Schoolchildren’s Holocaust Research Becomes Valuable Educational Resource

A project encouraging Czech schoolchildren to document the fate of Jews during the World War II has proven so popular that it’s spawning similar projects elsewhere in Europe.

The “Neighbors Who Disappeared” project was launched by the Jewish Museum in Prague three years ago. Teenagers from dozens of Czech schools involved in the project have uncovered previously undocumented information on the Holocaust thanks to interviews with survivors and witnesses, as well as detailed searches through local archives.

Their work has inspired a museum in Slovakia to start a similar program, and the Jewish community in Croatia is hoping to launch its own version of “Neighbors Who Disappeared” next year.

The Czech project also has grown in scope, largely due to the involvement of film producer Zuzana Drazilova, who became interested after coming across some of the students’ research papers.

Drazilova contacted the Jewish Museum and helped students from Litomysl, in eastern Bohemia, produce a short documentary film called “Lost Neighbors — Teen Cameras Search for Traces of Jewish Fellow-Citizens.”

She currently is working on a second documentary with students from a school in Hartmanice, in western Bohemia.

The two documentaries will be made into one 30-minute film, which will be broadcast in the Netherlands next year. The documentary will be distributed to schools and libraries and added to the Jewish Museum archive, along with 10 hours of unused material.

Drazilova said the documentary has technical limitations because the students did the filming themselves, but said that more important issues than cinematography are at stake.

“The most important thing is to get the children interested in the subject,” Drazilova said. “Thanks to this, they will get closer to Jewish history. It is an alternative way to get them to think about the fates of Jews in their region.”

One student, 13-year-old Stepan Kotyza of Litomysl, whose group produced a glossy 80-page booklet on the fate of Jews in its region, said the project was an interesting way of approaching such an important historical moment.

He followed the lives of a mother and daughter who spent years in Auschwitz and other concentration camps, but survived.

“I was lucky because my story had a happy ending,” he said.

The Czech project is being watched closely by groups in Slovakia and Croatia, who discussed the program recently during a seminar on contemporary Holocaust issues in Prague.

Slovakia’s version, which started last October, is still in its infancy, having involved only a handful of students so far.

“We are currently trying to find an umbrella organization that would support the project,” said Adriana Matykova, of the Banska Stavnica museum, which is providing advice and guidance to students.

The Zagreb Jewish Community’s Documentation Center for the Holocaust hopes to launch “Neighbors Who Disappeared” in Croatia by January 2004.

“I think it is wonderful; it is one of the best ways for kids to learn,” said Lea Siljak, an official from the center. “The idea is to teach non-Jews about Jews and about the community that once existed and is lost today.”

But Siljak said she believes there may be obstacles to persuading students and teachers to accept the concept.

“People in Croatia are unfortunately still very closed to the past and present fates of minorities,” she said. Nevertheless, she said she was optimistic about the project’s success — even if it might mean including other minorities in the subject matter.

Marta Vancurova, coordinator of the Czech project, said “Neighbors Who Disappeared” was unique to each participating nation.

“Each country has to create its own project design to its specific conditions. We can only act as an inspiration for them,” she said.

Some of the Czech students’ research, including interviews with Holocaust survivors and witnesses, is available in English at http://zmizeli.sousede.cz/aindex.htm.

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