It was June 27, 1950, when these savage words were spoken to a hangman behind the thick, grim walls of Prague’s Pankrac Prison in communist Czechoslovakia. The unfortunate soul the executioner was instructed to make suffer as much as possible before her death that day was Czech national heroine and anti-communist dissident, Milada Horakova.
“Don’t break her neck in the noose” – “Suffocate the bitch - and the others too” was the full, hideous text of hatred spoken just before the extinguishing of Horakova’s life.
On the day before her execution on trumped up charges of treason and espionage, the 49-year-old woman and Czech democrat had received a heart-wrenching visit on death row from her 16-year-old daughter and only child, Jana, who, to this day, remembers her mother’s “enormous courage.”
The last night of this lifelong champion of human liberty’s life was spent writing three gracious, love-filled letters to her mother-in-law, husband and to Jana. They stand in stark contrast to the cold, vicious surroundings of her tragic last hours and are a lasting tribute to her nobility and upright dignity.
To her daughter, she tenderly wrote: “My only little girl Jana, God blessed my life as a woman with you…Don’t be sad and frightened I am not coming back any more… When you learn something is just and true, then be so resolute that you will be able to die for it.”
Jana was never supposed to learn of the cruel orders to turn her mother’s last moments into a painful, degrading obscenity and, more importantly, who had ordered it. But an incredible 57 years later, these barbaric utterances to increase her mother’s suffering were resurrected and hurled back in a courtroom at their sadistic speaker, Ludmila Brozova-Polednova, a former communist state prosecutor and last living participant in Horakova’s farcical trial.
In a stunning turning of the tables, Brozova-Polednova, now 85, was herself on trial last October in the Czech Republic for the role she played in the judicial murder of the anti-communist Czech martyr. In what was one of the most sensational Stalinist show trials in post-war Eastern Europe, the former communist prosecutor had recommended the “absolute punishment” (death penalty) for Horakova and her 12 co-defendants. But at her own trial, the Czech court leniently sentenced this criminal to eight years in prison for accessory to murder.
Horakova, a member of Czechoslovakia’s parliament, had resigned her seat in 1948 in protest against the brutal and illegal communist takeover of her country in February of that year. She joined an opposition group and was arrested in 1949.
The Czechoslovakian human rights activist, a lawyer herself, was no stranger to opposing murderous tyrannies. When the Nazis took over her country in 1939, she and her husband, Bohuslav Horak, soon joined the resistance. Both were arrested. Horakova then spent five years in several Nazi prisons and concentration camps, and was sentenced to death in 1944.
Ironically, the genocidal Nazis proved themselves more merciful than the murderous communists, as they commuted the Czech resistance heroine’s death sentence to life in prison. Upon liberation in 1945, the survivor of Hitler’s gulag returned to her homeland with her spirit unbroken. However, according to one former political prisoner, the Czech intellectual wore long sleeves for the rest of her life to cover scars on her arms, mementos from the Nazi torture chambers.
But where the Nazis didn’t succeed with their sick, twisted sadism in their prisons, their communist blood brothers did. Whether wearing the repulsive deaths head of the SS or communism’s hideous red star, they were the same. And according to one account, the Czech secret police, the StB, was especially “notorious for the brutality of its interrogations.”
Using methods that only mentally degraded minds could conjure up, the StB torturers had the prisoners stand in cold water up to their waists, sometimes for 24 hours at a stretch. These monsters in human form would also cram their helpless victims into one-meter square boxes without food, heat or electricity for days (Interestingly, such torture boxes also existed at Auschwitz, again indicating the similarities between the two socialist regimes). By such bestial savagery, the StB got all 13 political prisoners destined for the show trial to confess to false charges of treason and espionage.
Supervised by Soviet advisors who had staged their own spectacular show trials in the 1930s, the Czechoslovakian version, which began in May, 1950, was also to be broadcast to the nation. The prisoners, like actors, were also to play parts and follow a mendacious script.
But it was Horakova who, showing that “enormous courage”, upset the carefully prepared Stalinist apple cart. An astonishing discovery in 2005 of several uncensored tapes of the trial in a Czech archive show an “erect and defiant” Horakova, alone among the defendants, arguing calmly and resolutely with her accusers, standing up for her democratic ideals and “refusing to be broken.” This, according to one commentator, made the recordings unusable. The tapes also showed a 29-year-old Brozova-Polednova doing her best to humiliate and degrade the anti-Nazi resistance heroine while making “emotional accusations” along with the four other prosecutors, who, as well as the trial’s five judges, are all deceased.
It was also the tapes, of which only three of 25 have been found, that caused the most powerful moments at Brozova-Polednova’s trial in October. According to one observer, as the old, black and white images from fifty-seven years ago flickered eerily across the screen and the ghostly voices of prosecutors and defendants were heard once again, one could cut the emotion in the courtroom with a knife. In the public seats, deeply shaken, former political prisoners and those colleagues of Horakova still alive were in tears.
Brozova-Polednova’s bestial comments to the hangman in 1950 were also read out in the courtroom. They came from a former prison guard’s written statement. The guard was present at the execution and described the communist prosecutor as a “sadist” who “laughed out loud” when Horakova was officially pronounced dead.
But it was documents showing that the former communist prosecutor had taken part in meetings before the trial to prearrange the death sentences that proved instrumental in her conviction. The purpose of a Stalinist show trial, after all, was to liquidate the accused. The prearranged verdicts probably also account for the bored expressions on the faces of the trial’s judges.
Famous humanitarians and political leaders like Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill asked the Czech communist government to spare Horakova’s life. But by 1950, the Marxist-Leninists had already built up a long record of indifference to death to feel any respect for the people they were annihilating, even for those who had opposed the Nazis. Eight thousand other Czechoslovakians of the 230,000 jailed on political charges during the communist era also were to die in prisons, concentration camps and uranium mines.
Among their number were three of Horakova’s heroic co-defendants. Their names are: Oldrich Pecl, Zavis Kalandra, and Jan Buchal. The show trial’s other defendants and their sentences also deserve mention: Jiri Hejda, Antonie Kleinerova, Josef Nestaval and Frantisek Preucil received life in prison; Vojtech Dundr, Bedrich Hosticka, Jiri Krizek, Zdenek Peska and Frantiska Zeminova received terms from 15 to 28 years in Czechoslovakia’s gulag.
In all, there were 234 politically motivated executions in Czechoslovakia between 1948 and 1960 with the courageous and conscientious Horakova being the only woman. Her untimely end, analysts say, signaled “the death knell” for the rule of law in Czechoslovakia and provided their country with one of its most “painful and chilling moments.”
For her part, Brozova-Polednova, who says she was too sick to attend her day in court and who will probably not spend a day in jail due to her health, is unrepentant. The former member of the communist judiciary believes she did nothing wrong and people like Horakova were guilty.
“I was fighting for my country and for a social order where no one would be unemployed,” said communist lawyer in a newspaper interview, her pathetic statement contrasting sharply with Horakova’s courage and immovable morality.
In another twist of irony, many of Czechoslovakia’s 4,800 former political prisoners, do not want to see a former enemy serve time in jail, saying Brozova-Polednova’s conviction and sentence suffices to send the proper, moral message. Again, their mercy contrasts strongly with the former communist legal functionary’s sadism.
In the United States, the Czech freedom fighter’s bravery did not go unnoticed by the Bush administration. In 2006, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld attended a ceremony where the U.S. Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation posthumously awarded the Czech national heroine the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom. Horakova’s daughter, Jana, accepted the award. Her father, who escaped Czechoslovakia after his wife’s arrest, had died in 1976.
“I am very proud of her,” said Jana in a recent interview. “(She was) a very extraordinary woman, with …enormous feeling for human beings, and a very bright and light person.”
On June 27, 1950, in Pankrac Prison in Prague, Czechoslovakia, communist totalitarian Ludmila Brozova-Polednova got what she wanted when Milada Horakova was brutally hung. In 1989, after the Berlin Wall fell, Milada Horakova achieved her dream of a free Czech Republic where those living there today will never have to endure the vicious tyranny of a Brozova-Polednova and her ilk.
Milada Horakova, may you rest in freedom.