Martin Šmok moved to the US in the 1990s to work with the USC Shoah Foundation, which has recorded video interviews with more than 50,000 Holocaust survivors. Long back in Prague, he remains a senior international program consultant with the project and is also active in the field of education. When we spoke, the conversation took in Czech attitudes to the Holocaust, “constructs of the enemy” in Czech society and more. But I first asked Šmok how he had been shaped by working with the testimonies of Holocaust survivors for over two decades.
"I think it shaped me quite a lot. It made me numb to certain sentimental manipulations that often occur when the fate of Jews and people labelled as Jews during the second world war is being discussed.
“It really made me very strong in the belief that the human world consists of individual human beings, who act individually, make decisions individually and bear responsibility individually.
“And all the group labels don’t have any meaning for knowing who that concrete person is, or what kind of a person they are.
“If I had to explain it, because of the nature of filmed interviews, you basically deconstruct the big political history from the books into a sum of individually lived human lives.
“Every single person interprets their lives differently. Even at different stages and different times in their lives they could describe their lives differently.
“You can even see that in what is the USC Shoah Foundation’s visual history archive today.
“So I grew quite a lot in understanding the world as something that’s not comprised of those stereotypical groups of people. That the fact that somebody is a survivor of the Holocaust doesn’t necessarily say anything about who that person is.”
You must have heard literally countless stories. Were there any in particular that have stayed with you?
“The stories that stay with somebody like me the longest time, somebody like me meaning a person who’s seen thousands of genocide survivor testimonies, the stories that get under your skin are the stories in which suddenly the narrative is a little bit different.
“Sentimental crying over people who suffered so much and then were killed is not an act of education.”
“When somebody, usually on the evil side, starts acting against what you expect.
“One of the problems with oral history is that it may make histories of genocides look like histories of rescue, because we have testimonies only of those who survived.
“So in almost every testimony of a genocide survivor there is a moment when somebody on the evil side decides to help them. For some reason.
“What tends to stay with me the longest are them moments when German soldiers in occupied Ukraine and the locals come and start yelling at the Jews and basically tell the Germans, Just let us kill those damn kikes.
“And the Germans actually violently protect the escorted Jews from the local mob – and then set them free.
“So it’s stories like that, that go against the expected narrative, that do get under my skin.”
I was reading that you are critical of the way that the Holocaust is taught in Czech schools. Could you explain why you’re critical?
“I cannot say I am critical of the way how it is being taught in general, because it’s being taught in many different ways.
“But my biggest problem with the very topic of the Holocaust in Czech society is first the claim that it’s being taught enough, everybody knows everything about it, and there was already enough of this.
“Because the media overuse of Holocaust narratives in all kinds of stories is one thing.
“Education about OUR genocide, that happened on OUR territory, which happens to be genocide of Jews and people labelled as Jews, together with the genocide of all the Roma and Sinti, which almost never gets mentioned and is most often denied… what could it teach us for today?
“An act of education is deriving some meaning relevant for our everyday lives, a utilisable skill that could prevent something like that from happening again.
“By pretending that the persecution of Jews on the territory of the Czech Republic was solely German business, and it started only after the occupation of the remainder of Czecho-dash-Slovakia, by pretending that the Czechs always liked the Jews and there never were any problems, by the sentimentalisation of the topic, almost the same is being committed as the openly anti-Semitic acts in countries that the Czechs like to describe as anti-Semitic, so countries with an anti-Semitic tradition.
“So what I have the biggest issue with is the non-probing of the time of the so-called Second Republic, non-probing of the local complicity in the genocide and stealing of all the Jewish property, during the war and after the war, the denial of the role of the Czech police and the Czech gendarmes – some of whom were good, and helped, but the majority of them were just good officers and did what they were told to.”
How can this be combated? Do you think that Czechs would be willing to take on this very negative picture of their history? Most nations probably wouldn’t be. Also after so many years they may say it was generations ago.
“It doesn’t have to be necessarily so black. It’s just admitting that it was a normal society, like any other society.
“In the Czech Republic the generic narrative is that all the bad things came with the Germans. So it’s all about the Germans – as if the Czechs were passive doves, sitting in their flats crying and weeping because of what happened to the Jews.
“What I have the biggest issue with is the non-probing of the time of the so-called Second Republic, non-probing of the local complicity in the genocide and stealing of all the Jewish property.”
“That’s not what happened. And also, even if you present the stories of the Holocaust like that, you keep the stories of ‘them Jews’ separate from the stories of ‘us Czechs’.
“Which is the second problem and probably a much bigger one that I have with how the topic of the genocide of the Jews and all the people labelled as Jews is presented in Czech schools.
“It’s not presented as a part of Czech history.
“Only those Jews who were active in the underground, or in the resistance, are labelled as Czechs. The people deported to the concentration camps were Jews.
“And there is this constant issue with the labelling that spills over even into the grammar. During the Second Republic it was instituted that the word Jew should be written with a capital ‘J’, because it’s a foreign nation.
“They are not Czechs, they are not us, they are Jews, they are a nation.
“So it’s all those small things that should have been fixed a long time ago, but somehow they were not, because of the fairytale of the Czechs never being as anti-Semitic as the Poles or the Hungarians or the Romanians.
“It’s a self-narrative and a self-stereotype which prevents learning from the past by, rather than being sentimental of what happened to the Jews, looking at the process in the society that facilitated the mass murder with minimal resistance.
“How did it happen? How were those people suddenly ejected from Czech society, that they thought they were part of.
“How come there was so little resistance in the administration? How come people bought in so fast?
“I never understood how the Second Republic was possible until some two years ago, when I saw the same processes happening again.”
“I mean the total destruction of society and levels of divisionism and hatred that I really don’t think occurred in this country since the time of the war.”
What is behind that level of hatred you’re talking about?
“It’s politics. It’s abuse of the constructs of the enemy. The constructs of the enemy are pretty stable in this territory.
“It’s the Germans, the Jews, who sometimes merge with the Germans into Jewish-Germans.
“It’s still very useful apparently. Maybe in Vinohrady you saw the election posters for Daniel Herman defaced with the labels ‘Sudeten German Jew’.
“The other popular construct of the enemy are the Gypsies. Very powerful and very useful in politics today.
“And the other one is the Turk, the Muslims. And that’s the one that some two years ago – actually a little bit longer, before that even – the local politicians started to use.
“Because they couldn’t use the Jewish construct of the enemy.
“In the EU you couldn’t really openly use the German construct of the enemy, even though it was used in the presidential elections, against Karel Schwarzenberg.
“So there is just one left: the popular construct of the Turk who is coming in to do all the things that the propagandistic writings of Nazi collaborators wrote about the Jews in the late 1930s.”
“In the Czech Republic the generic narrative is that all the bad things came with the Germans. That’s not what happened.”
If we accept that what you’re saying is actually happening, what’s the answer to it?
“I believe the strongest tool is exposing the mechanism, because the mechanism is exactly the same.
“Most of the statements are actually verbatim copies. There is nothing new that was invented – it all comes back to the very roots of the constructs that are being used.
“You can hear at a political briefing of a certain political party literal quotes from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
“Of course, they cannot openly say that they are against the Jews. So there are a lot of little key words…”
We’re going to have the name the party, if you’re going to say these things.
“It’s Mr. Okamura and the SPD [Freedom and Direct Democracy].
“Of course they cannot name the Jews, because so far they have been using the constructs of enemy against the Muslims, against Islam, and they got quite popular for denying the genocide of the Roma and Sinti, which should be a criminal act in this country, according to the current legislation.
“So now they moved through the popular and in the region very useful construct of a secret Jewish conspiracy that, unlike the late 18th century, 19th century and early 20th century is not being attributed to the Rothschilds.
“But there is absolutely nothing new in the statements being made about him, in the caricatures, the visual representations.
“If you look at old caricatures against the Rothschilds, if you look at the local illustrations of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, if you look at the local Nazi propaganda, if you look at the local anti-Jewish propaganda depicting Masaryk, the founder of modern Czechoslovakia, as a servant of the Jews, you see the same imagery, you read the same statements.
“There is nothing new. It’s an enemy construct that’s being recycled because it always worked in this territory and in this culture.
“It’s sometimes against the Jews, sometimes against the Muslims and most often against the Roma and against the Germans.
“But I still didn’t get to the core of how the society got split.
“The society got split between those who believe in it and those who are unable to believe in it, which is the real problem.
“Because the levels of hatred that are emanating from dividing the society into two camps that are externally identified and labelled but also internally identified and self-labelled – I think that’s the biggest danger.
“And it’s the same split of society that the Communists tried to institute: hatred between the workers and the intellectuals.
“There is absolutely nothing new in the statements being made about George Soros, in the caricatures, the visual representations.”
“It’s the same split in society that the Second Republic worked with, the ‘decent’ people and the intellectuals.
“It’s always anti-intellectual. Which does not mean it’s about Prague and the rest of the country – it’s about the ability to critically process statements and realise that one is being manipulated.
“And I think if we manage to teach the process of manipulation, so that people would realise they’re being manipulated, rather than learning new secret facts about how the world operates, I think that’s the only tool we have to combat this.”
My final question will have to be, how optimistic are you that that can actually be achieved?
“We have to keep trying.”