The first activities of the US Lidice Lives Committee would focus on a small community called Stern Park Gardens, found on the outskirts of Joliet, Illinois. Just two weeks following the disaster that befell the citizens of Lidice, the Chicago Sun magazine had an idea. It approached the Czechoslovak community living in a federal housing project on the outskirts of Joliet. Officials of the estate agreed to change its name to “Lidice” so that Adolf Hitler’s announced intent of erasing the community off the map would not come to pass.
The WWB’s Lidice Committee was charged with arranging nationwide publicity. This was done exceptionally well. As soon as the announcement appeared that the re-naming would take place, the New York Times commented, in a favourable editorial,
“We need tanks, planes, and guns. We need symbols, too.”
Fuelled by enthusiasm, the magazine, acting upon the inspiration of the Writers’ War Board, carried an appeal to the American people to help resurrect the ill-fated village. Many leading newspapers and magazines accepted the idea. Under the stewardship of Marshall Field III, the Chicago Sun started offering coupons for those wishing to contribute to the fund. It was an overwhelming success; railways, public services, coach transport companies, community leaders, and ordinary citizens were working hard to make the event worthwhile.
Sunday, July 12th, 1942, saw the renaming ceremony of Stern Park Gardens to Lidice draw in a crowd of some 50,000, according to some reports. The promotion that followed had a significant impact across the USA and worldwide and included: a national radio hook-up set up to broadcast the ceremonies coast to coast, which was also sent overseas by short-wave and translated into several languages, including Spanish and Portuguese; full international newsreel coverage to be seen in cinemas around the world in order to embolden the Allies in Britain, especially; and fully photographic news magazine and front-page newspaper coverage.
Many of those dedicating the town, which started as a simple federal housing project, were of Czechoslovak descent, and one 80-year-old woman, Mrs Barbara Brazava, was presented on the platform, according to reports, because she was born in the original Lidice, while others told of their visits to St. Martin’s Church. The Most Reverend Abbot Procopius Neuzil conducted a quasi-pontifical outdoor mass as a part of the ceremony. The Czechoslovak Ambassador to the United States, Colonel Vladimir Hurban, lit an eternal flame on a granite shaft monument dedicated to the victims of the massacre.
At the podium, Republican Presidential candidate and principal speaker, Mr Wendell Willkie, described the assassination of Heydrich. He detailed the act of vengeance that transpired, as he quoted the official German Press announcement of the destruction of the village, before asserting,
“Let us here highly resolve that the memory of this little village of Bohemia, now resurrected by the people of a little village in Illinois, will fire us, now and until the battle is over, with the iron resolution that the madness of tyrants must perish from the earth, so that the earth may return to the people to whom it belongs, and be their village, their home, forever.
Mr Willkie continued with this declaration:
“But these great objectives cannot be accomplished unless every citizen of this country learns to think in terms of attack,” he warned. “…For we must carry the battle to the enemy. We must fight him on his own ground. We must teach a lesson for all time to barbarians who seek, in their arrogance, to restore the rule of the torture chamber and the whip. We must win a total victory.”
In his aspirations for the future, Wendell Willkie warned:
“I look about me here, and I can see in the distance the black smoke of steel factories, swarming with American workers of all bloods and races. No contrast could be greater than the peaceful Lidice the Nazis thought they had destroyed, and this Illinois country, alive with factories in which the arms of victory are being forged. But I tell you that the two are related. For while such deeds as Lidice are done in another country, we cannot rest until we are sure that they will never be done in our own.”
Chicago Tribune 13th July 1942
Besides Willkie’s, there were speeches by Clifton Fadiman, who took on the role of master of ceremonies for the day; Colonel Vladimir Hurban; and Marshall Field III, founder of the Chicago Times. Messages were received from Dr Edvard Beneš, US Vice President Henry A. Wallace, and President Roosevelt.
In a message to the inauguration from President Roosevelt, Fadiman read:
“On June 10, the Nazi Government announced the murder of a word-Lidice. That little village in Czecho-Slovakia not only was destroyed but its men were murdered. Its women and children were scattered, imprisoned, and killed.
“The name of Lidice was to be erased from time, blotted out of history, forever forgotten.
“We know what happened despite the arrogant efforts of the Nazis to destroy Lidice. By inspired action, the citizens of a small community in the United States have adopted the word Lidice. Instead of being killed as the Nazis would have it, Lidice has been given new life.
“In the great valley of the Lakes and Mississippi, the name and town of Lidice has now become an everlasting reminder to us that the Nazi force could not destroy either the love of human freedom or the courage to maintain it.”
Colonel Vladimir Hurban told the gathering that the rebirth of Lidice in America was
“proof of the complete solidarity of the United Nations. One of the member nations cannot be injured without pain being felt by all the United Nations,” he said.
Dr Edvard Beneš, Czechoslovakia’s President-in-exile, radioed from London his “deep appreciation of the magnificent gesture of the American people in founding a new Lidice near Chicago.”
The Czech Foreign Minister-in-exile, Jan Masaryk, said “Pearl Harbour and Lidice—two symbols of determination and freedom—are daily reminders to all of us.”
A message expressing “deep sympathy with your movement” was delivered from Vice President Wallace.
During his second stay in the USA in May and June 1943, Dr Beneš did not forget to mention Lidice in a memorable speech in front of both chambers of Congress on May 13th, when he said:
“The undying memory of the martyrdom village of Lidice obliges us to never stop fighting the world led against the forces of evil and darkness.”
On May 23rd, he bowed at the monument to the Lidice tragedy in Lidice – Stern Park Gardens.