Eyewitnesses had after World War II reported the targeted killing of German civilians – but there were no pictures of Czech crimes. In Prague there now surfaced an amateur film that shows a shooting in the open street. The images had been hidden for decades. By Jan Puhl
For decades the forgotten images lay in a round aluminum box: about seven minutes of original recordings in black and white, shot on eight millimeter film on 10 May 1945 in the Prague district of Borislavka, in those confused days after the Germans’ capitulation.
The film was made by Prague construction engineer and hobby filmmaker Jiri Chmelnicek. He lived in the district and wanted to document the city’s liberation. Chmelnicek filmed tanks rolling through the streets, soldiers and fleeing people. At some time he also filmed columns of Germans. Red Army soldiers and Czech militiamen had chased them from their houses in Kladenska Street.
The Germans, as also shown in the film, were then rounded up in a nearby cinema, the "Borislavka". Then the camera turns to the edge of the road. More than 40 men and at least one woman are standing with their back to the camera lens, a meadow can be seen in the background. Shots are fired, and one after the other the lined-up persons slump down, fall forward onto a little wall in front of them. Wounded, lying on the floor, beg for mercy. Then a Red Army truck drives up, its wheels crush corpses and heavily wounded. Later other Germans can be seen, who must dig a mass grave on the meadow.
The wiggly images show what eyewitnesses and historians have described over and over again: the targeted killing of German civilians. And yet they have now shocked the Czechs. "Until now there was no film material about these executions", says Czech documentary filmmaker David Vondracek, who brought the historical images on TV. "When I saw them for the first time it was like a live transmission from the past." Only pictures taken by a U.S. Air Force camera team were known so far: they show injured Germans lying on the ground at Pilsen in early May 1945, also some dead, but no liquidations.
Vondracek’s documentation about Czech crimes (title: "Killing, the Czech Way"), which was transmitted of all times two dates before 8 May at prime time on state TV, is the preliminary culmination of a soul-searching process that the Czechs have been facing up to for years. Even the associations of Sudeten Germans have recorded this. As first Bavarian minister president since the Second World War Horst Seehofer intends to visit Prague in the near future. "Much has opened as concerns the Sudeten Germans", according to Seehofer.
About three million Germans were expelled from the Sudetenland and the rest of Czechoslovakia by the Czechs and the Red Army after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Up to 30,000 civilians fell victim to revenge actions during this time. The fewest among them were Nazi perpetrators, for decades Germans and Czechs had been living door by door when Hitler annexed Bohemia and Moravia in 1938 [read: 1939, translator’s note].
It is not known who picked out the Germans in Borislavka at that time and what they were accused of. They were probably killed by Red Army soldiers, possibly also by “Revolutionary Guards”, a Czech militia. Among those who fired the shots there may also have been former collaborators, Czechs who had previously collaborated with the Germans and now wanted to wash away their guilt through special cruelties.
Helena Dvorackova, the daughter of hobby filmmaker Jiri Chmelnicek, was one of the first who saw pictures of the execution. She doesn’t know exactly how old she was when her father set up the screen and home and projected the film. "I also don’t know if he said something about this, but then there wasn’t much to say."
Her father hid the film roll at home for decades, the Communist police even paid them a visit, for someone had noticed that a film had been made on that day. They asked about the film, threatened him and tried to coax him with promises. But he didn’t hand over the film. He wanted the world to know one day what had been done to defenseless people on that May day in Borislavka.
Ten years ago already, long after her father’s death, Helena Dvorackova offered this contemporary document to a known Czech TV historian. But he kept it under lock and key: "The people will stone me if I show this", he is supposed to have said. Then he placed the film in the state TV archives. There they were found by documentary filmmaker Vondracek, after he had received an indication from a camera man who knew the hobby filmmaker’s family.
Borislavka today is one of the better districts of Prague, the meadow on which the executions took place is covered by high grass. Vondracek now intends to have searched the Germans’ mass grave: "It must be possible to find it under the meadow", he says.
Nearby there is a memorial plaque for two Czechs who fell fighting the Nazis on 6 May 1945.
Parts of the film can be seen on this site.