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Holocaust Education in the Czech Republic

Anna Hájková, Terezín Initiative Institute

The attitude of the majority of the Czech population is a rather indifferent one toward the topic of the Jewish minority. The umbrella organisation, the Federation of the Jewish communities has by now about 10.000 members, and the overall tendency is a liberal one; many members participate as a cultural avowal of belonging, not a religious one. So one could generalise by saying that whereas anti-Semitism is weak, the non-Jewish majority population has but little knowledge of what Jewishness is supposed to be. This ignorance is sometimes a cause for construction of prejudices of Jews as the different ones. Yet one cannot stress strongly enough that the Czech Jews are fully assimilated; the process of assimilation started from the beginning of the 19th century onwards; and generally speaking, those who remained in Czechoslovakia after the WWII were either communists, or those for whom their identity as Czech citizens was decisive.

At the same time, however, most of the Czechs have strong ressentiments towards the Roma population. This manifested sadly spring 2005, when the president Václav Klaus said in an interview on the occasion of the commemoration of the concentration camp for Roma at Lety, that it had not been a concentration camp, but a collecting camp for those not willing to work; and the mortality rate had been only due to the typhoid epidemic (sic). Certainly, Václav Klaus is a populistic politician, but such remarks by the head of state show how the discourse about the social and ethnic minorities in the Czech Republic is shaped.

Commemoration of the holocaust did hardly take place during the Communist era. There was the memorial for the Czech Jewish victims, whose names were engraved at the walls of the Pinkas synagogue in the late 1950s; but the synagogue was closed due to “reconstruction work” from 1968 until 1989. Then there was the Terezín Memorial, opened as early as 1947, which represents both the Gestapo prison at the Small Fortress and the former ghetto. However, in the 1970s a museum of the “national defense”, depicting the history of the Czechoslovak police was opened in the area of the town of Terezín; there were exhibitions on the history of the Small Fortress,. Throughout the time, the Prague Jewish Museum was open, but it focused on its judaica and medieval collections, less the remembrance of the holocaust. In the 1960s, there came a wave of both academic and popular literature with the topic of the Czech holocaust. It had a sudden end after 1968, with the “normalisation”. After 1970, there were some strong anti-Zionist to anti-Semitic tendencies to be heard, covered by the central committee of the Communist party. Even stronger was the change after the political transitions in 1989. The Terezín Memorial was reorganised and the old museum of the “national defense” was closed. The state returned the Jewish Museum in Prague to the Federation of the Jewish Communities. Shortly after the 1989 ‘revolution’, the Association of the Terezín Survivors and their descendants was founded, as the ‘Terezín Initiative’.

Many of the pedagogical initiatives dealing with holocaust education are bound to the academic institutions which conduct research on the holocaust. In the following, I shall mention the most important projects. Remarkably, in the Czech Republic the research on the holocaust is mostly conducted outside of the university structure. There is no chair of history, which would devote an appreciable amount of energy to seminars on this topic. There are, indeed, lecturers who offer such courses, and many students are interested in writing their master thesis on this, but they are but little encouraged by the professors. The research mostly takes place outside of the state network, but those institutions conducting a leading research are remarkably active.

(For an overview of the Czech academic situation cf. my article `Holocaustforschung in Tschechien,` in: Gedenkstättenrundbrief, 9 (2005), pp. 26-33.)

The Czech public opinion on the holocaust of the Czech Jews changed somewhat after the completion of the “Mixed Commission” lead by the vice-president of the then government, Pavel Rychetský in 1998. This commission conducted research on the so called aryanisation of the Jewish property. In the course of the activities of this commission and its sub-commission the topic of the holocaust appeared more often in the press. Also, the national Foundation for holocaust victims (NFOH) was founded, endowed with 10 millions Euros by the state. From a part of its funds it supports several educational, social and academic projects dealing with the holocaust in the widest sense.

Since 2000, the Czech Republic has been member of the Task Force for Holocaust Education. The cooperating partner is the Terezín Memorial; from the official side, there is always a national coordinator in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Terezín Memorial both conducts seminars for pupils from the Czech Republic and abroad (most notably Germany and Austria, sometimes Slovakia). These seminars take place between one day up to a week. The Memorial offers a guided tour through the area of the former ghetto and the Little Fortress, guided discussions on a common reading matter, discussions with survivors etc. In second place, the Memorial offers two days training courses for teachers on how to teach about the holocaust. These courses take place in cooperation with the Jewish Museum Prague and the Terezín Initiative Institute (ITI).Whereas the visits of the classes take place under cooperation with the Jewish Museum, the preparation of the training seminars for teachers takes place under the auspices of the Terezín Initiative Institute. ITI was founded in 1994 as an academic institution for the research of the holocaust of the Czech Jewry and the history of the Terezín ghetto by the Terezín Initiative. Thus there are two institutions: the association of the former prioners, and then the research institute. Although both institutions have their headquarters in the same building Jáchymova 3 in Prague 1, they are independent.

As one of the first ones among the Central and Eastern European countries, the Czech Republic started cooperating with the Anne Frank House, which is the Czech liason partner in the Task Force. Now, the Anne Frank House has its traveling exhibition “Anne Frank – a story for today” in the Czech Republic. Alongside the exhibition there are always lectures and seminars for the schools in the city where the exhibition is being shown. The institution in charge is the Cultural and Education Centre (VKC) of the Jewish Museum in Prague. At the same time, the Anne Frank House supported the development of the educational web-site www.holocaust.cz lead by the ITI. On this website, texts and documents about the history of the Holocaust and teaching materials for teachers and pupils can be found. Under the auspices of the Task Force, the joint project of the Jewish Museum and the Terezín Memorial offers training courses for teachers.

Another project of the VKC is the “Lost Neighbours”. Within this project, classes at secondary schools (usually primary and high schools) are encouraged to conduct research on the former schoolmates, friends and neighbours of Jewish origin of their grandparents. Children aim at reconstructing individual biographies, as well as long gone social micromilieus. One of the aims is the conclusion how differences among people can be artificially drawn and how “similar to us” the Jews were, who suddenly disappeared. At the same time, the pupils are rather enthusiastic about this project, as it is, at the same time, a good piece of conducting a detective work. Also, the Jewish Museum in Prague being a rather prestigious institution, there is an incentive to discoveries. Some well done projects end up in a brochure or a little exhibition of their own.

The project of the educational homepage, www.holocaust.cz, run by the ITI, is among others supported by the Anne Frank House. This homepage offers a good overview of basic information on the holocaust, both from the general (world) and the specific (Czech) perspective. These short articles are between one to three pages long. Furthermore, the homepage offers a variety of approaches for lessons on anti-racist education, an overview of Czech projects dealing with this topic and numerous further information. Last but not least, the homepage also offers a summary of the latest events on the holocaust in the Czech republic, be it in the press, books or exhibitions. The www.holocaust.cz - opens in new window">www.holocaust.cz page plans among its projects to publish the database of the Terezín victims in the framework of the website. Secondly, within the project “The Terezín Album” we plan to digitalize documents, most important photos, which would portray the lives of individual victims of the factory-like genocide. These photos would also be available through the website.

Another project in the Czech republic is AISIS in Kladno. AISIS adapts the approach of the Facing History and Ourselves program for the Czech republic and conducts seminars for teachers.

When we take a look on the development of the educational activities in the Czech republic in the last ten years, we can see a large step forward. The state of the Czech textbooks was a rather poor one. To generalize greatly, from 1999 on, the textbooks must be authorized by the official corrector named by the Ministery of Schools, who is Leos Pavlát, the director of the Jewish Museum Prague. Mr. Pavlát controls that the topic is touched in every textbook which gets to the market, that there are no latent anti-Semitic tendencies nor factual mistakes. Still, however, the topic of the holocaust is often dealt within the frame of the Czech national history as an outside accident, quite out of the context of the modern Czech history. For example, the subject of the Czech bystanders and helpers remains virtually untouched. One can conclude, that as long as the official narrative of the national history remains unquestioned, the description of the Czech Jews as the “other ones” will not change greatly.

Recently, the school curriculum for the history lessons was changed. From now on, teachers will be responsible for their own free arrangement of the lessons, the official regulations concerning the humanities lessons were dropped by the Ministry of School Affairs: the state will define general competences, which the pupils are supposed to acquire and the teachers are supposed to construct their own “ educational programs” (i.e., they can e.g link different subjects etc.). The teachers are then expected to explain how their teaching contributes to the fulfillment of the educational goals set by the state.

 

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