Acts of Resistance

This morning I woke with the weight of grief in my chest. I didn’t know anyone who died in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre on Saturday, but the news of it hit hard amid a climate of rising fascism and I remembered the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague. Built in 1535 and the second oldest in that city, it’s a sombre building that holds palpable grief and sorrow. Two painters, Václav Boštík and Jiří John, inscribed the walls with the names of the Holocaust victims from Czech lands, row upon row of hand-lettered names no taller than a paperclip: all of the walls of the old synagogue, top to bottom, room after room of names. 80,000 dead because an unfathomable evil took hold of Europe in the person of Adolf Hitler, the Nazi party, and a world that didn’t act fast enough.

I saw the old synagogue in Prague when I visited earlier this year. While I was there, I read Laurent Binet’s brilliant HHhH, a chronicle of the rise of Nazism as well as the story of two Czech resistance heroes, Josef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš, who gave their lives to carry out Operation Anthropoid: to assassinate Richard Heydrich, the most lethal man in the Third Reich.

On my last day in Prague, I finished reading the novel and went to the church crypt where Gabčik and Kubiš holed up in their last hours, now a museum. A former member of the Anthropoid team betrayed their identity and location to the Nazi party, who were tearing up the country in search of them. With Binet’s words fresh in my mind, I imagined I could see the marks the spoons made in the rocky earth as they dug a tunnel and the sound of six hundred pairs of SS shoes clattering on the street above.

 

 

The brutality of the search for Gabčik and Kubiš throughout the Czech Republic—the Nazis burned down an entire village where the men were thought to be—helped bring about their eventual demise as the world gradually awakened to what was happening. Allies would later drop bombs with the village’s name, Lidice, scrawled on them.

It’s almost reflex for me to envision the last terrifying moments of the eleven killed in Pittsburg, one a 97-year-old woman who was a Holocaust survivor herself, just as I suspect it was for Binet to imagine himself into the persons of Gabčik, Kubiš, and Heydrich. Besides telling a gripping story, HHhH interrogates the possibility of historical fiction—can he recreate a time now past?—but he doesn’t question the creative empathy required for him to try to understand how a monster like Heydrich or heroes like Gabčik and Kubiš were built. It was creative empathy that fueled those imaginative acts and he exercised it because he could, because as an artist he’s built that way. His father first told him the story of Heydrich when he was nine and the story never let him go: this novel, which acquainted so many with this part of WWII, is his act of resistance. The story of the rise of fascism in Germany was never as real to me, though I knew it well, as it was when Binet was telling it.

Though Gabčik and Kubiš did eventually succeed in the larger goal—to help bring down the Nazi regime—Heydrich himself would have easily survived the minor wounds from their botched assassination attempt if the resulting infection had been treated with recently-discovered penicillin. He wasn’t, and he didn’t, because the British refused to hand it over when the Nazis asked.

Václav Boštík and Jiří John, Josef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš, countless resistance fighters, a British governmental official in charge of the penicillin, Laurent Binet. Resistance can take many forms.