Public broadcaster Czech Radio and a number of professional institutions like the Jewish Museum in Prague and Prague's Institute of Contemporary History recently signed a new agreement to cooperate on mapping and preserving important stories and oral histories from 20th century Czechoslovakia. Reporters Mikulas Kroupa and Adam Drda initiated the project, explaining to journalists that the main aim was to record lasting and complete testimonies by witnesses who survived some of history's most difficult periods: the Second World War, the Holocaust, and Czechoslovakia's descent into Stalinism in the 1950s, the time of the forced collectivisation and forced labour camps. Ultimately, it is hoped, new stories will bring new perspective to such periods' impact on ordinary lives.
Radio Prague spoke to project initiator Mikulas Kroupa, and asked him about the original idea:
"As a journalist the first impulse for such a project came through my work. Covering stories, I increasingly got the sense that the Czech Republic was forgetting its past - not fully taking into account its heritage or legacy. I would attend events marking the anniversary of World War II and interviews by reporters with veterans would often begin with questions like 'How many people did you kill?'. As someone who works in the media, I understand the pressure and need for sound bites, but it occurred to me to try and meet those people in the evening to hear the whole story.
"The idea of having only clips in already existing reports in the future was unacceptable. Future generations and tomorrow's journalists will no longer be able to meet those who lived through those times, so we hope that at least they will be able to rely on our recordings."
Mikulas Kroupa's colleague Adam Drda agrees that when covering historic periods the media too often falls back on hardened stereotypes.
"Certainly in the past when covering some stories the Czech media contacted the same sources or 'institutions' rather than people. You'd be doing a story on political prisoners so you would contact this or that representative or spokesperson. We want to break the stereotype and try to get stories from new witnesses never before interviewed. They're not just stories about heroes, either: people who coolly grabbed a gun in the war, or fought against communism in the 50s.
"Often when taping you learn that the reality was far more complex: they were afraid for themselves and their families; often they didn't want to fight at all but still they found the courage to do what they needed in the end. These are stories of normal people who, for example, needed to express solidarity with their friends."
It is important that the project has set no limit on recording time in order to allow respondents to discuss their lives and recollections freely. So far, the longest session has lasted more than eight hours, the shortest, taped in hospital, just fifteen minutes. Equally important, testimonies then are stored "as is" in the Czech Radio archives. While the "20th Century Stories" series being broadcast on Radio Cesko is edited, the original material will remain in its original form for future journalists to consult, an aspect applauded by Leo Pavlat, the head of the Jewish Museum in Prague:
"The most important thing is just to record, just to have the voices of these people, just to know their stories, because this is something that can be used in educational programmes, absolutely necessary to preserve the so-called national memory. You can teach the young generation about important events in the history of the nation, but you should also bring some experiences and emotions, and it cannot be done without personal memories."
If you understand Czech feel free to visit www.rozhlas.cz/radio_cesko/portal/ where you'll find the heading Pribehy 20. stoleti. That page offers visitors a chance to download and listen to the Czech-language documentary programmes in the cycle broadcast up till now.
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