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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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
butcher's shop. 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
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
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
"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
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.
"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
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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