Tristram Hunt: City shone a beacon of peace on one of war's darkest deeds
THE shooting commenced at 7am. To begin with, they were shot in bunches of five, but this was too slow for the liking of Nazi State Police chief Horst Böhme. So the pace doubled.
By the afternoon of June 2, 1942, all 173 men from Lidice, a sleepy Czech mining village, 12 miles west of Prague, had been massacred, their bodies piled high in the barn where Nazi officials had earlier assembled them.
The women, 203 in total, were rounded up and transported to concentration camps. Children, having been separated from their mothers, were also sent to camps.
Only 17 would make it through the war, with 88 gassed together at Chelmno death camp on July 2, 1942.
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It was this butchery in a far away town of which the people of The Potteries knew little, that would inspire one of the most humane acts of wartime Europe.
The campaign to rebuild Lidice is a gloriously proud moment in the history of Stoke-on-Trent, and an event we are right to commemorate this week.
The massacre was retaliation for the killing of Nazi Lieutenant-General Reinherd Heydrich on June 4, 1942.
One of Hitler's favourites, Heydrich contracted of septicaemia following an assassination attempt by a band of Czech and Slovak parachutists.
Heydrich survived the bullets, but it was upholstery from his car, lodged deep inside his leg after an anti-tank grenade exploded nearby, that proved his undoing.
The assassins escaped and an apoplectic Hitler ordered the total destruction of Lidice with the words "Lidice shall die forever".
The village was razed to the ground.
Even the dead were not spared as the local cemetery was dug up and villagers' remains destroyed.
What Hitler did not reckon with however, were the people of Stoke-on-Trent and, in particular, Shelton's local doctor and councillor, Dr Barnett Stross, pictured left.
As news of the massacre reached Stoke-on-Trent, Dr Stross – who would later be knighted and go on to become one of my predecessors as MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central – enlisted the help of the local mining community to found the 'Lidice Shall Live' movement; a direct rebuke to Hitler's orders.
He called a meeting at the Victoria Hall, Hanley, attended by 3,000 workers and miners from across Stoke-on-Trent.
There they pledged £32,000 – an extraordinary amount, equivalent to around £1m in today's money – to rebuild Lidice and defy Hitler.
As Dr Eduoard Benes, the exiled President of Czechoslovakia, who attended the meeting, said, "It was apparent at that meeting Lidice was not dead, but was living in the hearts of the people of Stoke-on-Trent.
"From this moment the City of Stoke-on-Trent will live always in the heart of every Czech".
In 1947, Lidice began to be rebuilt. And as the fame of Lidice spread – helped by Humphrey Jenning's 1943 film 'The Silent Village', which used amateur actors from the Welsh mining village Ystradgynlias – and places as far as field as Caracas, Santiago and Mexico City began to follow Stoke-on-Trent's example,
Dr Stross led an initiative to construct the world's largest rose garden in the heart of Lidice.
By 1955, 29,000 roses were blooming out of the very soil the Nazis had blackened only 13 years earlier.
This Thursday, marks the 70th anniversary of that momentous meeting in Hanley.
Throughout this year the "Let Lidice Live" campaign – a partnership between the city council and Staffordshire University, has been putting on a series of events to commemorate the 70th anniversary of both the massacre and our city's remarkable response.
For as the horrors of the Second World War begin to fade from living memory, we must continue to make every effort to hold onto the heroic part the city played.
The story of Lidice is one of generosity, solidarity and a refusal to be cowed by brutality, a story of hope and light that we should all be proud of.
As this paper reported at the time, at Lidice the Nazis 'emblazoned the scroll of history and illuminated a name unbeknown before'.
But it was Barnett Stross who saw the full potential of that illumination, turning one of the war's darkest chapters into a worldwide beacon for peace.
As he put it to the meeting in Hanley: "The miner's lamp dispels the shadows of the coalface.
"It can also send a ray of light across the sea to those who struggle in the darkness."
This week, we should remember those words and, with it, how this city has stood for some of humanity's finest impulses.