Behind the Books:
Afraid of the Dark
"Behind the Book: Afraid of the Dark
and a Fiction Writer's Pilgrimage to a Sacred Place"
A recurring theme I hear from my readers is that they enjoy the strong sense of place in my novels. South Florida of course is a huge part of that refrain. It's sexy, unique, vibrant—the kind of place that people watch with complete fascination, the way they might eye a hopelessly handsome, reckless youth on the brink of utter self-destruction.
But every once in a while, "place" takes on a truly special quality in my novels. I'm talking about sacred places. That's the case in Afraid of the Dark.
While touring for Lying with Strangers in 2006, I visited the Czech Republic, armed with just a little information about my Czech ancestry. Before leaving, I discovered that my great grandmother was Catarina Petrak, born in Bohemia. That discovery led me to sacred ground.
After Czechoslovakia fell to Nazis, the SS Obergruppenfuehrer Reinhard Heydrich became Reich Protector of the Nazi-occupied Bohemia. He was second in command to Himmler in the SS branch responsible for the Final Solution. His assassination, organized by senior representatives of the Czechoslovak resistance in London, triggered a relentless search for the assassins and a wave of Nazi retaliation across Czechoslovakia. Berlin suspected that the assassins were aided by two families in Lidice, and the punishment was prescribed by Adolf Hitler himself.
On June 9, 1942, sometime between 10 p.m. and midnight, Lidice was besieged by Nazi troops. With all access roads sealed off, the Gestapo went from one house to the next, searching everywhere, driving all the people out in the street and looting the abandoned buildings. Men were taken to the Horak family barn, the biggest building in the village. Women and children were herded into the local school building. At 5 a.m., the shooting started. All men were shot dead by a firing squad. The children were taken from their mothers and, except for those selected for re-education in German families and babies under one year of age, were poisoned by exhaust gas in specially adapted vehicles in the Nazi extermination camp at Chełmno upon Nerr in Poland. The women were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, which usually meant quick or lingering death for the inmates. The town was burned to the ground. Even its cemeteries were destroyed.
The site of the Horak barn is now a memorial. Standing on those sacred grounds is a bronze memorial that was twenty years in the making. If you visit Lidice, you will stand in the company eighty-nine bronze children. For me, two names and dates were particularly powerful. Petrak, Miloslav: 1931. Petrak, Zdenek: 1933. They were nine and eleven when they were gassed.
Petrak, as it turns out, was a very dangerous name to have in 1942. "Antonin Petrak" was the name of the Czech general in exile who had planned the assassination from the United Kingdom. Petrak was a fairly common name, but in the Nazi world of "collective responsibility," it was not necessary to prove personal responsibility, or even any actual relationship to those responsible. You were guilty—even if you were a nine or eleven year old boy.
The original site of Lidice is now entirely a memorial. A visit there is a visit to sacred ground. Jack Swyteck's journey to Lidice in Afraid of the Dark is my personal pilgrimage.
AFRAID OF THE DARK: HarperCollins Publishers: March 2011; Behind the Writing of the Novel: Copyright 2011 James Grippando