|THE CHURCH OF SAINTS CYRIL AND METHODIUS
As featured in: HHhH by Laurent Binet
Date of visit: 5th September 2012
Price of Adult Admission: Kč75 (≅£2.50)
When I started Reader Dad early in 2011, the plan was to stick to the book reviews and leave it at that. Now, a handful of interviews and a guest post later, I’ve decided to try something a little bit different, something that will, if it proves popular, be a very infrequent feature on the blog: the Travelogue.
Frequent visitors to the blog will surely know by now that I am an avid reader. I am that person who writes “reading” into the space on a form that asks about hobbies or pastimes. I also love to travel, and quite often combine the two: I’ll read fiction set in my destination in the hope of familiarising myself with a new city, or I’ll make sure I schedule in visits to landmarks I have read about as part of my trip. In this way, I have seen things like the standpipe and statue of Paul Bunyan in Bangor, Maine, which serve as inspiration for the landmarks in Stephen King’s fictional town of Derry, as seen in his novel, It; the police station in Ystad, from where Kurt Wallander runs his investigations; the statue that stands in the centre of the small town of Banbridge, Northern Ireland, which commemorates Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, who plays a central role in Dan Simmons’ The Terror.
As a student of the Holocaust, I also make it a point to visit related sites when I’m in their vicinity: Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue and Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe both evoke the same sense of terrible history and horrific awe, while the Kehlsteinhaus (Eagle’s Nest) and the bunker complex at Berchtesgaden show things from a completely different perspective, no less frightening for it.
Nestled in the heart of the beautiful city of Prague stands a little gem that combines these two travel rituals: a location with indirect connection to the Holocaust, and one that plays a central role in what is still the best book I have read this year. If I’ve done things right, clicking on the pictures below should show you a larger version. Unless otherwise stated, the pictures are my own, taken with a cheap compact digital camera (FujiFilm FinePix AV220) on the default settings; the quality is variable, but in my defence, we were on our way to the zoo, so I shot quickly and recorded what I could.
Resslova is a fairly short, but seemingly quite busy street in the New Town section of Prague. At its eastern end, it meets Charles Square and from there runs westwards downhill towards Jiráskův Bridge and the famous Dancing House. Partway down the street on the right-hand side stands the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the building that now houses the National Memorial of the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror.
From the east, the building appears out of nowhere – the front entrance of the church is on the westernmost corner, so the tourist has almost passed the building before realising what it is. According to J.M. Lau’s Prague: Then and Now, a beautiful coffee table book that shows how the city has changed during the relatively brief lifetime of the photograph, the church was built sometime between 1730 and 1740 and served as a home – complete with a 112-tomb crypt – for retired Catholic priests. One-time military barracks (1783) and centre for Czech technology (1869), the building was leased to the Orthodox Church in 1933.
Sheltered in a west-facing corner – the first indication to the west-bound tourist that they have reached their destination – is a shrine dedicated to the brave men whose lives ended inside on 18th June 1942.
The shrine centres around a small window, the surrounding stonework bearing the scars of the Nazi bullets that peppered it sixty years ago. Above the window, a plaque to the lost heroes.
Thinking I had seen all I was likely to see, I was very pleased to discover that the crypt is now the location of the National Memorial of the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror, and that it was open for business. With reluctant partner and three-year-old in tow, I headed inside.
The entrance hallway is a large square room, a reception desk to the right at the bottom of the steps, two walls covered in information boards and glass cabinets containing exhibits (both facsimiles and real objects). The third wall bears a large glass cabinet filled with books. In the wall directly opposite the entrance is a door, a wrought-iron-and-yellow-glass affair that doesn’t look out of place in a church, and that presumably didn’t exist in June 1942.
The information boards recount the story that Binet tells us in his own unique way in HHhH: the effect of the war on Czechoslovakia, the capitulation to the Führer, and the beginnings of Operation Anthropoid, all illustrated by photographs and facsimile documents. On display, amongst other items, is the uniform worn by the Czechoslovak Army in Great Britain; a racial profiling kit; a sample of Kubiš’s bomb, and that cursed Sten Mk II that made life so difficult.
There is also plenty of documentary evidence: Gabčik and Kubiš’s training forms; photos of Heydrich’s Mercedes showing the damage caused by the bomb and, on one particularly harrowing board, photographs of Lidiče, one of two towns chosen by Hitler to bear the brunt of his wrath for the death of his senior officer.
Then, tentatively, through the door. I was fortunate to have the crypt to myself for the duration of my visit. The place is soaked in atmosphere, and the silence certainly helps. It’s a well-lit space, though presumably that wasn’t the case in 1942, probably three times as long as it is wide, and probably not much more than ten or twelve feet wide at its widest point. I completely failed to snap a picture of the place in its entirety, but hopefully the other pictures will help you piece it together.
Along the left-hand wall, three alcoves filled with the narrow entrances of tombs, almost like a morgue with all the doors torn off. Almost directly overhead, the narrow trapdoor through which the assassins entered the crypt and later, through which the Nazis threw gas grenades, and the traitor Karel Čurda pleaded with the men to surrender. At the far end of the long narrow space, a staircase leading up; it was this staircase that gave the Nazis their way in, once they found the entrance hidden behind a tombstone. On the right-hand wall, three more alcoves, the two closest to the staircase filled with tombs. The last alcove, that directly to the visitor’s right when he enters the crypt, houses the room’s only source of natural light: the other side of that small window that forms the centre of the shrine on Resslova.
Beneath the window is the beginnings of a hole, the work of desperate men searching for any means of escape. With gas grenades being tossed down their only real means of escape, and with the fire department pouring water through that small window overhead in an attempt to flood the crypt, these seven brave men sought to escape into the city’s sewer system. This hole is now home to a second shrine: notes from around the world praising the bravery of these men, and thanking them for their service, share space with small gifts, flowers, coins, little tokens of the world’s appreciation. It’s a touching and humbling sight, and I’m not afraid to admit that it brought a lump to my throat and a stinging sensation to my eyes.
This is the room where four of these men took their own lives (the other three died in a hail of bullets in the church upstairs), and it is, quite frankly, one of the most awe-inspiring places I have ever had the privilege to stand. There are seven bronze busts along both sides of the narrow corridor depicting these brave men, as well as a final, shocking information board which shows pictures of the crypt in the aftermath of the invasion and pictures of the seven, the stark contrast between posed headshots and pictures of the bodies in situ.
Back outside in the entrance hall, stored in the glass-fronted bookcase, a multitude of books about Heydrich and Operation Antropoid. Proudly displayed amidst them, a handful of copies of Laurent Binet’s HHhH, in various languages.
While it’s not everyone’s cup of tea – most people visit Prague for the fun times and its external beauty, and few wish to be brought down, even briefly, by something of this magnitude – the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius is well worth the visit for anyone who has read HHhH, or anyone who is at all interested in this period in European history. Today it stands as a monument to the bravery and sacrifice of a few men for the greater good – the elimination of the architect of the Final Solution.
It’s an atmospheric venue, but it is well-preserved and gives the visitor a good sense of what the members of Anthropoid endured during their fatal stay. Fans of the book are unlikely to take away anything new from the information boards, though the photographs put much of Binet’s sometimes light-hearted narrative into some sort of context. It’s the crypt itself that proves the biggest draw, but be warned: it’s an emotional journey, and one that will stay with you long after you emerge once more into the sunshine.
Translated by Sam Taylor
Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk/about-us/harvill-secker)
Released: 3rd May 2012
Laurent Binet’s debut novel, the oddly-named HHhH, appealed to me on two different levels: first of all, as an avid consumer of any and all information concerning the Third Reich and the Holocaust, and secondly, as a lover of the beautiful city of Prague. Unsure what to expect when I started to read this odd, but strangely engaging novel, I was not to be disappointed on either level.
HHhH ostensibly tells the story of the May 1942 assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich, the so-called “most dangerous man in the Third Reich”, and of the consequences that followed. It is also Laurent Binet’s own story, the story of a man with a tale to tell and no idea how best to tell it. Amongst chapters detailing the rise of the Blond Beast, or of the convoluted journey that ultimately brought Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš to the north of Prague on the morning of May 27th 1942, we find chapters detailing the author’s research, his wishes for the novel, his neurotic analyses of certain phrases or paragraphs and whether they should remain in the final draft:
I have no evidence that Gabčík and Kubiš’s clothes were provided by the British SOE (Special Operations Executive). In fact, it’s more likely that this was dealt with by Moravec’s Czech services. So there’s no reason why the NCO who looks after them should be British. Oh, what a pain…
Early in the book, Binet sets out his stall, and defines the parameters of this extraordinary novel: he will stick to the facts, with no embellishments. Where dialogue is required, it will be based on documentary evidence of some description, or it will serve to illustrate a point, and be marked as an invention of the author. What he ultimately produces is littered with invention and coloured by the personal opinions of a man who has been living with the story since childhood.
Hácha signs. “I have sacrificed the state in order to save the nation,” he believes. The imbecile. It’s as if Chamberlain’s stupidity was contagious…
If not for the polished prose and level of detail included on the central storyline, this could almost be an annotated early draft, littered with the author’s musings, notes and questions for further research. But that’s doing this wonderful novel an injustice, because it is a finely polished work, exquisitely researched and unbelievably tense. Binet references earlier histories, and fictional attempts at chronicling this period of history, or this group of monsters, including two of my own personal favourites – Robert Harris’ excellent alternative history of the Reich, Fatherland, and the wonderful BBC dramatisation of the Wannsee conference, Conspiracy, with Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci in the key roles of Heydrich and his own right-hand man, Eichmann – revealing an interest that verges on obsession.
Despite the interruptive style, HHhH builds in intensity as history pulls us inexorably towards the morning of May 27th 1942. The central storyline culminates in the 17-page Chapter 222 (the book is barely over 300 pages long, which should give you some idea of the average chapter length, and the relative importance of this one) and again in the 14-page 250th chapter, both of which seem designed expressly to take the reader’s breath away and keep them glued to the page. They succeed. The first details the assassination attempt itself and, from multiple viewpoints, the stories of each of the protagonists as they once again diverge from this nexus – Gabčík and Kubiš as they flee for their lives; Heydrich as he collapses and is rushed to hospital. The second details the siege of the church where Gabčík and Kubiš have holed up, waiting for the opportunity to flee the country.
Throughout, there is a sense of immediacy; the story is told in the present tense, in short, sharp bursts that would be the envy of any thriller writer. The author is a constant presence, and his personality and sense of humour infect the story, offering brief glimpses of light in otherwise dark places. Take, for instance, this offhand remark as the SS begin clearing the village of Lidice, a village removed completely from the face of the Earth on the orders of Hitler as punishment for the assassination of Heydrich:
Then the Germans begin to do what will soon become their favourite occupation: they divide the group in two. Women and children are locked up in the school, while the men are led to a farmhouse and crammed into the cellar.
HHhH is an extraordinary piece of work, a book that sets out to be a historical document and ends up as something completely other. At times tense and thrilling, at others touching and intimate, the author manages to endow this story and these characters with a three-dimensionality that would otherwise be lacking in a straightforward reportage of the events. We are also offered a unique insight into the mind-set of the author, whose sole task should be to relate the events as they happened, but who is so invested in the story that impartiality is impossible. At once accessible history and fast-paced thriller, HHhH is, to overuse a cliché, like no book you’ve read before. Three short weeks after calling Stephen King’s The Wind through the Keyhole the best book you’re likely to see this year, I am forced to eat my words, and make the same ostentatious claim about Laurent Binet’s HHhH. It’s an awe-inspiring debut, from a writer of enormous talent and immense potential. We can only hope that the story of Heydrich, Gabčík and Kubiš is not his only obsession, and that we will hear from him again soon.