If you’re not looking for it then you’ll probably overlook the rather nondescript building of the Ministry of Industry, near the top of Prague’s Wenceslas Square. If, however, you are one of the few who read Prague’s street-side memorial signs, you get the full impact of what the dirty grey, rough-hewn building called Petschek’s Palace means to modern Czech history: “In the time of the Nazi occupation,” it reads, “this building housed the torture chambers of the Gestapo. Fighters for the freedom of our country fought, suffered and died here. We will never forget their memory, and will be loyal to their legacy. PEOPLE, BE ON GUARD”.
“So, just so you know who I am, my name is 27352! [laughs] I still have this piece of cloth with my number thanks to a bit of craftiness. If your number was dirty then you’d really be in for it. So I had another one made to keep in my pocket, and I took it home with me afterwards.”
František Wretzl is a small, stout and tireless-looking 90-year-old. As a young man he had been a scout, and when that organisation was outlawed by the Nazis in 1939, they continued under the guise of the Czech Hikers’ Club until they were found out in 1944 and 24 of them were arrested. Unable to get any information out of them, and fearing the repercussions of Berlin discovering that the scouts had continued their activities for the previous five years, the Gestapo hid them away in concentration camps before sending them on the Long March. Mr Wretzl told me about his arrival at the first stop on that journey, there in Petschek’s Palace.
“I came here on my own. I came home one evening and my mother’s head was bandaged and she said they had come looking for me. So I had to choose. I could have a nice sleep before they came for me at two in the morning and found things in my house that they shouldn’t have found. I could run, but then they would have thought they’d found a big fish, and hell would break loose. So I said I’d better go and just see what happens. So I came here, and didn’t get out again.”
The building got the nefarious nickname Pečkárna during the war, and the street in front of it has since been called “The Political Prisoners”. But the name of Petschkův Palác recalls a very different history. The rooms that would later become torture chambers were built by a Jew named Dr Julius Petschek. He was a financier of the First Republic, a major player in the in the coal mining industry and in the golden years of the 1920’s he constructed the very modern “Petschek and Co. Banking House”. Radim Chyba is from the Czech Freedom Fighters Society, which manages the museum in the building today.
“This building functioned as a bank until the spring of 1938, and then the Petscheks, as a Jewish family, understood from the developments in neighbouring Germany that they would not be able to stay here. They sold the building to the Czechoslovak state, and they moved to Britain where they survived the war, and it was empty until the Gestapo took it over in the early summer of 1939.”
Dissatisfied with the hotel they had been using as their seat until then, the Gestapo found Mr Petschek’s palace just the thing for their needs. It was furnished with the most modern communications equipment, among other things, a telephone exchange and even a pneumatic post, as well as certain structural advantages:
“This is a little cell, about two by two metres, with a very tiny wooden bench for a bed.”
“These cells that we see here were originally vaults for corporate clients; each client had their own. And they were then turned into cells for the detained prisoners while they waited to be interrogated, There is hardly any light, no sink not even a toilet. They look today exactly as the Gestapo left them.”
More than 37,000 people went through the basement of the palace, where they were processed, incarcerated, interrogated, tortured and very often died. How many suffered the last of those fates is unknown.
“The Czech flag hangs here on this pillar as a mark of respect. Just under it, where those tiles are, there was a hole into the cellar. Those who didn’t survive the Gestapo’s interrogations were dumped here into small wagons, and every night they were taken to the crematorium at Strašnice and incinerated.”
Mr Wretzel says that as a scout he had the advantage of knowing how to survive anything. He could live on a piece of bread a day he says by taking it to a table, cutting it into slices and savouring it slowly like a fine steak. Unlike most people of his generation who I’ve met, he is not hesitant to speak about what he endured at the age of 24, and leaves little to the imagination as to how hard it would have been for others who lacked his resilience to survive the Pečkárna.
“They put shackles on me, with my wrists around my legs like this. And I said, ‘well that wasn’t much you did to me’. Except that after a while everything starts to itch, and sweat starts to run off your forehead. And they would come and look at the puddle and say, ‘that’s nothing, there has to be a whole lake full’. But then your legs give in, you itch, and you start to lose balance. So I said, either I’m going to fall head first into the door or onto the sink. But then they came, and unlocked me, and that was when the real pain began, when the blood rushes back into your body, it was like billions of hells. Then they’d stand me up against a wall, whirl a rope, and land it in between my legs, which was wonderfully painful, I assure you. So those were the kinds of things they’d think up, and before it began again, there’d be another 12 hours without food.”
While buildings on Wenceslas Square and elsewhere in the vicinity were pounded to dust in the closing months of the war, Pečkárna was left untouched, for whatever reason. As the soldiers inside saw the end approaching around May 5th of 1945, as Prague revolted, they went into the street in front of the headquarters and captured 50 people at random to hold as human shields against an attack. But eventually even the Gestapo realised that resistance was futile. Radim Chyba again:
“In the morning hours of May 9th, 1945, the Gestapo workers up and left the building, and went west, ending up in the hands of the Americans. Slowly the 50 hostages who were sitting in this room realised that there was no one guarding them, they started looking around and found that there was no one there and that that was the end. So they tore off this piece of the window blinds and all 50 of them signed it as a keepsake and gave it to the memorial here after the war.”
Until we met in the basement of Petschek’s Palace, František Wretzl had not set foot in the building in 65 years, not because he had avoided it, but because there was no point, as he saw it. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “indefatigable” about anyone, but then I’d never met anyone to whom it applied so perfectly.
“Look here, do you know the Bible a little? There were two brothers, Cain and Abel, and Cain killed Abel. And people have been torturing each other ever since, and they will probably never stop until it’s all over with! [laughs]
“You can’t take the world too seriously. The Germans have a nice rhyme about this, they say: “Man muss das leben eben nehmen, wie das leben eben ist”, you have to take life as it is. An Englishman says, ‘Home is where you hang your hat’. So I was at home even in this place. I just didn’t allow myself to think about the fact that the trees were blooming in Prague, that the girls were walking around on Petřin Hill, or about what my mother was doing. Nothing. I’m at home right now, I said, and I have to make sure I stay out of trouble. Most importantly, you can’t lose your sense of humour.”
Of the tens of thousands who went through Petschek’s Palace, František Wretzl is one of the few left to attest to what occurred there. And so the building of the Ministry of Industry passes further into inconspicuousness with every generation, eventually leaving only a street-sign and the aged artefacts of the museum cases.
Photo: Kristýna Maková