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Arts & Culture Students in the Czech Republic Learn About Holocaust by Making Films

Advocates of Holocaust education are teaching teens the art of filmmaking to keep alive the memory of the more than 80,000 Czech Jews murdered by the Nazis. Student films are the latest phase of the Vanished Neighbors project, in which hundreds of high schools students have done detective work during the last five years, tracing the lives of their parents’ and grandparents’ former neighbors who were sent to concentration camps.

Vanished Neighbors, a joint initiative by the Czech Ministry of Education and the Jewish Museum of Prague, has won critical acclaim from Czech Jewish groups for its efforts to educate young Czech non-Jews about the Holocaust and its consequences.

Now Czech movie producer Zuzana Drazilova of Sun Film is presenting two films, “Expedition Jews” and “Children from Hartmanice,” both with English subtitles, that document the student filmmakers’ attempts to learn more about the Jews who once lived in their home towns.

After just a few lessons from professional filmmakers, the students themselves made the documentaries, which will be shown on Czech television close to Sept. 4, the European Day of Jewish Culture, and at schools and film festivals across Europe. Dutch television has also recently shown both productions.

Both films are full of poignancy, showing students’ journeys of discovery as they ask residents of their hometowns if they know who their houses once belonged to — or who lived next door.

When the owners reply that they have no idea, the students, relying on their research, tell them about the homes’ or buildings’ former Jewish families. Thus begins the students’ awakening to the fact that not only were Jews systematically removed from their country but their memory has either faded or been wiped away.

In some cases, Jewish residents who live in towns where they may be the only Holocaust survivors talk for the first time about their terrible ordeal to the student filmmakers. The surprised expressions on the teens’ faces reveals how these memories have been repressed in the Czech Republic.

As in all Communist countries, the history of the Holocaust was not taught in Czech schools, and Jews were often persecuted by the government. So it is only now, for this new young generation, that such memories can be aired in full.

Stepan Kotyza from Litomysl, where “Expedition Jews” was made, said that three years ago, his seventh-grade class received a list from his teacher of the Jews who lived in the town before World War II. Students began visiting people who might have known them, and Kydza and his classmates made notes about their vanished neighbors.

“We thought we would write two or three stories about these Jews. Instead we wrote an entire book. And that’s when we got in touch” with Kotyza and Martin Smok, he said. Smok is a Czech filmmaker who has worked with Steven Spielberg on documenting the Holocaust.

Domenika Pavkova, also from Litomysl, said the surprising thing about making the film was how people in Litomysl changed their attitudes toward the students’ efforts to recover the past. “There were many people in the town who had not been that interested in talking to us when it was just ‘this school project.’ As soon as they saw that in the middle of the town square we were shooting footage, they wanted to talk. So we learned even more about what had happened in those days before the war.”

The students’ interview with a non-Jewish woman, Ruzena Bergmann, whose Jewish husband was sent to a work camp instead of a death camp thanks to her efforts, is unforgettable. She takes them and the films’ audience step-by-step through the stages of her courtship, when she didn’t even know her boyfriend was Jewish, to her marriage — her successful bid to save her partner’s life — to her husband’s family’s loss of their property, their work, and finally their lives, in Auschwitz.

The students’ professionalism in capturing the elderly women’s heartrending story is remarkable, considering their lack of professional film training.

The teens from Hartmanice faced a greater challenge than did their Litomysl counterparts because the town is smaller and more remote, and all traces of Jewish life had been eliminated.

“There were no buildings or anything like that to do with Jews, but then we a met a woman who had been in nine concentration camps — and she changed our lives,” said Jan Dubovec, 16.

“She was 17 when she was deported, close to our age, and we saw how hard her life had been compared to ours,” he said.

One of the most interesting issues the films reveals is the reluctance of some present-day Czech citizens to come to terms with what occurred in their midst, just sixty some years ago.

Karolina Osecka, 15, says in the film that her father does not want her to participate in the project. “He told me it’s better not to bring back the past. You might find out something bad about the Czechs,” she says.

Drazilova, meanwhile, said she is in discussion with more schools in the country that are eager to document their towns’ Jewish history.

During a recent news conference in Prague, the student filmmakers responsible for “Expedition Jews” and “Children from Hartmanice” all agreed that they hoped other students would have the chance to experience making such films.

As Ratka Kulichova put it, “What we learned most is that it is important not to forget.”

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