On the 17th of November 1939, Nazi soldiers executed eight Czech university students and a professor seen as ringleaders of protests against the occupation and deported more than 1,200 of their peers to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The last survivor of that internment, Vojmír Srdečný, died this week, aged 99. He had dedicated his life to working with physically handicapped people and warning about the dangers of totalitarianism.
Vojmír Srdečný was among the lucky few. Exactly one year, one month and a day after being deported to Sachsenhausen, he was among the 200 Czech university students released and allowed to return to their occupied homeland.
Srdečný was born in the eastern Bohemia town of Albrechtice nad Orlici, where his father directed an amateur theatre and founded the local branch of the Sokol movement, promoting “a strong mind in a sound body”. He was only five weeks into his studies at the Institute for Physical Education Teachers in Prague when rounded up by German soldiers.
“Shortly after midnight, that is to say on November the 18th, we walked through the gates of the concentration camp with the infamous inscription ‘Arbeit macht frei’, or ‘Work will set you free’. There were 1,278 students in the camp when we arrived…
“On January 18th, 1940, there was an extraordinary frost. Some 1,500 of us häftlinge [prisoners] were made to stand outside in minus 28 degrees. We stood there for three hours. It was one of the most horrible experiences in the camp. Some 300 prisoners froze and fell lifeless to the ground.”
Two years after being allowed home, he was sent to do forced labour at a casting and metal works factory, where he toiled until the end of the war. After the liberation, Srdečný resumed his studies while collecting records about the fates of his fellow deported students.
For a time, he also worked in Switzerland teaching war orphans. In 1947, he joined the Rehabilitation Institute in Kladruby, western Bohemia, where he founded an athletic competition for people with amputated limbs.
In 1949, a year after the communist putsch, the Ministry of Health cancelled those games, saying, “There is no place for sport in rehabilitation.” It would be ten years before he was allowed to restart the competition.
Srdečný became the chairman of the Association of Physically Handicapped Athletes and for over thirty years taught at the Faculty of Education in Hradec Králové. He was also honorary chairman of the Association of Liberated Political Prisoners and Survivors, and the guest of honour at the 100th edition of the Kladbury Games in 2017.
Up until last year, Vojmír Srdečný never missed the annual memorial on 17th of November – now marked worldwide as International Students’ Day.
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