Revenge on Ethnic Germans Czech Town Divided over How to Commemorate 1945 Massacre
Part 2: Made to Dig Their Own Graves
Klepsch, who had opposed the Nazis and finished the war in prison for trying to help three Frenchman flee, was eventually permitted to leave the scene of the atrocity on the fifth day. An unknown number of men remained behind. Most were methodically and systematically shot dead, many near the barracks, others by the local school.
The largest mass grave, containing almost 500 bodies, was later discovered in the Pheasant Garden, a former pheasant farm out of town.
"Two hundred and fifty men were taken one day, another 250 the next, and a layer of earth was thrown in between," a policeman told a parliamentary inquiry in 1947. "They weren't all executed in a single night, but rather in stages." Often enough the condemned men were given a pick and shovel, and made to dig their own graves.
The perpetrators didn't have many scruples. After all, they were sure they had high-level military backing. Jan Cupka, the head of the defense intelligence service, remembers General Spaniel, the commander of the 1st Czechoslovakian Division, recommending they "clean" the region of its ethnic Germans. "The general told us, 'The fewer of them that remain, the fewer enemies we'll have.'"
'I Gave the Order'
But enough people survived to tell the world about the massacre. Survivors exiled to Germany reported what they had witnessed, and even in Postoloprty and Zatec the stories and rumors about the horrific goings-on refused to go away.
In July 1947 the Czech parliament in Prague felt obliged to launch an official inquiry into the matter. Countless soldiers and local residents were interviewed, including Captain Vojtech Cerny, who immediately assumed responsibility for the killing of the five boys on the parade ground. "I gave the order for their execution," he declared.
The statements from witnesses were all documented together with the findings of an Interior Ministry delegation, which investigated on site and promptly declared that "members of the army were primarily to blame for this bestiality and these executions." However it added that the soldiers' actions had met with widespread approval from the local population, who considered them "justified retribution for German brutality."
The officials sent a report back to their minister recommending that the bodies be exhumed and burnt so that "Germans should have no memorials to which they could point as a source of suffering by their people."
In a top-secret operation in August 1947, several mass graves were dug up, and 763 bodies were removed, most of which were then cremated. There is little doubt that there were more victims whose bodies were never found.
Asked to Drop the Story
Meanwhile, the official documents about "the events in Postoloprty" were classified as confidential and disappeared into the Interior Ministry archives.
That suited the postwar residents of Postoloprty and Zatec, who now lived in the houses of the killed or displaced former inhabitants. They weren't the only ones who feared a reassessment of the past. Quite a few non-Germans first willingly collaborated with the occupying forces, only to then reinvent themselves as the great avengers of Czech maltreatment when the time was right. Silence therefore became the order of the day.
As a result, it was only by chance that Czech reporter David Hertl stumbled upon the crime in the mid-90s when he and a colleague were putting together a series of portraits of local towns for his regional newspaper. The plan was to write about past and present-day life in these communities, but when they got to Postoloprty, they hit a brick wall.
"People either didn't know anything about their past or didn't want to talk about it," Hertl says. "And when we asked them about the Germans, they simply said they'd ended up in the Pheasant Garden."
Their suspicions aroused, the two reporters began investigating -- and met mainly with opposition. "If at all, people would only speak to us anonymously," Hertl says. "They were afraid, and asked us to drop the story."
'You're Going to Hang for This'
When the regional newspaper printed a couple of articles on the matter, with headlines such as "Where are the thousands of Germans from Zatec and Postoloprty?" and "We know the names of the murderers," the threats started pouring in. Anonymous letters with swastikas scrawled across them arrived at the editorial offices, and every morning the answering machine was full of insults like "You're going to hang for this, you swine."
Some things have changed in the time since then, Hertl says today. "More people now know that this crime really took place. Nonetheless most still believe the Germans deserved it."
People would prefer this dark chapter of their past to finally be forgotten once and for all. After all, what if the former inhabitants began returning and claiming their houses back? Hertl calls this fear "a kind of paranoia." Yet it persists -- which is why the project to erect a monument is such a touchy issue.
Split over Wording
"We already decided against building a monument four years ago," says Ludvik Mlcuch, a communist member of the Postoloprty town council. "I see no reason to change our minds. End of story."
Petr Riha runs a small electrical goods store in Postoloprty. He has nothing against a monument. "The important thing is what's on the inscription," he says. Riha would like a memorial to all the victims of the Nazi era and its aftermath, not just to the Germans.
"That wouldn't be enough for me," says Walter Urban, who was born in Postoloprty in 1942 and is one of the few ethnic Germans still living there. His house is in the side street on the edge of town that leads toward the Pheasant Garden. Urban doesn't know whether his father was killed there, by the barracks or by the school. All he wants is a memorial where he can lay some flowers. And that's what he's been doggedly promoting in the small committee that must now present its proposed compromise to the municipal authorities in Postoloprty.
Everyone agrees that the town needs a monument. But the committee is split on the wording for the plaque.
Opponents of a memorial to the murdered Germans always point to the context, namely that the postwar excesses would not have happened were it not for the Nazi terror that preceded them.
"That may be true, but every crime has its origins and its causality," says Otokar Löbl, president of Friends of the Town of Saaz/Zatec, a Frankfurt-based association that has long campaigned for an investigation of the crime. "However it's also true that most of the Germans living in Zatec at the time supported the Nazis." Even so, their murder was a crime that should not only be acknowledged as such but for which people must also accept responsibility.
'A Mental Balancing Act'
Löbl comes from a Jewish German-Czech family. His father's family was killed in a concentration camp. Löbl was born in Zatec in 1950, but left the country in 1970 following the Soviet Union's crushing of the Prague Spring. He has long campaigned for better understanding between Germans and Czechs, and he is the initiator of the "Saaz Way," a declaration of reconciliation signed by people from both sides.
"No future without the past" is the motto of the Saaz Way. It's a statement that Peter Klepsch wholeheartedly agrees with. Klepsch now lives in Spalt near Nuremberg, where he chairs the Heimatkreis Saaz, an association for Sudeten Germans from Zatec. The association's Web site contains the formerly confidential reports and statements of the 1947 parliamentary inquiry.
Once or twice a year the Czech exile travels to his former home, an activity he describes as "a mental balancing act." "People often ask me if we've come to take their houses away from them," Klepsch says. "But I could never expect anyone to leave their home."
His family's former home is now used by the criminal investigation bureau; the same police department that has now finally solved the case of the murder of Horst, Eduard, Hans, Walter, and Heinz on the parade ground in Postoloprty on June 6, 1945.
- Part 1: Czech Town Divided over How to Commemorate 1945 Massacre
- Part 2: Made to Dig Their Own Graves