It seems that in this day and age, in an unstable and often violent world, there is a powerful attraction to the idea of a hero battling oppression in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Indeed this has always been an attractive notion for humankind. The image of the lone savior rising up and valiantly fighting against those who would subjugate them is an immensely potent one that seems to be deeply and firmly rooted in the human imagination. Who hasn’t ever imagined having the power to stand up to and fight back against a bully, crime, violence, or even something as simple as the person who cut you off on your way to work or a horrible boss? Who hasn’t at some point daydreamed about being some sort of superhero themselves, empowered with the courage and the means to exert themselves against the things which would bring them down? It is undeniably a firmly entrenched human desire, a part of the very fiber of our being and a notable feature upon the terrain of our psyche. This desire would have been certainly present in war-torn Czechoslovakia during the days of World War II, when the Germans had descended upon them and subjected them to cruel oppression, and from the battle scarred streets of wartime Prague comes an intriguing, amazing tale of one lone hero with apparent super powers who allegedly appeared from seemingly nowhere to lock into battle with diabolical Nazi forces. It is a tale that would grow into legend, and which captivates and stirs that part of our soul that needs heroes.
The bloody fighting that was taking place all over the European continent during World War II inevitably came lumbering to Czechoslovakia’s doorstep. The Nazis relentlessly and brutally moved in to occupy the country between the years of 1938 to 1945, and the horrible conditions this meant for the people were everything you might expect from Hitler’s ruthless invading forces. The occupation of Czechoslovakia was seen as a great military advantage for Germany because at the time it was a major producer of tanks, guns, and artillery, and the oppressed and conquered Czechoslovakian people were forced into hard labor to keep this manufacture of instruments of death moving along at a steady pace. These captured Czech factories and their enslaved workers would eventually manufacture an immense amount of weaponry, including 2.175 field canons, 469 tanks, 500 anti-aircraft artillery pieces, 43.000 machine guns, 1.090.000 military rifles, 114.000 pistols, about a billion rounds of ammunition and three million anti-aircraft grenades for the German forces, and indeed these Czech produced arms would prove to be instrumental in the subsequent German conquest of Poland and France.
All through this, the Czech people were subjected to numerous, countless cruelties, offenses, and human rights abuses, and the occupying Nazi forces in Czechoslovakia were quick to deal out death to those who would dare to oppose them. A man by the name of Edvard Beneš had managed to keep a functioning government-in-exile for the country, and a resistance movement loyal to Beneš took hold against the Nazis, often engaging in guerilla maneuvers against the enemy. Although the resistance movement was a constant thorn in the Nazis’ side, things would come to a head with the orchestration of what was known as Operation Anthropoid in Prague on 27 May 1942, in which SS leader Heinrich Himmler's deputy and Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich, was assassinated and which subsequently provoked one of the most vicious and brutal reprisals of the entire war. Originally the furious Hitler ordered the random bloody execution of 10,000 Czech citizens but later he decided to just settle on the total destruction of the villages of Lidice and Ležáky, which were razed to the ground after every single male living there over the age of 16 was mercilessly killed and the rest of the citizens sent to concentration camps. In total, the repercussions of Operation Anthropoid amounted to 1,300 ruthlessly murdered and 10,000 arrested and sentenced to rot in camps without trial. These were dark times for the Czech people.
It was somewhere around this time, when the people of Czechoslovakia were lost in despair, without hope, and with their villages in ruins, that a curious, enigmatic stranger began to make his presence known. Reports began to circulate of a shadowy figure lurking in the shadows, darkened alleyways and rooftops of Prague, usually depicted as a somewhat spectral man dressed all in black and wearing a strange mask with shiny red eyes. Most notably, this stranger was said to have the astounding ability to make superhuman leaps of extraordinary magnitude, with witnesses describing the way he could bound across rooftops, over speeding trains, high gates, and even buildings with ease. In at least one report the black-clad figure was said to be able to leap completely over the Vitava River at its widest point, during which he was said to fly effortlessly through the air “like a shuttlecock” and to unleash an ear shattering, unearthly whistling sound. This power to leap great distances with ease led the stranger being called Pérák, or literally “Springer” or “Spring Man,” with the name deriving from the Czech word péro, meaning “spring.” Adding to this impressive leaping ability was Pérák’s alleged phenomenal speed, stamina and agility, all of which were said to make him impossible to follow or capture.
At first, Pérák was seen by the populace as a menacing, almost demonic figure to be feared. Early versions of the story have the mysterious apparition scaring or chasing and terrorizing innocent people, and even killing or raping citizens, and people began to avoid going out at night or refusing to go to work night shifts at the weapons factories to the extent that it even had a negative impact on the Nazi arms production output. However, this image as a sinister and diabolical boogieman quickly changed. Word began to spread that Pérák was starting to turn his attention on the German occupying forces, sabotaging their equipment and leaping from the shadows to slit their throats before bounding away. It was rumored that during these encounters he seemed to be impervious to bullets when fired upon by the Nazis, with some accounts even describing German bullets ricocheting off of him to hit other soldiers, and he was always able to use his amazing jumping abilities to easily evade pursuit.
Additionally, Pérák was said to sometimes come to the aid of Czech citizens who were being attacked or harassed by the Nazis and either fend off or outright slaughter the oppressors before bounding away into the night, often emitting an ear piercing wail or whistle as he did so. Although he is mostly portrayed as preferring to remain stealthy and unseen, Pérák was known to be very adept at hand to hand combat and knife fighting. He also showed great skill with explosives and pyrotechnics, being credited with blowing up German supply lines, vehicles, and even destroying a tank in Grébovka Park. In a few stories he was seen to use some sort of fireworks as a weapon, spewing flames from his wrists at the enemy. He was also known to allegedly steal secret Nazi documents, such as the plans to an unspecified German secret weapon from the ČKD factory in Vysočany. There were even those who went so far as to claim that it had in fact been Pérák who had assassinated Reinhard Heydrich rather than the agents of Operation Anthropoid. Throughout all of this one-man struggle against the juggernaut German war machine, Pérák was said to leave bold and taunting anti-Nazi graffiti on walls or gates in normally inaccessible places, further strengthening his legend.
This growing image of him as a sort of superhero for the Czech people led to Pérák evolving to be a potent symbol of resistance against the Nazi regime, a savior for the people, and the stories quickly fanned out across the countryside to embed themselves firmly within the collective consciousness of the oppressed populace. Pérák seemed to be everywhere. It got to the point where nearly every problem, mishap, accident, or death the Germans suffered was attributed to the Spring Man of Prague, and he was widely seen as a hero and a ray of hope piercing through the gloom and death of the Nazi occupation. The legend of Pérák steadily gained momentum until the end of the war, when he seemed to vanish as suddenly and mysteriously as he had appeared.
However, although he may have disappeared from the shadows of Prague’s streets he did not disappear from the hearts of the Czech people. In May of 1945, practically as the smoke and dust was still clearing in the trail of departing German forces, Czech cartoonists Jiří Brdečka and Jiří Trnka created a 14-minute animated film entitled Pérák a SS ("Springman and the SS"), which depicted the titular hero as a man who maintained a secret identity as a chimney sweep and dressed all in black, attached springs to his shoes, and ventured forth into the night to do battle with the Nazis. This same creative team would go on to publish a popular series of comic strips depicting Pérák, called Pérákovi další osudy ("The Other Fates of Pérák"), and the hero became an icon in popular culture. It was a trend that would continue on even when these representations of Pérák came to be discouraged by the new communist regime that came into power after the war, and indeed he is still a very popular character that inspires artists, writers, TV, movies, theater, and comics to this day.
The question that looms over all of this is just who or what Pérák was. Over the years it has been oft suggested that this valiant figure was merely an urban legend circulated by the weary, suffering people to give them hope in the face of the Nazi scourge, a savior in a time when these subjugated people needed one most desperately. This theory is given weight by the fact that the archetype for a spring-footed, or “leaping ghost” tradition was found to already predate World War II in the Czechoslovakian region. Ethnographer Dr. Miloš Pulec conducted an investigation into the lore of Pérák in the 1960s and found that the tradition of these leaping specters in the region went as far back as the 1920s and perhaps even beyond. It was also discovered that in the face of increasing atheism amongst the people, vergers of the Roman Catholic Church in northwestern Bohemia had once attached springs to their feet and dressed up in scary costumes to become “jumping devils” in order to scare everyone into piety.
While it seems the idea has caught on that this is all mere urban legend, there are others who disagree and believe that Pérák actually really existed in some form and to some extent, although it is unclear just who exactly he could have been. One idea is that he was a disgruntled citizen, an American secret agent, or a British paratrooper who had taken matters into his own hands, and that his various abilities and agility could be explained by the vigilante being an acrobat or gymnast and having developed a variety of gadgetry to explain his amazing powers, such as real spring loaded boots, pyrotechnic weapons, and perhaps even some sort of body armor, sort of like a WWII era Batman. It has even been suggested that the whistling or wailing sound often attributed to Pérák could have been from some sort of spring-loaded machinery or even a weapon in itself for the purpose of startling, frightening, or disorienting enemies. These attributes could have subsequently been possibly exaggerated over retellings as the tales took off in the peoples’ imagination. More fringe beliefs say that Pérák was an actual ghost, demon, or even an alien. Interestingly, although citizens often spoke of Pérák and his deeds, the official police stance was that he did not exist. George Zenaty, an authority on the policing of Prague during World War II, has stated:
... in 1940-1942 none of our police precincts in Prague informed us in their daily reports of the existence of a ‘Spring Man’. This does not mean that such rumours might not have circulated; however, it would have been impossible to include [them] in the reports without tangible proof.
This does not necessarily equate to Pérák not existing. The police of the time in this occupied land would have been the very Germans who were being attacked by the enigmatic hero, and it would have not been wise of them to encourage the citizens by acknowledging his existence. They would have wanted to keep the people docile and obedient, not give them hope, seed potential unrest, or even inspire copycats by officially talking about this vigilante savior of the people. It makes sense that if Pérák did ever exist at all, then the police of the time would have gone through some degree of effort to discourage rumors and initiate a cover-up. Even if it was indeed all mere urban legends and rumors it seems that it would have been in the best interest of the authorities to keep a lid on it and squash such rumors as much as possible so as to quell the concepts of hope and rebellion. It should not be too surprising at all that the police would want to ignore or deny the stories.
It is certainly worth mentioning the clear parallels between the stories of Pérák and yet another legend in the form of the notorious Spring-heeled Jack of the United Kingdom. Beginning in 1837, the industrial suburbs of London, Sheffield, and Liverpool, as well as the Midlands and even as far away as Scotland became the stomping grounds for a mysterious figure with the remarkable ability to make enormous leaps via springs attached to his feet, who persistently terrorized residents and was known to make his escape by swiftly bounding away. This specter quickly became known as Spring-heeled Jack, and was depicted as having a frightening appearance, with metal claws attached to his hands and in some accounts glowing red eyes and the ability to shoot blue and white flames from his mouth. Spring-heeled Jack was far from a noble hero, and was mostly seen as a decidedly malevolent force which sowed mayhem and misery wherever he went, but it was a very widespread tale all the way up to the early 1900s and word of this scary entity spread throughout Europe, including the region of Bohemia. Considering this, it seems plausible that considering the similarities in the apparent use of pyrotechnics, or jumping to attack or evade capture, the stories of Spring-heeled Jack may very well have influenced those of Pérák. After all, even Pérák started off as a menacing, demonic figure, and the striking similarities between the two are obvious.
Is there any grain of truth to the fantastic story of Pérák the Spring Man? If so, who or what was he? It certainly seems like an alluring, even romantic notion, this idea that in the midst of war torn Prague a brave superhero rose up and struck back in the dark of night with amazing powers at his disposal. Whether he really existed or not, it is undoubtedly a powerful image that resonates with people, and it is easy to see why it became so entrenched in the public consciousness here. We as a species certainly have a strong, universal attraction to, and almost a need for, the archetype of a hero rising up against his or her oppressors which seems to transcend borders. It is an inclination that can be seen all around us in art, fiction, the movies, and comics, with the popularity of superheroes and notably the ones that involve someone we can relate to, a regular person earning his powers through physical effort, mental discipline, and ingenuity, such as Iron Man or Batman. These are the ones that truly reverberate within us and inspire us. Although his exact origins and whether he ever really existed or not remain murky, the very idea of Pérák was probably just as effective in holding the oppressed people of the occupation together through the dark days of the war. In the end, there is much that remains mysterious about Pérák. We don’t know if there was ever a real Czechoslovakian superhero during World War II. We don’t know if he ever really existed. But I for one sure do rather like to think that he did.