A short walk from the Vltava in Prague’s New Town is the church that witnessed some of the most dramatic moments during the Nazi occupation of the country. The crypt beneath the church was the last hiding place for seven Czechoslovak commandoes, including Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík who assassinated the Reinhardt Heydrich in 1942. The site now houses an exhibition dedicated to their heroic actions. But the church also remains a place of worship for the small Czech Orthodox community.
It took the 800 SS or so troops more than eight hours to storm the crypt below the St Cyril and Methodius in Prague on June, 18, 1942, as depicted in the Czech film “Assassination” more than 20 years later. Bullets holes can still be seen in the wall around the air vent leading from their hideout to the street.
Then as now, the building belonged to the Czech Orthodox church. Some 200 believers, who make up this small congregation, come here for services several times a week. In an office adjacent to the church, I met Dean Jaroslav Šuvarský.
“We are now in the Czech Orthodox cathedral of Saint Kyrillos and Methodios; it’s the main church of the Czech Orthodox Church. But it’s not only a church – we have here a memorial to the heroes of the Heydrich terror.
“In 1942, our priest and bishop Gorazd offered a hiding place to seven Czechoslovak paratroopers who were sent from the UK; two of them assassinated Reinhardt Heydrich, the acting protector of the Protektorat Böhmen und Mähren.”
When the church in Resslova street was first built in the 1730s, it had a different name. It was dedicated to a recently canonized Catholic saint, Charles Borromeo, whose depictions still adorn the ceiling. The church itself was built as part of a home for elderly priests – but not long afterwards came Emperor Joseph II who was not exactly keen on religious institutions. Jaroslav Šuvarský explains.
“We had this famous emperor, Joseph II, and he closed many churches, including this one. That happened in 1783. It was then used by the army, and later by Prague’s Technical University which still uses parts of the whole complex.”
The orthodox cathedral is not the first place of worship on that site, either. A small church was first built there in the 12th century, only to be replaced three hundred years later by a monastery which in turn was destroyed by the Hussites, a group of religious radicals who sought to redeem the Catholic Church with fire and sword.
When the Baroque church was built there by a leading Czech architect of the time, Kilian Ignazt Dientzenhofer, the street ended right there. It was only extended in the 19th century, when it reached the river. As part of the new layout, the street sank by several metres lower.
The original door, now several metres above the pavement, could no longer be used, and a new entrance to the church, along with a small courtyard, had to be added.
The Czech Orthodox community began using the disused church in 1935, some 12 years after it was established.
“We came here after WWI when Czechoslovakia was founded. At that time, there was a very strong reform movement within the Roman Catholic Church. This movement spawned two churches – the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, and the Czech Orthodox Church.”
In 1995, an exhibition was opened in the crypt dedicated to the seven men who died there. Last year, it went through a major facelift, and last week, a memorial to the victims of the Nazi terror was unveiled in the small courtyard in front of the church. The two stone tablets display the names of 294 people who helped the Czechoslovak soldiers with their mission. Among them were nine members of the Czech Orthodox Church.
“During the Nazi occupation, a strong, non-communist resistance group was associated with our church. Two members of our community, priest Vladimír Petřek and brother Jan Sonnevend, were very active in the resistance movement.”
During less than 50 years when the building served its original purpose, priests who passed away were laid to rest in the crypt beneath the floor. The vaulted room is quite large; it runs under most of the nave, and had three access points – stairs in front of the altar; a small opening at the other end, and an air vent that leads into the street, just above eye level. Along the longer sides of the crypt are narrow spaces for the coffins. That’s where the soldiers spent the last 20 days of their lives.
We will probably never know who came up with the idea to hide the seven most wanted persons in the German Reich in the crypt. Jaroslav Šuvarovský says it emerged in a conversation between the head of the community’s council of elders, Jan Sonnevend, and one of the priests, Vladimír Petřek.
The commandoes arrived in the church three day after Heydrich’s assassination. But the Gestapo soon traced them, and at 4:15 AM on June 18, 1942, the church was surrounded by SS and the police.
“On that day, when the Gestapo came here at 4:15, three of the soldiers were on the gallery. They opened fire at the German troops which lead to heavy fighting in the church. When they realized they could no longer keep fighting, they swallowed poison and killed themselves.”
The remaining four paratroopers were hiding in the crypt. It took the Nazis another couple of hours to force an entry into the underground refuge – only to find that these soldiers committed suicide, too.
“The fighting went on until noon. The Nazis couldn’t reach the crypt but they soon discovered this large stone covering the staircase. They dynamited it, the stone fell inside, and that was the end for the remaining soldiers.”
While in the crypt, the paratroopers could hear loudspeakers in the street announcing lists of people executed in retaliation for the assassination. On June 10, they also heard the news of the destruction of Lidice, a village near Kladno that was razed to the ground.
“It was very difficult for them; they heard all the names from the loudspeakers, and then they heard of Lidice. Kubiš and Gabčík were in considering leaving the crypt and walking to the nearby Charles Square with sings that would say, ‘We killed Heydrich’ before committing suicide. But the priest, Vladimír Vepřek told them suicide was not an option.”
Some 200 people nowadays attend services at the Czech orthodox cathedral of Ss Cyril and Methodius, although Dean Šuvarský says that big holidays like Christmas and Easter sometimes draw around 1,000 believers, not all Czech.
“According to the latest statistics from ten years ago, there are some 25,000 Czech Orthodox believers. But you know, after the fall of communism, the borders are open, and so many foreigners came to live in Prague, students, workers, and so on – not only from Ukraine and Russia, but also from Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia.
The solemn Baroque façade of the church says little about the dramatic moments it witnessed nearly seven decades ago. A few minutes away from the Dancing House on the bank of the Vltava, the church and the memorial in it is certainly worth a visit.
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