Czech Holocaust Program Lets Youngsters Trace Steps of Victims

Marta Vaneurova takes issue with the way the Holocaust has traditionally been taught in the Czech Republic. “We knew we needed to find a more active way to engage students in the subject. Passive learning, just listening to a lecturer, is too much part of the past practice in our country,” she said.

So with the help of the Jewish Museum of Prague, and with support from the Education Ministry and the endorsement of ex-President Vaclav Havel, the Neighbors Who Disappeared program, for which Vaneurova is a coordinator, was born.

Since 1999, the program — which Vaneurova called a revolutionary undertaking — has been helping young people to retrace the lives of Czech Holocaust victims.

“The Holocaust was a taboo subject during communism and then after, even in the schools,” said Vaneurova. “Teachers are afraid of the subject, and they are afraid to scare the kids.”

Holocaust survivors first started going into classrooms to talk about their experiences at the end of the 1990s.

With the Neighbors program, Vaneurova set out to have students visit cemeteries, talk to their grandparents, search for class photos from before World War II and even visit regional archives.

For many of the adults involved, it was the first time in decades they had spoken openly about their former classmates and friends. And children in villages across the country for the first time began hearing stories from their grandparents about long-departed neighbors.

“In Velhartice, the kids were going to school five minutes away from a Jewish cemetery that was hidden by a gate,” Vaneurova said. “They walked by it every day and never knew what it was.”

Because of Neighbors Who Disappeared, that changed forever.

Students in Velhartice cross-referenced a cemetery tablet naming Holocaust victims with stories and archival material, to reconstruct the prewar life of an orphan sent to the death camps.

Her fate is written up in one of eight panels included in a program exhibition that made its debut at the Prague Jewish Museum in 2002.

Vaneurova is having the exhibition translated into various languages so it can travel internationally. She especially hopes it can be seen by those not familiar with Jewish history.

This year, 30 teens who did research for the program presented their results at the Festival of Czech-German-Jewish culture in Prague.

More than 100 schools have participated in the Neighbors project and requests from teachers to join in continue to grow.

Vaneurova said Neighbors who Disappeared has surprised some of the children, who did not know anything about Jewish life, except that it was extinguished.

“One thing that is very special in Czechoslovakia between the wars is how Jews and Christians lived together,” Vaneurova said. “I don’t like to use the word assimilated, but the communities had a good relationship.”

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