Jaroslava Skleničková’s memoir of the Lidice massacre offers warmth amid tragedy
It took Jaroslava Skleničková more than half a century to put her experiences following the Lidice massacre to paper, and yet what has emerged is not an embittered account of the hardships she endured but rather a heartwarming testimony to the strength of human will and kindness.
Skleničková belongs to the lost generation of Lidice, a village 20 kilometers northwest of Prague that was razed by the Nazis in 1942 in retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the highest-ranking Nazi official in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. As the history books recount, Lidice was targeted at random. Its men were taken away and shot, most of the children gassed and the women deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp. The buildings were reduced to rubble.
In a twist of fate, Skleničková had just turned 16 at the time, meaning she was old enough to avoid the massacre and was instead sent along with her mother, sister and fellow female “political criminals” to Ravensbrück.
Her memoir If I Had Been a Boy, I Would Have Been Shot – newly translated into English – offers a harrowing yet touching insight from the perspective of a young woman forced to live in dire circumstances that were to torment her years to come. They are recounted in simple yet eloquent prose and feature intricate detail regarding the tragic events as they unfold alongside a rich array of personalities whom Skleničková has brought back to life.
Lidice Memorial, 2010
The book begins with chapters on life in Lidice before the tragedy. Her warm tone evokes sentiments of peace and innocence, while comic anecdotes like examples of the author’s mischievous behavior make for an entertaining read. The chapters not only hark back to the Lidice way of life, but also to simpler, happier childhood days.
These chapters provide a stark contrast with life leading up to the massacre and its aftermath. The author describes how her and those around her were forced, without explanation, to separate from their loved ones and labor under the inhuman conditions for which Nazi concentration camps have garnered their infamy. Her starvation, exhaustion, bewilderment and terror are laid bare, as is her longing for a town that no longer existed.
Skleničková does not mince her words: Scurvy, lice, the unpalatable meals and despicable behavior of the guards are all chilling testimonies to crimes of the Nazi regime.
“Our hopelessness and desperation … was without limit,” she writes. “One single grim night had deprived us of our homes, fathers, husbands, and sons, and our children too.”
However, alongside these acts of evil are extraordinary deeds of kindness. Women at the camp looked after each other and made each other gifts, which are pictured in the book.
Skleničková, as one of the youngest in the camp, brought out maternal instincts in a number of women whose own children had been killed. As a result, cooks set aside extra meals for her and kept her spirits up with songs and stories. One woman even forged her health certificate, which allowed Skleničková the diet she required when suffering from scurvy. Skleničková pays homage to these women: “My arrival in Ravensbrück enabled me to get acquainted with the most varied forms of heroism, selflessness, sacrifice and solidarity. It was a great school, and indeed the only bonus I had from the concentration camp for my future life.”
If I Had Been a Boy, I Would Have Been Shot is a must read for anyone interested in Czech history, as it not only offers a firsthand account of arguably the cruelest crime wrought on the Czech people, but it also describes life before and after the war – including life under communism.
However, the book’s greatest gift to its readers is that it provides a voice to the 88 children who were silenced in cold blood.