Current Affairs Project in which students map war-time fates of Jews in their locality marks ten years

03-11-2010 15:18 | Ian Willoughby

For a decade now, Czech teenagers have been doing research into the fates of Jewish people who lived in their localities before, during and after World War II, as part of a project entitled “Neighbours Who Disappeared”. Organisers say participants at schools around the country have learned valuable lessons, and unearthed a lot of previously unknown information.

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The Neighbours Who Disappeared project was launched by Prague’s Jewish Museum in 1999 and this week a conference has been held in the city marking a decade of activity. There the woman who runs the project, Marta Vančurová of the association The Forgotten, described how it first got going.

“This project has developed a life of its own. We sent only a handful of questions out into the world, to schools. For example, are there any traces of Jewish monuments where you live? Have you met any Jewish local people? Or do your grandparents have stories about them? We got answers that showed a really surprising outlook on the part of the children, who started doing very thorough research. This was because in many places there hadn’t been any research; the project has made the biggest impact in places where no research had been done at all.”

Neighbours Who Disappeared places high demands on the 12- to 18-year-olds who take part. First they have to establish at least three sources.

“If they have fulfilled those criteria, they then have to compare their findings with the database at the Terezín Memorial. So it’s a very demanding project, and not all participants have managed to meet the criteria. If they complete their research, and reach people who can tell them something about their memories – which is the main point of the whole project – they have the additional task of creating multimedia presentations. Before they had to make publications: now its websites, and panels.”

Around 200 schools have become involved over the years. Most parents have been supportive, though some have questioned the amount of time spent on an extra-curricular activity. As for the students themselves, Marta Vančurová says they have benefited a lot.

“It’s given them far more than we had expected. It’s left a mark on them. Because it changes their approach, not only to minorities but to humanity in general. They learn for instance how a person reacts in a stressful situation, and get a psychological insight into history. They come across small stories they wouldn’t otherwise come across…They’ve written to us, saying it has given their lives a certain direction.”

The NGO The Forgotten is now planning to get students to research another dark period in modern history: the hard line communist 1950s.

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