Heliodor Píka (1897 - 1949)
“As God is my witness I don’t desire revenge for those who are responsible for my death.”
Heliodor Píka was born on July 3, 1897, in Štítina, Opava region, in the family of a wheelwright Ignác Píka and Johana née Valášiková. He finished his studies at the grammar school in Opava by passing the leaving examination in summer 1941. Then he wanted to study pharmaceutics but in the train of mobilization he was conscripted into army. After finishing the course for non-commissioned officers in June 1916, he was reassigned to the eastern front; however, he deserted as soon as it was possible. One year later, he left the prison camp together with other Czechoslovak volunteers and enrolled for the first transport to the French front. Since he had experiences with working in pharmacy, they assigned him to the medical corps and at his own request he was also present at the front line battles as a medical worker. After the end of the First World War he participated in taking safeguarding measures in border area of the new Czechoslovak Republic. In the years 1919 and 1920 he attended the Saint-Cyr Military Academy in France. After coming home he was transferred to emerging Military Academy in Hranice in Moravia where he also married Mária Sehnalová. Shortly after the year 1922 when their son Milan was born, he was appointed the aide-de-camp of Military Academy’s commander. In 1925 he had passed written exams and was chosen for two-year course at the Paris Military School. After coming back to Czechoslovakia he was raised to the rank of major of general staff, later he acted as a military attaché to Romania and Turkey as well. When Munich Pact was signed, in a bid to prevent increase of German war potential, he intensively worked to transfer at least a part of military materiel abroad. However, his effort was thwarted by the events of March 1939. Heliodor Píka stood up for using armed defence against German aggression and refused establishing the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, so after March 15, 1939, he fled abroad, to Romania where he started to cooperate with the government exiled in Great Britain. In Bucharest he became the leader of the Czechoslovak resistance movement; however, under dramatic circumstances he had to escape from Romania to Turkey and later to USSR. Heliodor Píka was appointed chief of the Czechoslovak Military Mission to the Soviet Union where his major task was to create new Czechoslovak units. Following his return to Czechoslovakia in 1945, he became a deputy chief of general staff of the Czechoslovak Army. In 1946 he was promoted to the rank of divisional general and as a member of Czechoslovak delegation he was present at peace talks in Paris. In February 1948 he was forced to retire because of his alleged political unreliability, moreover, during the convalescence period after the gall bladder surgery, he was interrogated by the “committee of generals” and on May 5, 1948, he was accused of high treason. From January 26 to January 28, 1949, he was tried in secret, dismissed from army, demoted and sentenced to death by hanging. Subsequently he was transported to Bory prison in Pilsen where, despite of intervention from the side of foreign diplomats, he was executed on June 21, 1949.
“When It Finishes, I Will Be Hanged on the First Lamppost”
“At the beginning of year 1948, when the communist takeover and coup d’état were drawing near, during one journey with my father there was an intimate moment, because, you know, we used to talk about official issues very rarely. Ultimately, we didn’t see each other very often. His obligations and my interests differentiated a lot. So once when we travelled by car through Prague, I said: “Dad, what do you think about it? How is the situation developing? Aren’t you supposed to do something in the situation like this when it comes up to the change that needn’t be the best?” And he said just one sentence I remember till today, though I couldn’t recall other circumstances connected to that statement. He responded: “Milan, you know, when it finishes, I will be hanged on the first lamppost.” This is what I remember, what is branded on my memory.”
Rejection of Escape
“As for our social class, namely army, for example general Ferienčík and general Hasál with family emigrated. The news spread very quickly back then; it took only one or two days since we somehow came to know about it. When I had found it out, I visited my father in hospital and it was the last time I saw him and talked to him when he was at liberty, if I could call it that way, because some undercover agents guarded him there. I told him: ‘Dad, people, our friends flee, can I help you somehow? Do you want to go abroad?’ And he answered: ‘No. Milan, I don’t want to flee abroad, I will stay here with my people, in my homeland because I have to prove my innocence here, not abroad. Please, do nothing, I don’t want to escape.’ Those were his last words as for this topic.”
“Meeting” of Son and His Father in Pankrác Prison
“Interrogations had finished and they brought me to the State Court in Pankrác as well. The next day, because the news usually spread around very quickly in prison, one warder told me: ‘Your father is here as well.’ ‘Where?’ ‘Well, in the same building but on the first floor.’ It was in the block A, I was in A 77 and he was in A 134. We were in one building, just couple of meters away from each other, but actually we were very distant. The situation had changed and finally, as I cast my mind back, I was really happy to be there in that quod. And why? Although I couldn’t meet my father and speak with him, I saw him every day. How? We were allowed to walk in the yard of Pankrác prison every day. And all the windows were oriented to that yard. Of course I mean the cell windows. The first cell on the ground floor situated next to the stairway which led to prison’s yard was my father’s, general’s cell. They let him know as well that his son was there, so he could look at me through the window. He had to step on something, because the window was quite high. So he used for example table or something similar and looked at me every day for more than one month, he was there every time I was walking in the yard.”
Message from Father to His Son in Prison
“Clearly, when I was in prison I got some messages from my father. Of course there were messages sent verbally; however, he sent me also two written messages that are now historical evidence and serious documents in the case of General Píka. Let me quote two sentences from one of them connected to our “communication” when I took some exercises in the yard. It was on February 12. On February 12, my father’s trial had already been ended. From January 26 to January 28, he was tried and finally sentenced to death. My trial was held on February 16. ‘My dearest son, I am convinced they will release you, so I want to say good bye to you. You can’t imagine how much you meant for me. You were a star, shaft of light and calmness and in recent time, you were also my biggest moral support. When I saw you through that window I forgot about everything. I didn’t feel the fright that is tormenting me. Be happy with our beloved. Got bless you for everything I could draw from you. I repeat I am absolutely innocent. I want to emphasize that all the protocols were false, written by doctor Vaš. He rewrote the facts. Covering, meaning and formulation were tendentious figments of doctor Vaš.’”
Last Night before the Execution I.
“On June 20, it was Monday afternoon, when suddenly telephone rang in our flat in Prague: ‘You should arrive in Pilsen tomorrow in the morning, your father wasn’t granted clemency, so he will be executed tomorrow.’ It was dreadful. I was really horrified. I can’t express how I felt back then, it was a long time ago, but I was surely hopeless. What should I have done? It was five in the afternoon. At six in the morning my father was to be executed. Well, I had to get to Pilsen quickly. I had a lot of acquaintances then but just a few friends. I would say that after February I had less than three real friends. So finally my former classmate, the only one truehearted friend, my classmate from the grammar school in Křemencová, freed himself from work and drove me and my wife to Pilsen. We arrived there at some point in the evening, it was dark already. I found accommodation for my classmate and we went to Bory prison in Pilsen where they knew that we would come. It was about midnight. Well, they led us, I vaguely remember that way; however, I came there also after the year 1989, they guided us there, showed everything to us and I was even in that cell where my father spent the rest of his life, his last days and I recalled everything he had to experience there, so now I know exactly how it looked there. So, when we came to that cell, my father was sitting at the table in his civilian clothing, yes, they permitted him to change into civilian clothes. It was gloomy inside, there wasn’t much light. He was writing something at that small table. In the corner there were sitting two guards, warders or somebody wearing uniforms. I don’t know now who they were indeed. We greeted one another and the longest night in my life was about to begin. I didn’t know how to console him or if I ever could. I cried and wept almost all the time. However, he was really calm and absolutely even-tempered like a person who was about to leave for a long trip but who yet had to settle something. I can’t understand it now. Back then I had only perceived that situation, though I wasn’t able to see it as a whole. Now I am sure it had to be very hard for him. Dr. Váhala was present in his cell that night as well. He was my father’s ex officio lawyer in his first secret trial where no witnesses were allowed to testify. They didn’t accept any witnesses, any of our proposals, so the trial had been definitely prearranged. Dr. Váhala had merit also in reopening my father’s case and in clearing his name, too. As I previously said my father was calm and even-tempered; he emphasized that I should concentrate on my family, family life, and that I shouldn’t take revenge. He said I had to try to forget all these things but work as he had worked his whole life for the nation, for his homeland. I didn’t understand it at all. I didn’t comprehend why a merited officer who had fought in two wars for freedom of his nation and state ended up here; he who helped with formation of the first Czechoslovak army, a French legionnaire, why he had to depart from this life, die this way. Though I wasn’t familiar with the heart of the matter, with the accusation, with anything, I knew, that it suited the purpose to say that general Píka was pro-Western oriented and it meant that he betrayed his homeland. It was not so much but enough for son who knew it was really untruth but who didn’t know what to do. Somehow the morning came; it was the first summer day, June 21. The chief of general staff said it on the button during one of the memorial meetings in front of the general staff residence, I couldn’t recall the year but it was surely after 2000: ‘It was the longest day for us but the shortest for general.’”
Last Night before the Execution II.
“I have to cast my mind back to that fateful and most terrible night in my life. At that night I had to say goodbye to my father. Except from me and my first wife, also father’s lawyer and a priest were present there. My father wanted to meet the priest before he would depart from this life. His name was father Doležal and he celebrated the requiem mass in the near church in Bory. Many years later, after the year 1989, father Doležal called and gave interview to our magazine Reportér. I knew he had emigrated shortly after those events. Well, it was in 1990. Reportér magazine was published on October 30, 1990. Please, let me quote at least some words from the article where he described his last meeting with general. I will read in Czech: ‘It was about the St. Alojz holiday, June 21, indeed. This year, 1949, at about midnight I was waken up by the warder. He pressed me to go with him quickly to Bory prison to bring religious relief and holy sacrament to one prisoner. I found it weird when the prison administration was so eager, mainly in case no holy masses had been celebrated for prisoners since March. Nevertheless, I took my briefcase and the Eucharist as well and warder himself drove me to the prison. It was strange because in similar cases I used to go there by foot. At the prison door director Šafarčík received me and with undue courtesy accompanied me to the prisoner’s cell. He was fawning and pretended good manners, I would say, he behaved like a Gestapo member. I entered the room. The prisoner introduced himself to me: General Píka. In January I was sentenced to death and today at six in the morning I will be executed. I wanted to see the priest. Warder and general’s son with wife followed my instructions and went out. Wife of the condemned man wasn’t there. General devotedly got the Eucharist, worshiped the Stations of the Cross and prayed with me. He was prepared to die. Calm and even-tempered.’ He continued writing: ‘He cast his mind back – as a father – to his childhood. He recalled his mother. Then he suddenly said: Give my regards to the archbishop Beran. Do you know him? I asked. No, not very well. We entered into courtesy conversation when we met at several receptions. I appreciate his anti-communist attitude and I wish he would hold it on. I know best what the communism is and what it would mean for us in the future. Then he continued: All the representatives of the State Court came to Pilsen to see me. At eleven in the evening they notified me that I will be executed at six o’clock in the morning. They kindly allowed me to change prison clothing for the civilian and they also permitted my son and daughter in law to visit me. And my lawyer is here as well. Well, both French and English ambassadors are interceding with the President Gottwald; however, I know it is a mug’s game. I am ready to pass away.’”
“And Yet I Will Be Glad to Make This Forcible Sacrifice…”
“When we saw him for the first time in his cell, he was writting something. It was his farewell letter that was not only the last letter to our family, but also to all the people. I’ll read at least one passage. He wrote it between 4:30 and 5:40 in the morning and at six he passed away. ‘My beloved and dearest, though I am facing frightful and tragic moments, I stay calm and even-tempered with the clear conscience because I know that in spite of many mistakes I carried out my duties as conscientiously and honestly as I only could. I am sure this is not a judicial error; it’s obvious that this is a political murder indeed. And yet I will be glad to make this forcible sacrifice, if it calms down and unifies the nation. I don’t feel malice, hate or vindictiveness; I just regret and feel heartache about the fact that justice and truth have disappeared and only hate and revenge are spreading everywhere. The sense of tolerance, freedom of thinking and speech already vanished. How easy the truth can be twisted, reversed to it’s exact opposite, without any opportunity to call witnesses or give evidence to protect it. I am sorry that fear rules people’s lives, sorry that they don’t have enough courage to tell the truth or at least not to tell the obvious lie. Either the compulsion or opportunism is the reason. Where has the honesty and courage disappeared? Where has our credo which we inherited from Ján Hus and T.G. Masaryk gone, when we used to remind it so proudly to ourselves and to the entire world as well? Truth? It is twilight of the national conscience or even darkness descended on freedom of human rights. No, I can’t believe it because the nation’s genius is eternal and it will withstand even the storm and won’t let you decease.’”
The Shortest Day of General Píka
“The dawn broke, sun was already shining when the guards came and told us that it was time to go. We embraced one another and kissed for the last time. Of course I was shattered, unable to do anything and he was still calm and even-tempered. The last look, wave and they took him away. We left the room through another door. We went to the near church where father Doležal, a priest who was with my father in his last minutes, celebrated the requiem mass.”
Execution in Memories of Father Doležal
“When my father said good bye to us, they took him away, to the yard where gallows was prepared. In Bory there hadn’t been execution for a long time. For many years. It was the reason why we stayed relatively calm when they notified us in March that my father was transferred from Pankrác, Praha, to Bory prison. We took it as a good sign; we thought father wouldn’t be executed. However, the reverse came true. They did it with the intent to divert attention. After all, anything could happen in Prague. On the contrary, Pilsen prison was guarded very well, so nothing like a kidnap could happen there. The dust settled and those who had prepared his death made use of it. And here it was said about his last moments: ‘Execution was performed in one corner of stellate building plan. In the corner of patio there were about fifty people. Court, guards, executioner. The State Court consisted of high officers, I saw two generals there. I didn’t know their names. I knew just one colonel, doctor Rajman from Pilsen who was supposed to certify death. One of the colonels read the brief verdict: Heliodor Píka, divisional general (ret.), born …, who committed the crime of high treason by committing acts in accordance with constitutional law and so on and is sentenced in compliance with penalty of Law for the Protection of the Republic to death by hanging. Petition for clemency was refused and verdict is valid. I deliver the defendant. For the whole time general stood there whey-faced and seemingly calm. I held his sweating, icy hand. His eyes were cast down. He looked at cross in my hands and prayed. Then he pronounced three sentences worded like these: I am innocent. I have always wanted the welfare for people. As God is my witness I don’t desire revenge for those who are responsible for my death.‘ I would add that he was called on to say his last words: ‘I wish for nation to stay unified and for people without difference to work together for unity of our people.’ Then the general was in executioner’s hands. The hangman wore big artificial moustache and his skin was red to avoid being recognized. It was general’s last battle in his earthly life. When it was over, I took the rosary from hands of the dead and gave it to his family. Immediately after the execution, the lawyer asked for giving the body of deceased to his family. The court needs to consult it, was the cynical and laconically refusing answer of the colonel, chairman of the court. And then the court was dismissed. Family was present at the requiem mass, which was held half an hour after the execution in Redemptorists’ church in Pilsen. Then they left. In spite of many requests and supplications, they didn’t deliver the body of deceased to his family. It was hatred going beyond the death.’”
Cleared of Charge in 1968
“I had gleaned evidence, witnesses and documents for many years. And in 1966 I decided to apply all the relevant state authorities, actually party ones, such as the Central Committee of the KSČ, Ministry of Defence, the Supreme court, in short I applied for reopening the case of general Píka because I was convinced that he had been murdered because of political reasons. I knew all those accusations were fabricated, so I asked all the mentioned authorities to permit a retrial. We had waited for two years when finally at the beginning of February 1968 we obtained the decision of the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice that retrial was permitted and the Higher Military Court in Příbram would decide it. So we used to travel for the whole time. Briefly, this new proceeding was permitted in February 1968 and in May 1968 the judgement of former state court from the year 1949 was voided and it was decided to open a new trial. It meant that my father, of course not he personally only his name, was tried again. Well, it was held from May to December in several proceedings either in Příbram or in Prague where all the witnesses were called, those witnesses who should have been called also in the main trial in 1949. They expressly rebutted all the data and imputations, and they even confessed that their previous adverse testimonies were enforced by violence, threats, and mental and physical pressure. I was glad to hear it. Finally, as I was the first person who was called to all those proceedings I knew it; I waited to see that my father’s innocence was proved, that there was definitely no mention of his offence, but quite the reverse. For what he was condemned he should have been appreciated and rewarded not sent to gallows. On December 13, 1968, the Municipal Court in Prague passed the judgement, which came in force in 1969, actually in January; and by which Píka was definitely cleared of charge. He was given back all his ranks and honours and the like. The courtroom was crowded, only one place was empty. It was the place for defendant where only bunch of roses was set.”
The Sacrifice of General Píka and It’s Meaning
“It’s necessary to look back at the beginnings. Actually at the beginning of life we and he lived. We need to identify with it and see the history from the perspective of the given period. We had to identify with the fact that he came from very poor family, was one of nine children, grew up without father and had to help mother to care for younger siblings and support the family. He lived in borderland where the strong German influence was evident. In Silesia, in Opava. He attended the only Czech grammar school in Opava what predestined him to have a bit more different relationship to his homeland than the present young generation has today. And he had something to be really proud of. He wanted to preserve it for the next generations and it was what he had pursued for his whole life. Our young generation, our children who were born in virtually free state, they didn’t experience all those influences and worries. It’s a pity because it could be the reason why they aren’t proud of their origin, of their nation, that they are Slovak or Czech nationals. This is what the generation of our fathers surely felt. And my father laid down his life for retrieving these values. He sacrificed himself with little regard for his own family and hardly anybody would guess what he had told or written to me: ‘My conscience is clear, so in case my sacrifice brings peace and bright future for our people, I gladly die.’”
The story and videoclips of this witness were put together and published thanks to the financial support of EU within the programme Europe for Citizens – Active European Remembrance.