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The Sunday Times Magazine – Dare not Speak of Shame

Eight years after Prague’s Velvet Revolution heralded a liberal democracy, Czech authorities continue to guard the secrets of a shameful past. In the dusty vaults of a monastery millions of Nazi documents record the systematic betrayal of 130,000 Jews by their friends, neighbours and colleagues. Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark investigate. Colour photographs: Stephen Gill.

The tourists who admire the view of old Prague from the famous Charles Bridge do not notice the twin towers of a severe white building in the bottom left of their snapshots. Unlike Hradcany Castle, which stands beside it, the Strahov Monastery does not invite visitors. There is no worship here. Instead, stacked precariously on gunmetal shelves, is a secret human panorama: the unpublished, violent histories of 130,000 forgotten citizens.

The files contain four million or more handwritten, typed and printed documents, stained with neglect, tied in bundles with black ribbon and crammed into busted cardboard boxes. Thousands have been defaced, others are missing. No one has been allowed to open them for more than 50 years, and only a select group of Czech politicians and civil servants knew what they contained. Those same officials would rather you did not even know of their existence.

Created by the Nazis during their six-year occupation of Czechoslovakia, the Prague files were abandoned to the Communists after the Germans fled in May 1945. They reveal a complete record of the bureaucracy of death – the nuts and bolts of genocide and, most painfully, the shame of Czech complicity, betrayal and theft. Confidential memoranda written by the Reichsprotektorat, the regime installed by the Nazis to run occupied Czechoslovakia, are interspersed with private correspondence between the Gestapo, the SS and Adolf Hitler: “a) Nobody; no officer or office, should ever know of affairs which don’t concern them. b} Nobody; no officer or office, should be told about anything unless it is really necessary. c) Nobody; no officer or office, should know more than is necessary. d) Nobody; no officer or office, should be told anything before they need to know,” the Fuhrer ordered his Reichsprotektor, Baron Konstantin von Neurath, on January 11, 1940.

Pages are embossed with thick black letterheads, stamped with the seal of the flying eagle astride the swastika and annotated in High-German prose, handwritten in gothic script. The work was filed hurriedly, still wet with coffee-cup rings, pencil shavings trapped between the sheets, handwritten notes to friends absentmindedly left and lost in the filing.

Warrants for the transportation of Jews are filed next to receipts for their confiscated property: the Jew Adolf Korn’s green onyx fireplace, the Jew Zdenka Fantlova’s grand piano, the Jew Hans Adler’s pewter tea service and the Jew Frank Stransky’s gold fob watch. Ledgers detailing the eviction of thousands are accompanied by appeals from the victims for compassion: the return of children’s winter clothes, keepsakes and shelter. Boxes of receipts show how a network of Czech banks and institutions conspired to steal more than 1.2 billion pounds sterling from Jews and how the people of Prague betrayed their neighbours and former business partners. Hundreds of letters from Czech collaborators call for the arrest of Jewish friends and colleagues. Replies, from the Reichsprotektor confirm that action was taken. The paper trail shows how the “good” citizens of Czechoslovakia were rewarded with gifts from the £1 billion hoard of property and paintings stolen from Jews.

The one in six named in the Prague files who survived the war returned to their towns and villages in 1945, only to find their homes occupied by other people and their carpets, cups and saucers in the hands of those they had once thought of as friends. Their paintings and antiques were scattered in offices, art galleries and museums across Europe. For three years they fought to get back what was theirs, but in 1948, when the communists came to power, Jewish property, assets and possessions were once again seized.

This time they were redistributed to friends of the Communist Party. Ownership was transferred to the party cadre in city and town councils. Germans living in Jewish properties were deported or fled, and Czech collaborators were arrested or imprisoned.

Fifty years on, there are hundreds of Jews living in the Czech Republic, Britain, America and Australia who are still fighting for restitution. They can all walk into familiar hallways but see a stranger’s name on their front door, or into Czech banks, knowing that the institutions are still capitalising on their family savings.

For these people, the paper trail of the Prague files offers the only evidence of what they once had. Is this why the documents, which recorded every intimate detail of their past and mapped out many of their futures, are still being withheld from them?

<b>For more of this story please contact us.</b>

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