“I started writing these memories when I was 70, for my children and grandchildren," says Jaroslava Skleničková. "I was wondering if I would remember anything, but when I picked up the pen, the memories flooded like it had happened yesterday.”
Skleničková is a sharp, articulate woman whose smiling face belies her 74 years. When she was just 16, her hometown of Lidice, west of Prague in the former Czechoslovakia, was wiped off the face of the map in retaliation by the Nazis for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich had been the Reich Protector in charge of Czechoslovakia under Nazi rule following the Munich Agreement.
All men and boys over the age of 15 were shot dead. The children (boys under 15, girls under 16) were shipped off to Poland where most were killed. The women were taken to the notorious Ravensbruck concentration camp.
The village itself was razed. Skleničková, who had turned 16 three months prior, was sent along with her mother and older sister to Ravensbruck. Her memoir, “If I Had Been a Boy, I Would Have Been Shot: The Story of the Youngest of the Women of Lidice” – published in Europe and recently translated into English – not only details the nightmare years, but also includes stories of Skleničková's idyllic prewar childhood and her life following liberation.
“I lost all my confidence in people after the war, after this experience,” she says. The women of Lidice had no idea what had happened to the rest of their families, or even their town. They never learned the true events until after the war ended and they returned to Prague.
“I didn’t believe my father was dead – for a couple of months I was still looking for him; I couldn’t believe I would never see him again,” says Skleničková. “To be honest, I haven’t coped with my father’s death even now.”
Her memoir is divided into three parts: "Childhood," "Prisoner 11788," and "The Bitter Smiles of Liberty." Reading the happy stories of her childhood, you can understand Skleničková’s intense sense of loss over her father’s death. The accounts of Ravensbruck are chilling.
“My arrival in Ravensbruck enabled me to get aquatinted with the most varied forms of heroism, selflessness, sacrifice, and solidarity," Skleničková writes. "It was a great school, and indeed the only bonus I had from the concentration camp for my future life.” Skleničková recalls the cultural afternoons held on Sundays in the Czech barracks. A trained dancer, an actress, or someone who could sing opera would put on performances; others would write poems. Many women – Polish women in particular – were experimented on by the Nazis, and these constant operations were difficult for a young girl to witness.
The final section, describing the women's struggles following the war is equally distressing.
“After the war – it was a horrible time. It was about solidarity in the camp,” says Skleničková. “But I couldn’t believe anyone after the war.”
She writes about setting up house with her mother and sister, returning to school, and getting her first job. Adjusting to life post-concentration camp was difficult. She used to hide bread in her desk drawer and sneak bites of it when no one was looking. She also refused to walk on the sidewalks, preferring to walk in the streets, as she was ordered to do in Ravensbruck, where the guards would yell at the prisoners that “sidewalk was for people, not for you.”
Footnotes are included on occasion in the memoir to explain a certain person mentioned or a parallel historical aspect. Overall though, the book is fairly free of history and politics, mainly because these were not subjects that interested Skleničková – either before or after the war. She mentions, both in the book and in person, that she has known both women who claimed to be “right wing” and those who called themselves “left wing,” but it didn't take her long to understand that it was the character of their person that mattered and not their political standing.
Skleničková married her husband, Čestmír, in 1951, and had two children, Jitka and Honza. After retiring from a job with Czechoslovak TV, Skleničková returned to Lidice, where she and her husband still live today.
Recently translated into English, “If I Had Been a Boy, I Would Have Been Shot” is an uplifting story of courage and survival.
“You need to understand this experience is very deep within me,” says Skleničková.
Jacy Meyer is a freelance journalist based in Prague.