A Tale of two villages
by David Vaughan
The tragic events that destroyed the old rural life of Lidice forever are Reinhard Heydrich well known. At the height of the Nazi occupation, on the 27th May 1942 the man the Nazis had put in charge of ruling the occupied Czech lands, Reinhard Heydrich, was assassinated.
He had ruled the Czechs with a rod of steel and the Nazis responded to his assassination with a vicious desire for revenge. They needed quick results and trumped up a link between the village of Lidice and the assassination. Anna Nesporova had a brother, Josef Horak, who was fighting in Britain with the Royal Airforce. The Nazis claimed - falsely - that he had been involved in the Heydrich assassination, and they wrought a terrible revenge. On the night of the 9th of June 1942, Nazi troops hermetically sealed the village. Anna Nesporova:
It is no more; it is no more,
the tongueless bells no longer ring,
only the smoking walls remain
and one stray dog who walks alone
searching in vain from stone to stone.
They are no more, they are no more,
Jan, Karel, Vaclav, Antonin,
they are no more, they are no more,
Vit, Pavel, Michal, Frantisek,
they are no more, they are no more.
The men they herded for the slaughter,
the women they have driven off,
the feeding babe ripped from the breast,
they are no more.
"The way from the poem to the film was not so long. My philosophy in life was that if you can think yourself into somebody, if you can feel yourself into somebody, if you can try to live the life of somebody elese, if we could do that in the world, then our life would be much easier and much better. So I had this idea of trying to replace what happened in Lidice to a village in Wales, and I knew of course that there were differences between a Czech village and a Welsh village, but there were also many similarities."
In a BBC interview in May 1943, Jennings remembers travelling through South Wales in search of the right village.
"We went to the stationer's to buy some envelopes or a paper or something, and on the side there was one of those little racks with picture postcards. I had a look and there, among the postcards was one - a very striking photo of a Cwmgiedd beautiful little white chapel with a long wall and a little cluster of miners' houses round it, and a little stream, and a hillside in the background, and underneath it, the magic word, the name CWMGIEDD."
To this day, Cwmgiedd fits very much to Jennings' description. Little stone cottages line the narrow village street with a backdrop of steep, wooded valley sides. And in front of me is the big square chapel, the very heart of the village.
The Welsh writer Ewart Alexander, grew up in Cwmgiedd, and still lives nearby.
"The village itself is compressed between the road, the river and the woods - and physically narrow in that sense, but also very liberating in the sense that Ewart Alexander it had a huge sense of community - its language was entirely Welsh. Central to the whole life of it is that chapel, that big chapel in the middle of the village with its graveyard, and the wall against which the men of the village were shot."
Shot, that is, in the film. As often in this story, the reality and the fiction intertwine. People talk of the fiction as if it were real. And this was precisely what Humphrey Jennings and Viktor Fischl intended. Jennings was convinced it would be possible to recreate the Lidice story as if it had happened in Cwmgiedd, that the people of Cwmgiedd could literally relive Lidice. They would not pretend to be Czech, but would act as if the tragedy had happened in their own homeland. The Germans would be represented not by actors, but through the sound track and a handful of Nazi symbols. In the summer of 1942, just weeks after the Lidice tragedy Jennings and his film crew came to Cwmgiedd and spent weeks living with the villagers, gradually putting together a quite extraordinary film. Ewart Alexander:
"Jennings himself melded very well into the village and was immensely polite, charming and winning in his ways. But there's no doubt that during the making of the film, it took over the whole village, and I can only describe it as, within the context of the village as I've described it, it was a totally remarkable, exciting experience. When Jennings himself came, the whole ambience of the war changed. Here was a recreation of a different story, of a specific story, a story of an atrocity, a story of people like my parents, like all the people I knew, who were all miners, who'd been killed."
"Achtung, Achtung. An die Bevoelkerung von Cwmgiedd. Attention, attention, to the population of Cwmgiedd. As from today, the districts of Southern and Western Wales stand under the protection of the Greater German Reich."
The Czech nation became the Welsh nation - the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, became the Protectorate of South Wales. As Viktor Fishl remembers, the people of Cwmgiedd immediately grasped what Jennings was trying to do.
"I was amazed how quickly they understood the idea. These days that the film was done, they really lived Lidice. They lived it."
Edward Thomas remembers his role:
"Achtung! Achtung! By the decision of a court marshal, the following were today sentenced to death by shooting: David Davies, born 1901, Hannah Davies, born 1903, Dai Alec Davies, born 1922...."
"More or less I was a little bit of a saboteur, I think. I actually was taking part in the blowing up of the pit, if you like. I was taking the part of laying down the explosives. It was only an act. You felt that you were doing an act. That's what it was."
And Ewart Alexander remembers as a child watching the film being made. He began to understand both the horrors of war and the art of film.
"One of the realities of my boyhood was visiting very frequently Fforchorllwyn Farm, which is roughly a mile above the village. And the man running the farm was Arthur, a gentle, rotund man, always smiling and his cousin Nelly. Of course, what was staggering was that these were real gentle people and I actually saw Nelly being shot, and before Nelly was shot I actually saw the blood being painted on her mouth and I actually saw the strain Nelly was under in holding her breath while the shot took place, and I actually remember the difficulty Nelly had in nudging the cow's foot away from her when she was pretending to be dead."
The crux of the film comes with Heydrich's assassination. The villagers are given an ultimatum to hand over the saboteurs. Nothing happens. People are abitrarily taken out to be shot. And finally, the tragedy of Lidice is repeated. We watch as the men of the village are lined up against the wall Graveyard where men shot of the graveyard.
They sing in Welsh in defiance.
"No comrades, the Nazis are wrong. The name of the community has not been obliterated. The name of the community has been immortalized. It lives in the hearts of miners the world over. The Nazis only want slave labour, and the miners refuse to become slaves. That is why they murdered our comrades in Lidice. That is why we stand in the forefront of the struggle today, because we have the power and the knowledge, the understanding to hasten the coming of victory, to liberate oppressed humanity, to make certain that there shall be no more Lidices. Then the men of Lidice will not have died in vain."
Viktor Fischl remembers seeing the film for the first time.
"I was very impressed by the seriousness I could see on the screen. Those were not actors, those were miners, not intellectuals, simple people. Yes, I think its was more than a film about Lidice. I think it was a film about the necessity of identification with Lidice. I was very happy with the result."
And the very Welshness - as opposed to Englishness - of the film added to the impact. Ewart Alexander.
"Here was differentness. Here was I think an easy way to establish a Czech context i.e. the differentness of language, the differentness of culture and also the differentness I would assume of a minority culture; and I think this is one of the great themes throughout the 20th century in European history, in that the minorities have too frequently been oppressed and too frequently it's been expressed through suppression of language, which means suppression of identity."
"I think that the place was well chosen. From the film as a whole I have the feeling that - except for a few details - it faithfully portrays what happened in Lidice."
"I was very moved by the film and I am glad that just after the Lidice tragedy people came forward in Wales willing to make a film that comes so closely to what happened in Lidice."
And the people I spoke with from Cwmgiedd who remember the film, all felt that working on The Silent Village really did bond them with the people of Lidice and their tragedy. Dai Roberts:
"When you'd got the people dressed up as if they were being driven to the concentration camps, my wife and my daughter, they were dressed up and all the children from the school, being marched with the German soldiers, it really was a tragedy, a tragedy."
And Ewart Alexander hopes one day to visit Lidice:
"It's been one of my ambitions for years to go there, and I've often promised myself that I would go there. I'm very curious to see the real place because in an odd sort of way over all these years, I think there's a tremendous, heartwarming, sad, poignant link between us, the survivors of the fiction and them the survivors of the reality. There is still an immense emotional link between myself and probably other people who were involved in the film, and that place, those people who are long dead, and also I think more poignantly and more significantly, any survivors. We are still one, in a specific way, because of the artifice of a filmmaker coming to Wales in the forties to make a propaganda story."
Almost sixty years have now gone by since the events of 1942. Today the new Lidice, built after the war, looks much like many other villages throughout Europe, as Miroslav Cermak points out.
"Of course we are a bit different from other villages. The whole village was rebuilt. There is a shadow of the past, but people who move in here don't feel it. It's quiet here, and that's what makes people like living in Lidice."
Memories are fading, but the bond between Lidice and a quiet valley in South Wales does remain. Ewart Alexander has written a play about the making of The Silent Village. The butcher, Edward Thomas's son has made a documentary for Welsh television about Cwmgiedd and The Silent Village. And Chris Owen is the head of the Ystalyfera Development Trust, set up to help revive the upper parts of the Swansea Valley. Although he was born many years after the war, he too has long been interested in The Silent Village.
"Sometimes I dream about my daughter. Even as a new-born child she looked just like my husband. In my dreams I see her in a summer dress - as a young girl in her teens. Of course she'd be 57 now - and I'd certainly have grandchildren."
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