Amidst the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of VE Day, there is little reference to what happened after the end of the war in Europe. The killing did not stop on 8th May 1945, across Europe, hundreds of thousands more people were to die. In some cases, perhaps the killings would be seen as a just punishment for the atrocities those killed had committed. In other cases, the cold-blooded slaughter of men, women and children was a further war crime to add to the litany of those already committed.
In France, some ten thousand people died in reprisal killings, in Italy, twenty thousand Fascist sympathisers were summarily killed. The worst atrocities were against German-speaking minorities. The BBC History Extra website carries the story of one such incident:
In the summer of 1945, a train carrying refugees pulled out of a station in what’s now Slovakia, heading for Germany. Its passengers were German speakers being expelled from the country – in the wake of the Second World War, Czechoslovakians no longer wanted such people living in their midst.
When the train passed through the town of Přerov in Moravia it was brought to a halt. The head of the local militia, a man named Karol Pazúr, forced everyone to disembark, claiming he wanted to carry out a search for former Nazis hiding among the passengers.
When they stepped down from the train, Pazúr and his men lined them up and shot them all. The dead included 71 men, 120 women and 74 children. The youngest victim was just eight months old.
Perhaps the most notable fact about the Přerov massacre is that its protagonist was one of the very few Czechs ever to be arrested for such crimes. At his trial, Pazúr was asked how he could possibly justify the killing of the children. He is reported to have answered: “Well, what was I supposed to do with them after we’d killed their parents?” Nevertheless, after a brief spell in prison, Pazúr was pardoned. He promptly began a new career as a member of the communist secret police.
Among the stories of atrocities, there were also stories of hope. Hubert, a German friend in Dublin used to recount the arrival of refugees in his community during the closing months of the Second World War:
‘My father was away in the army somewhere. Perhaps in France? We did not know. My mother was trying to run the hotel. Our village had been granted a charter as a town in medieval times, but was really no more than a village.
One day a tide of people came through the streets: thousands and thousands of them from East Prussia and other places. A huge wave of refugees, walking, tired and exhausted. They had nothing and nowhere to go.
My mother let two hundred of them come into the hotel. Some were just happy to lie on the ballroom floor; there was no other space. People just lay down.
There was an old Catholic priest amongst them, trying to look after them. We lived in a Protestant village, there were only three Catholic families. We would have gone to Mass in the next village; it was a five kilometres walk.
The Protestant pastor in our village offered his church for the priest to use to conduct Mass for his congregation of refugees. The refugees remained, the Russians had conquered the East and no-one wanted to go to live under Communist rule. In seven years, the Catholics had gathered enough money to build a church’.
His story seemed a testimony to the power of human endurance. Impoverished, defeated, grieving, overwhelmed, the people of that community found it within themselves to welcome those who came from the east and build a future together.