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A Tale of two villages
(2000)
by David Vaughan
Until recently I had never heard of the little South Wales mining village of Cwmgiedd, and I would never have guessed at its deep historical link with the Czech Republic. I was reading a book that I had picked up in a Prague second hand bookshop, published just after the Second World War about the tragic fate of Lidice, the village near Prague that was wiped off the map by the Nazis in June 1942. The book had a passing reference to a film, made in Britain just a few months after the tragedy and released in 1943. It was called "The Silent Village", and was set in Wales. What captured my imagination was that the film was described as an attempt to recreate the story of Lidice in a Welsh context. I was fascinated and decided to find out more. I went to Lidice, and then, after many phone calls and many letters, I headed off for Wales.
The story starts in Lidice, just a few kilometers west of Prague. Today, in the little valley, there is nothing but a wide, open meadow, a few ruins, a cross, and a stream winding through the valley bottom. It is hard to imagine that until June 1942, this was a normal village, with farms, a church, a pub and a school. Anna Nesporova remembers the old Lidice.
"There was a church dedicated to Saint Martin in Lidice and we used to have a village fair on Saint Martin's day every autumn - when the harvest was gathered and the geese and ducks fattened. "There was a primary school, and above the door were the words "School is my joy" in golden letters. Most of the men worked at the steelworks in Kladno or in the nearby coalmines. The women worked in the fields. We all knew each other, and people would help each other out where they could."
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 was terrible when they came and smashed down the doors with their rifle butts, a night of horror. You could see lights in every window although normally everything would be dark because of the blackout. They took us to the schoolhouse - old women crying, children crying - woken up in the middle of the night. Then in the morning they took us away in two lorries. It was a night of horror."
Later that day all the men of the village - 173 of them - were shot against the wall of the Horak's farmhouse, the women were taken to concentration camps, and the children were herded into trucks. To this day the fate of the children is unknown. All that is known is that only a handful ever returned home. Every building in the village was razed to the ground. Anna Nesporova was heavily pregnant and gave birth to a child a few days after she was taken by the Gestapo. Just ten days after the birth, she was sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp and never saw her ten-day-old daughter again.
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.
It's at this stage that we turn to Britain. These verses were written by the young Czech poet Viktor Fischl, who at the time was working for the Czechoslovak government in exile in London. News of the atrocity had reached Britain immediately and it sent a shockwave through the country. For the Czech and Slovak community in exile, the news came like a wound to the heart of their homeland, and Viktor Fischl's poem, which was translated by Laurie Lee, was an immediate response.
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.
It was Viktor Fischl who had the idea of making a film to bring home the horrific message of Lidice to the British public. It was a time when morale in Britain was beginning to flag and many people saw the war in Europe as something distant and foreign. He realised that the Lidice tragedy could help to revive awareness of the real threat of occupation: what was needed was for the British public to identify with the villagers of Lidice. Today Viktor Fischl is 89 and lives in Israel. He remembers how the idea came to him.
"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."
Viktor Fischl approached the Crown Film Unit, the unit charged with making British propaganda films and presented them with a a brief synopsis for the film. The idea instantly gripped the imagination of the young British director, Humphrey Jennings, who had already established a name for himself as an artist and poet and as director of a number of documentaries. Jennings immediately set about looking for a village in Wales, part rural, part industrial, that would be similar to Lidice.
In a BBC interview in May 1943, Jennings remembers travelling through South Wales in search of the right village.
"We went over the top from the Rhondda and down into the western valleys which is absolutely astonishing country and we said immediately this looks exacly like Czechoslovakia because it has The Black Mountains on one side and the long shallow valleys which run down to Swansea. And in these valleys there are dotted about little villages and the pits are on the sides of the mountains.
"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.
"Physically the village is in a very narrow valley and the themes in our life as boys were the river, catching trout with our hands, playing games in the woods, building dams in the woods, very much a free and naturalistic life.
"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."
In Cwmgiedd, I started at the butcher's shop at the bottom of the valley, which then, as now belonged to the Thomas family. The butcher Edward Thomas, appeared in the film as a little boy, and his wife, Mair, showed me "The Silent Village" on video in their living room at the back of the old, stone-built. As we watched the scene where the Nazis ban the use of Welsh in schools, just as they had closed all Czech secondary schools and universities, Mair Thomas's face lit up, as she recognized her husband as one of the little boys sitting in the classroom.
Edward Thomas remembers his role:
"The part I had really was that when they were taking the children from the school to the camps, and there were 10, 20 or 30 of us walking out from the school, and I think my cousin and myself were the first two of that group. Now you see that post there. There was a canal bank there and there was a bridge coming across it. So then, what was happening when the German SS were coming up after the assassination of one of the top officers of the SS - they were coming up and they wanted someone to say what had happened, if not they were going to kill someone every day from the village. My father was just pointing through the window, and you could see over the bridge if someone was coming up to the village."
"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...."
Cwmgiedd became the scene of a strange fictional drama, and the villagers were drawn into this fiction. Dai Roberts is ninety and lives in a cottage at the bottom of the village. He had a central role.
"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.
We hear shots, the soundtrack switches to German, there is a cut to the scene of the schoolhouse in flames and then the children of Cwmgiedd being forced into trucks. And then, in the final scene we are reminded again of the message of the film.
"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 went to Lidice with a video of "The Silent Village" under my arm. I watched the film together with the mayor of the village Frantisek Kolar whose mother was herself a survivor of the tragedy - and the director of the Lidice Memorial, Miroslav Cermak. Neither had seen the film before, but when they saw it, both were enthusiastic.
"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.
Chris Owen: "I'm interested primarily because I think it's good that we as a community here recognise more of our heritage, and also what we have in common with other parts of Europe and the world. I think it would be wonderful as well for our young people in both countries to know a little bit about both the sacrifices and indeed the effort made by our forefathers to ensure that communities were safe, were free, and that we live in the sort of society that we live in today in Wales - for all its faults - particularly because of the sacrifices made by others, and I'd like our young people to build on that really."
It was a beautiful day when I visited Lidice. A gentle breeze was blowing through the green valley. The new village, built after the war nestling on the hillside beyond. The rolling landscape looks very like Cwmgiedd. But the difference remains. When the film crew left, the people of Cwmgiedd went back to the quiet lives. The women of Lidice who survived the camps, like Anna Nesporova, had to rebuild their lives from nothing. There are no men from the old village, and none of the children grew up to lead the ordinary lives of the children of Cwmgiedd. But life does go on. As I stood looking down into the Staues of Children who never came home empty valley, a young woman from Lidice came up to me and said: "You must come back in the winter. It's a lovely place for sledging here. The children come from all around." As the children sledge down the hillside, they are watched by the rigid bronze statues of 82 Lidice children who never returned home. For Anna Nesporova, the tragedy is alive as it was nearly sixty years ago.
"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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