PRAGUE (Jan. 18)
“Bald people are banned from visits to public libraries,” “Blue-eyed persons are banned from using public telephones” and “Adults of small height are allowed to go shopping only between 15:00 and 17:00.”
Such absurd pronouncements, posted at 78 kiosks around Prague, are meant to remind Czechs of more sinister public orders — against Jews during the Nazi era.
In a monthlong Holocaust awareness campaign launched Tuesday by the Jewish Museum in Prague’s Educational and Cultural Centre, eight different posters feature arbitrary groups selected for some form of discrimination.
Vladimir Hanzel, the center’s new director and longtime secretary to former Czech President Vaclav Havel, said the posters are intentionally puzzling, almost bizarre.
The campaign, which runs through Feb. 12, may be used in other Czech cities.
The posters’ yellow-on-black lettering is designed to look serious, but the messages sound like a bad joke, “although this is clearly not a joking matter,” said Hanzel, “because orders that were just as absurd paved the path that led to the Holocaust.”
Below the messages of punitive treatment is the fine print explaining that such restrictions actually were in place in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, which is what the Nazis called the occupied Czech territory.
Then there’s tiny print at the bottom of the poster, hard to read unless you go close to the kiosk glass, squint and bend.
“The Educational and Cultural Centre of the Jewish Museum in Prague offers educational programs on the topics of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust,” the tiny letters spell out. The reference includes a Web address for the Jewish Museum.
“We want people to be perplexed, even disoriented,” Hanzel explained. “That will get them to come closer and ask, ‘What is this all about? It doesn’t make sense.’ Because of course it didn’t make sense, and yet it happened.”
The Nazis introduced anti-Jewish laws in the protectorate following their takeover of the Czech lands in 1939.
Among the dozens of prohibitions established between 1939 and 1941 were “Jews are banned from public libraries,” “Jews may no longer obtain shaving soap,” “It is forbidden to provide Jews with fruit or candy” and “Jews are banned from using trolley buses.
Severe bans prior to the deportations meant Jews could not work, provide for their families or obtain basic sustenance.
Deportations to concentration camps began in 1941. Of some 120,000 Czechoslovak Jews on the eve of the war, 80,000 died in the Holocaust. Today, just 5,000 to 10,000 Jews live in the Czech Republic.
Hanzel said that the museum’s education center has never before run such an irony-tinged poster campaign, but the idea of provoking people into a better understanding of the Holocaust is nothing new.
“I read about schoolteachers in Britain who divided the class into blue-eyed and non-blue-eyed students, and then suggested that the blue-eyed students face restrictions in order to show how the Nazi ideology worked,” he said.
“Our campaign is particularly targeted at young people who have no memory of World War II and who might be totally ignorant of what happened to the Jews and how it happened.”
In Czechoslovakia, as in other communist countries in Europe, the Holocaust was a taboo subject. After the so-called Velvet Revolution in 1989, which ended communism, many previously unexplored chapters of history were put under a microscope by society, the media and politicians.
In 1996, due in part to Havel’s efforts, the Czech Republic instituted Holocaust education as part of its national curriculum and began a serious teacher-training effort in the field.
Hanzel estimates that 6,000 children come to the education center each year, and 300 teachers take courses in how to teach the Holocaust.
On the streets of Prague, young Czechs showed a clear awareness of the Holocaust. So what did they make of the poster campaign?
Radana Manouskova, 20, from Ostrava, a city near the Polish border, said she usually doesn’t look at kiosks.
“I find this interesting, although I am not sure I would go and look at the fine print,” she said, checking out a poster that announced public measures against people with freckles on a kiosk along Na Prikope, an elegant pedestrian street.
Michaela Hajnova, 23, contemplated a poster in the city’s commercial heart, Wenceslas Square, that banned people from selling furniture to nearsighted people.
“I think this can make people think about racism today, because there’s a lot of it here,” she said, mentioning discrimination against Roma, or Gypsies, the country’s largest minority group.
Her friend Michaela Benesova, also 23, agreed.
“I guess for us, these things from the war, well they really are something we cannot relate to at all, we never experienced them,” Benesova said. “But we know the problems with racism today.”
Coming from a Jewish family that endured losses during the Holocaust, Hanzel said he’s aware that his ironic approach may not sit well with some Holocaust survivors.
“For those who really experienced such restrictions, the tone might be upsetting,” he said. “But we did speak to them and they gave me the OK to go ahead.”
Dagmar Lieblova is a concentration camp survivor and head of the Terezin Initiative, an organization devoted to Holocaust education and the needs of survivors.
Lieblova paused when asked about the new campaign, as if to measure her response.
“I really wonder what the result will be,” she said in a phone interview. “I don’t know how the survivors will react or the young generation, and I know this is really aimed at them.”
Told that young people interviewed by JTA found the posters confusing, Lieblova sounded relieved.
“Confusing would be OK,” she said.