St Cyril and Methodius church crypt

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The crypt under a church where the paratroopers involved in Operation Anthropoid went into hiding after their assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942. It was also here that the Nazis found them and where they met their heroic deaths. The site is today a very solemn memorial oozing a particularly eerie atmosphere.   
More background info: The site is the one most closely associated with the Czech resistance fighters who carried out the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942 or rather its aftermath. It was here that the assassins themselves found their end as "martyrs".
Heydrich was not only the so-called Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (i.e. the ruler of the German-occupied main part of the Czech lands – excluding the already annexed Sudetenland). He was also the head of the Security Services (RSHA, including the SD and the Gestapo) and as such in fact one of the most crucial figures in the whole Nazi machine of terror. Most notably he had chaired the Wannsee Conference, at which the path to the "Final Solution" in the Holocaust had been laid out. Within Bohemia/Moravia he was administering its implementation. In short, Heydrich was one of the key masterminds of the Nazi reign of terror.
Heydrich was targeted for assassination by the Czech government-in-exile, partly in order to show the world a sign of resistance to emphasize that Czechoslovakia was in fact an ally in the fight against Nazism. The situation within the Protectorate had hitherto been notably calmer than, say, in Poland or Yugoslavia where partisans were troubling the Nazi rulers on a more regular basis.
Apart from removing a key Nazi figurehead and making a clear statement of resistance, the plan was also to get the Western Allies of WWII to recognize the Czech land as such and hopefully make sure that the borders of 1938 were reinstated (i.e. to where they were before the Munich Agreement that granted Hitler a good chunk of the former Czechoslovakian Republic).
The plan was aided by the covert sabotage and espionage service SOE in Great Britain who provided the logistics and training of the assassins. The operation was code-named "Anthropoid" and became reality on 27 May 1942. Two specially trained Czech resistance fighters, who had been flown in from the UK and parachuted into the Protectorate, ambushed Heydrich's car on its way from his home to his office at Prague castle.
Even though the shooting of Heydrich failed due to a jammed gun the assassins still managed to cause sufficient damage by means of a modified anti-tank grenade they threw against the side of his car. The grenade missed hitting Heydrich directly but the explosion just outside the car near the right-hand side rear wheel was powerful enough to blast shrapnel and a piece of the rear seat's upholstery into Heydrich's back.
So he was wounded but alive. The assassins, fearing they had failed in their assassination attempt, fled the scene and Heydrich was taken to hospital. There he initially began recovering well.
But a few days later he suddenly succumbed to an infection. It is sometimes assumed that this may have been contracted through the bits of the car's upholstery which contained horse hair. Anyway, on 4 June he died after all. So the assassination had eventually been successful, if a bit belatedly and in unexpected ways.
But Reinhard Heydrich was to remain the only one of such top-level Nazis who was ever successfully assassinated. So it was quite a historic achievement.
After the ambush of Heydrich's car, the assassins joined up with the remainder of their group – who collectively became known simply as the "paratroopers" or "parachutists". Eventually they took refuge in an Orthodox church right in the middle of Prague – namely St Cyril and Methodius church. Apart from the resident clergy, the paratroopers had also received help from others before the assassination. But these acts of patriotic support of the resistance were now to come back to haunt them.
The wrath of the Nazis in the wake of Heydrich's assassination was unparalleled. Thousands of suspected "traitors and sympathizers" were arrested, hundreds of them executed without trial under martial law, others were deported to concentration camps ... where yet more mass executions took place – especially at Mauthausen.
The worst of the Nazis' reprisals, however, hit the village of Lidice, which, on the faintest suspicions of a connection with the assassination, was wiped off the map and all inhabitants either killed (the men) or deported (women and children).
Meanwhile in Prague, the paratroopers were holding out in their secret hideout under the church. But they were betrayed – by one of their own associates from the resistance. Both fear and the outlook of a fat reward must have cracked this one guy's loyalty. He not only identified the two assassins and their fellow resistance fighters to the Gestapo, he also denounced their helpers, such as people who had given them shelter. These "collaborators" of the assassins were then quickly rounded up and interrogated ... and so the Nazis finally found out about the paratroopers' hideout. On the morning of 18 June they cordoned off the area around the church and started their attack.
The fighting lasted several hours. At one point, the trapped fighters tried to dig their way out under the street, but failed to get very far. In the end, after three of the paratroopers had already been killed and the ones still alive realized that they had no chance of getting out alive either, they used their last bullets to take their own lives, rather than being captured by the Nazis.
However, the brutal reprisals by the Nazis, especially Lidice, eventually helped making the whole of Operation Anthropoid a success in that the Munich Agreement was indeed revoked and declared null and void by both Britain and France, so that after WWII the original Czech borders were indeed reinstated ... even though soon after the whole land would fall into the grip of the Soviet Union and became part of the Eastern Bloc.
Still, the achievement of the paratroopers of Operation Anthropoid – and their "martyrs' deaths" – are revered to this day as key elements of Czech 20th century history. And rightly so.
Today's memorial site is called in Czech "Národní památník hrdinů Heydrichiády" – which its own website refers to as 'National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror'. Don't let that confusing name mislead you: what they mean is of course not a celebration of any heroic terror achievements of Heydrich's but that of the heroes who assassinated the man and ended his terror (at least his personal terror – though not yet that of his Nazi regime).
What there is to see: apart form a memorial plaque next to some bullet holes on the outer facade, the main part of this site is underground – namely right in that crypt that the paratroopers of Operation Anthropoid had been hiding until their "martyrs' deaths".
The site consists of two parts, the actual crypt and an exhibition in the anteroom. The latter isn't very large, but provides quite in-depth information about the assassination, the run-up to it and the background of the resistance movement from 1938 as well as the Nazis' reprisals in the aftermath of the Heydrich assassination. This is mostly done through text-and-photo panels that are bilingual, in Czech and English (with overall very good translation quality).
There are a few artefacts too, including bits of SS uniforms and a machine gun of the type that jammed during the assassination attempt.
Then you enter the crypt as such ... and the way in is already a dark experience in itself: the "door" is a curved contraption that swings at the far end between two pitch-black hollows in the tunnel-like walls on either side. All this makes it look and feel a bit like entering a bunker. The way back out is the really tricky bit, though, as many people first walk the length of the door where they then fail to get it open, because they forgot that the curved door only swings open at the other end. Sounds perplexing? True. Words just can't really describe the effect adequately. You'll see what I mean when you get there.
Inside the crypt one is immediately engulfed by a heavy and solemn atmosphere. There are lights (unlike back then) but it's still dim and gloomy in here. To the right of the entrance is another text-and-photo panel, this time detailing the deadly events when the paratroopers were found and died here. This includes photos of all of them before and after they died.
On the other hand, the four-tier niches for coffins set into the walls on either side are empty these days. Back in 1942 this would have been an actual crypt, in use as a burial chamber. But after what happened here it was felt that it wasn't suitable any longer as a place for any final rest. So the dead, whose rest had been so violently disturbed, were moved for reburial elsewhere after WWII. The hollow, honeycomb-like network of these niches adds an extra poignancy to the place.
Busts of all the paratroopers involved flank these eerie walls, and each one is given a short biographic panel on the plinth. At the far end steps would have led up to the church. The stone slab that used to cover it has been put up against the wall to the right of the bottom of the steps as an additional memorial – while on the steps themselves, small wooden crosses with poppies represent all those who died here.
At the other end of the room, a general memorial shrine has been erected. Next to this is a crudely dug-out hollow in the outer wall. This is from the paratroopers' failed attempt to dig their way out of their trap under the street. The hollow is these days filled with all manner of little memento mori that people have left here. Note also the coins left not only on the paratroopers' plinths but also inside the bullet holes in the wall to the left of the entrance door.
To the right of the entrance note the hatch in the ceiling. As a small info panel points out, this was the secret entrance that the paratroopers used to get in here. It was also a safe spot to guard. Anyone who would try to come down the same way would have been an easy target to shoot at.
Back in the anteroom with the exhibition you could also take a look at richly stocked library bookcase that takes up the entire wall to the right of the reception desk. The books on display include large tomes about Operation Anthropoid (mostly in Czech) but also books about Reinhard Heydrich as well as various brochures about the church which are for sale.
All in all, this is a site whose significance to Czech history is very palpable. It is less known to international visitors than it should be, however. Even though it does cater for (English-speaking) foreigners quite well. Recommended!
Incidentally, a visit to the church and its crypt is now also part of WWII-themed guided tours that start on Republic Square and en route take in various other spots of historical significance pertaining to the Nazi era and Czech resistance. But you can go and visit the crypt perfectly well on you own. In fact you will need some extra time on your own to take in the exhibition – which is why these guided tours finish here.
Location: just south of the main tourist trails of central Prague, on Resslova street between Charles Square and the river.
Google maps locator: [50.0759,14.4167]
Access and costs: quite easy to get to; not expensive.
Details: to get to the church you can either walk it all from Prague's old town centre, which is quite feasible, or take one of the tram lines that go south along the eastern riverbanks, get out at Jiráskovo náměstí and walk up Resslova. Alternatively get a tram or the Metro to Charles Square (Karlovo náměstí) and walk in the opposite direction.
Opening times of the crypt and exhibition: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays; closed Mondays (and also on Sundays in winter between November and February).
Admission: 75 CZK
Time required: about half an hour to 45 minutes.
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see under Prague – just outside Prague, the site most associated with the Nazis' reprisals after Heydrich's assassination is Lidice – a village razed to the ground by the Nazis and its inhabitants murdered or deported in one of history's most infamous acts of indiscriminate retribution. This place too is today a national memorial.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see under Prague.
  • St Cyril 01 - St Cyril and Methodius churchSt Cyril 01 - St Cyril and Methodius church
  • St Cyril 02 - entrance to the cryptSt Cyril 02 - entrance to the crypt
  • St Cyril 03 - exhibitionSt Cyril 03 - exhibition
  • St Cyril 04 - artefactsSt Cyril 04 - artefacts
  • St Cyril 05 - booksSt Cyril 05 - books
  • St Cyril 06 - inside the cryptSt Cyril 06 - inside the crypt
  • St Cyril 07 - empty burial nichesSt Cyril 07 - empty burial niches
  • St Cyril 08 - hero busts on plinthsSt Cyril 08 - hero busts on plinths
  • St Cyril 09 - stairs to the churchSt Cyril 09 - stairs to the church
  • St Cyril 10 - hatch in the ceilingSt Cyril 10 - hatch in the ceiling
  • St Cyril 11 - memorial cornerSt Cyril 11 - memorial corner
  • St Cyril 12 - attempted tunnel digSt Cyril 12 - attempted tunnel dig
  • St Cyril 13 - coins in bullet holesSt Cyril 13 - coins in bullet holes
  • St Cyril 14 - coins by the plinths including British onesSt Cyril 14 - coins by the plinths including British ones
  • St Cyril 15 - solemn placeSt Cyril 15 - solemn place

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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