The following is an excerpt from K. M. Sandrick's "The Pear Tree."
Reinhard Heydrich caught a glimpse of himself as he passed what was left of the hall mirror in his chateau in Panenské Břežany. Stopping to stare at distorted reflections, he inhaled sharply. Despite the evidence of his standing as the leader of Nazi-Occupied Czechoslovakia on his uniform, he was overcome by disgust at the images in the shards of glass: his nose appeared wide and crooked instead of long, narrow and straight; his face seemed broad and square instead of lean, smooth and oval.
Impatient to remove the offending pieces of glass, Heydrich withdrew his sidearm from its holster hanging on the coat rack next to the mirror, grabbed the barrel and struck down with the pistol grip, hammering at the jagged scraps until none was left in the mirror frame and grinding each of them into slivers with the heel of his boot.
Reversing the position of the gun in his hand, he pushed the nose of the barrel into the bullet holes in the wall as he recalled the flash of anger and self-loathing that had overcome him when he returned from the previous night’s bout of drinking, saw his reflection and remembered the taunts from his youth: Filthy Jew.
While replacing the gun in its holster, Heydrich glanced at a photo of his family that had been knocked askew. All because of that silly old woman, he thought as his finger traced the outline of the figure in the foreground of the photograph—his grandmother.
“Foolish old hag! Whore to a Jew! How could you? How could you marry again after Opa died? And leave us, your family, me to argue every day of my life that I don’t have tainted blood. Just so you could have a dalliance with a Jew!” He slapped the edge of the picture frame and sent it crashing to the floor.
Wiping his fingertips on his trousers, Heydrich made his way down the hallway to the bathroom, where he performed his morning ritual: He opened the medicine cabinet, pulled out a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and unscrewed the cap. Lifting it to his mouth, he poured out a small amount of liquid, then leaned his head back and gargled, forcing the harsh liquid against his tonsils and down his throat in the hope that the peroxide would granulate the tissue of his voice box and coarsen his troublesome high-pitched voice.
He spit out the foam, twisted the cap back on the bottle, placed it on the shelf and closed the cabinet door, pausing to scrutinize his image in the mirror and assure himself again that there was no sign of Jewish blood along the edges of his lips, his cheeks and chin, his slicked-back blond hair, his spare and linear eyebrows and the narrow bridge of his nose. Jewish? Hah! No Jewish blood in him. Nor in his father. Nor in his mother.
Back in the hallway, he picked up his sidearm, wrapped and fastened the holster belt around his waist and adjusted the position of the gun. Checking on the preparations for his trip to Czechoslovak ReichsProtektorate Headquarters in Prag, he glanced out the window and saw a guard, a new recruit, loosening the stays that held open the cloth cover of his Mercedes convertible.
“Stupid,” he sputtered as he leaned out the window. “You,” he called to the recruit. “You!” he said more loudly when the recruit continued to raise the cloth. “Didn’t anyone tell you to leave the cover the way it is?”
“But, Herr Gruppenführer…” The recruit turned to speak to Heydrich, who had already slammed down the sash, rattling the windowpane.
“Leave it,” a Nazi sergeant admonished the recruit.
“But he doesn’t want to drive in an open car all the way to Prag, does he? Isn’t he worried about the Resistance?”
“Why would my Czechs shoot at me?” Heydrich interrupted, raising his cap to examine the crown and bill and brush them clean before he placed the hat on his head. “My Czechs are like blades of grass,” he said as he approached the driver’s side of the car and waited for the recruit to open the rear door. “They move whichever way the wind is blowing.”
While twirling his hand as if flicking a fencing foil, he stepped into the car and began the speech he repeated regularly to the men under his command. “The winds of the Third Reich have blown the Czech government away. The Reich has swept up and destroyed the Resistance and sent the Czech Jews to the ghetto at Terezín. And the Gentiles? They love the Third Reich, now that their invalids and old people and widows get pensions, and their workers get better rations and theater tickets and vouchers for vacations. The Czechoslovaks may be grinning brutes, but they know they can’t afford to raise their heads against the Reich or pretend to play good soldiers. The racially good and well-intentioned Czechs should know by now that they will have the opportunity to become Germans. The rest? The mongrels? The Slovaks? What does it matter what they think? They will be gone … to the East … away from here.” He never tired of delivering this message and worked to fine-tune it. He was particularly pleased with the latest turns of phrase—“winds of the Third Reich,” Czechs as “blades of grass.”
Satisfied that the recruit had been sufficiently schooled, Heydrich sat back against the seat cushions, crossed an ankle over a knee, tapped the driver on the shoulder and waved a salute to the recruit and his sergeant as the vehicle pulled away from the chateau, traveled down the gravel path and through the iron gates, passing the wild-boar stone carvings with their bared fangs that he had specially designed as guards for the front entrance to the grounds.
Between gaps in the shrubbery, Heydrich could see his pregnant wife lead their three children to the stone kiosks at the edge of the swimming pool where they would change into their bathing suits. In the past Heydrich had enjoyed many women and had paid a high price for the pleasure: He had been forced to resign his naval commission for impregnating and refusing to marry the daughter of a shipyard director. How could he marry a woman who would give herself so easily? he had said at the time. But Lina—Lina at the age of 19 had so captivated him that he could entertain no other women, and he rushed to the altar with- in a year of meeting her.
Heydrich watched her now, her hair pulled back in a tight bun, holding 3-year-old Silke’s hand. He followed the path of his rambunctious sons—8-year-old Heider and 9-year-old Klaus—down the stone steps as the sun glinted off their glossy white hair. He was happy that he and Lina had reconciled after his commitment to the Reich and his workload had, only a few years ago forced a divorce, assured that he and his wife and family would lead the New Germany.
His wife and family hidden behind the trees that lined the drive to the chateau, Heydrich turned his attention to the stack of file folders on the car seat next to him, their top layers sliding away. Ever since his early days in the SS, he had carefully amassed information about aristocrats, Catholics, Communists, Conservatives, Jews, Socialists and even enemies within the Reich’s high command. He created “poison” files on Nazis who might not be loyal enough, had too many debts or had been too flamboyant with their scandalous behavior. As second-in-command in the Schutzstaffel, Heydrich used his dossiers to identify what SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler called the “lowest species of humanity” and impose “preventive detention” on thousands of criminals, politicians and enemies of the state, so many, in fact, that his orders quickly filled the prisons beyond capacity, and he had to convert an abandoned munitions factory at Dachau into a concentration camp.
Heydrich opened the first file and began reading, tapping a pen on his knee as he flipped pages. He reached into a pocket and rifled through a series of index cards until he found the kind he was looking for: one with a red tab on the right side and a black tab on the left. Carefully copying the name of an identified political operative from the first page of the file onto the card, he muttered, laughing to himself: “Sedláček? You thought I wouldn’t find out you’re a Marxist? Hah! See how you like planning the Communist takeover of the world with your friends in Dachau.”
Swaying slightly as the limousine slowed to make its turn on to Rude Armady VII Kobylisky and enter the road that curved along the bend in the Vltava River in the near Prag suburb of Holešovice, Heydrich pushed protruding papers back into their folders, opened the flap of his satchel, slipped them inside and rested his fingers on the buckled leather straps. He relaxed in the seat as the sedan followed the wide arc of the road and then slowed to a crawl to make the sharp turn into V Holešovičkách Street. Surprised there were so few people on the street or waiting for the tram, he glanced at his watch: 10:35 a.m. Well, he said to himself, they are all good Czech workers. They are already on the job. He was the one who was late.
He had to admit, if grudgingly, that Czechoslovakia had its charms. Prag itself was cosmopolitan and cultured in a number of ways, with many examples of magnificent architecture. The suburb of Holešovice was serviceable—its buildings part lackluster—and maddeningly slow in operation with trams that were aged and inefficient, but its design, with large green areas on both the north and south sides of the town, was refreshing. Its residents were for the most part pleasant and passive, at least now that they knew who was in charge. But there wasn’t a Germanizable Czech among them. Except maybe, he thought, for that one.
Heydrich had let his eyes trace the two-story shops lining Rude Armady and the shoppers adjusting their string bags as they walked along the cobbles and spotted a young man with a high, smooth fore- head, slim and pointed nose and softly curling lips standing partially hidden in a doorway, a coat covering his body down to his shins. But what was such a young man doing here? And wearing such a heavy coat? It was nearly the end of May. Heydrich looked away from the man with contempt. Stupid Czech! This man clearly did not meet RuSHA racial criteria! He should not be walking the streets of a small town in Czechoslovakia! He should be working in the steelworks or laboring in the camps in the East! Heydrich decided he would tell the head of RuSHA—the Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt unit of the SS responsible for Germanization and racial profiling—that its investigators needed to do a better job of applying tests for racial purity. Better yet, he would suggest that the Race and Settlement Main Office add more tests—ones for intelligence.
Czech Resistance fighter Josef Gabčík turned his head to the left and made a quick nod to his compatriot, Jan Kubiš, who was standing at the corner of V Holešovičkách Street rummaging through a worn rucksack. Gabčík shrugged the arm of the coat off his shoulder and raised a 99-mm automatic submachine gun. With his left hand under the fore piece of the weapon and the stock against his shoulder, he peered through the sight and aimed the barrel of the weapon directly at the side of Heydrich’s face. He smiled as he watched Heydrich’s head turn and eyes rest on him, at first squinting in surprise, then gradually hardening with the realization of what they were observing. The years of preparation in the Czech Army in Exile in Great Britain, the months of planning with the Czech Resistance, the weeks of hiding in the hills and forests of Bohemia, the days of indecision and apprehension were finally being translated into action: He was about to become an assassin.
Gabčík gently squeezed the trigger and waited for the recoil. But there was no sound or rebound. He squeezed the trigger again, but felt no response. He looked nervously at Kubiš, his eyes wide, his head shaking, his shoulders rising as if to ask a question. Then he released the fore piece and let the weapon drop to the side of his body and onto the ground. He was prepared for death, assuming it would come quickly by his own hand or an enemy’s weapon, and for flight and concealment until then. But he was not prepared for failure. Since he had been airdropped into Nehvidzy by British pilots in March, he had thought of nothing but the bullet-shattered face and body of Reinhard Heydrich. Yet here at the perfect spot and the perfect time for the assassination, he could do nothing but turn away from his quarry and run down Rude Armady to the next side street.
Heydrich fumbled with the flap of his holster and finally un- snapped the catch, withdrawing the pistol. With his hand on the handle of the sedan’s rear door, he paused slightly when he heard the clank of metal striking metal, a thump and then a scraping sound.
“There!” he called out to his driver. “He’s over…” An overpowering rush of air took his words away. A sharp, sudden roar deafened his ears. Reverberations distorted his orientation as the back of the car rose a foot off the ground and crashed back to the earth, a passenger-side tire flattened, the windshield cracked.
Heydrich fell out of the car onto his shoulder, straining against the acute bursts of pain in his side and abdomen. He rose to his knees and held his breath as he forced his legs to raise his body. Hugging his torso with his left arm, he placed his hand on top of the sites of pain and pressed down to make it easier to move. Catching sight of a long coattail, he lifted his pistol and fired off several rounds aimed at the middle of the flapping cloth.
A stab of pain. A loss of breath. He grasped his side, stumbling on the cobblestones and falling back onto his knees. Then his body lurched forward, his pistol hand crashing to the curb.
Lying on his side, Heydrich wrenched open his uniform jacket. Running his fingers gingerly along his shirt front, he probed his injuries. In an area dark with blood, he saw small bits of metal protruding from his skin: shrapnel from the grenade and the interior of the car’s rear door. The tips of his fingers felt tufts of material—strings of horsehair stuffing—and tiny curved pieces of metal—sections of the automobile’s seat springs.
He rose on an elbow and looked back towards the car. There, in the gutter and on the street and sidewalk were index cards, fluttering in the breeze, dotted with spots of his blood.