Teen-agers across the Czech Republic have been making a valuable contribution to the country’s Jewish history by uncovering previously undocumented information about Holocaust victims from their own neighborhoods.
When the Jewish Museum in Prague launched the “Lost Neighbors” project in 1999, it asked students to help track down information about Czech Jews who had perished during World War II.
What museum officials didn’t expect was the huge response.
“When we started this project, we had no idea that so many students would take part and that they would do it with such enthusiasm,” says Milos Pojar, director of the museum’s Education and Culture Center.
According to Pojar, almost 100 school pupils and students have contributed to the project.
“Our aim was to make pupils and students aware of the Jews’ contribution to Czech history, culture and even industry,” Pojar says of the project, which is also intended to promote tolerance and understanding of other nationalities and ethnic groups.
Under the project, school pupils have been encouraged to collect information using local archives, narratives and documents such as photographs and letters — and particularly through personal encounters with Holocaust survivors.
According to Pojar, the immensely high quality of participants’ work enabled the museum to put up a traveling exhibition in which the public can see the results of the teens’ findings about Jewish communities in various regions of the Czech Republic.
Now organizers are preparing a new program in response to the high interest among Czech youths in Jewish history.
“Many of the students want to continue this work, and we are currently trying to find a way to use their interest in Jewish history,” Pojar says.
One participant who decided to continue his work after the school project ended was Michal Vessel, 15.
Vessel, who is not Jewish, decided to map the Jewish community in his own Sokolov region.
“I was always interested in history, and since there was no publication about the Jewish community here, I thought it would be a great opportunity to fill in this information gap,” he says.
Vessel took his own photographs of Jewish monuments in the Sokolov region, and he made copies of legible tombstone inscriptions.
“I was faced with a lack of documents, but because of that I had to research real hard and that way I learned more. It left a deeper impression on my memory,” he adds.
But Vessel’s work is not finished yet.
He plans to talk to Leo Hoenig, a Holocaust survivor from Sokolov whose personal chronicle helped Vessel map Jewish history in and around Sokolov.
Vessel already had the disappointing experience of losing another important source.
“Unfortunately, the memory of Jan Jecha, the Jewish descendant of the former owners of the regionally important textile factory Noe Stross, is lost forever because he died before I had a chance to talk to him in length,” Vessel says, sighing.
There are currently three versions of the “Lost Neighbors” exhibition.
The first one opened in the Senate, the upper house of the Czech parliament, this month.
The second one is traveling around the regions that were covered in the teens’ research, including Chomutov, Sokolov, Klatovy and Lostice.
The third forms part of the traveling exhibition “Anne Frank — A Story for Today,” which is on display in various Czech cities.
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