Nazi Concentration Camp Sites. In New Directions in Tourism Analysis: Emotion in Motion: Tourism, Affect and Transformation, David Picard and Mike Robinson, eds., pp.161-178. Ashgate, Farnham UK.
2003 The Limits of Intervention in Museum and Conservation Practice at the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum. In Preserving for the Future: Material from an International Preservation Conference Oświęcim June -25, 2003, pp.24-34. Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Oświęcim.
Richard Sharpley and Philip R. Stone (editors)
2009 Darker Side of Travel: The Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism. Channel View Publications, Bristol.
The Spokesman Review
1962 Survivors of Lidice Remember. The Spokesman Review 11 June:24
St. Petersburg Times
1967 Razed Lidice Lives Again. St. Petersburg Times 20 January:10.
2004 Lidice: The Story of a Czech Village. The Lidice Memorial, Lidice.
2007 Memories of Lidice. The Lidice Memorial, Lidice.
1948 The Love Letter that Destroyed Lidice. The Milwaukee Journal 24 June:20.
1999 Trifles Make Perfection: The Selected Essays of Joseph Wechsberg. David Godine, Jaffrey, New Hampshire.
James Edward Young
1993 The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.
Reinhard Heydrich’s car after the 1942 assassination attempt image from German Federal Archive
Lidice 1941 image from Antonín Nešpor
Lidice 1942 post-destruction image from German Federal Archive
Images of Lidice by author