Learning about communism: students to collect eyewitness accounts of hardline 1950s

Twenty-one years after the Velvet Revolution there is now a generation of young Czechs for whom the communist era is little more than a chapter in their history books. A Czech NGO has now launched a school project which should portray the communist years through the fate of individuals and entire families.

November 17th is a public holiday in the Czech Republic in honour of the student demonstration that sparked a public revolt against communism in 1989. But, ask today’s students about the anniversary, and very few have a clear idea about what happened or even what life under communism was like.

Their scant knowledge about this chapter of the country’s modern history is a funny mix of facts from their history books and scraps of family history often gleaned from nostalgic reminiscences of parents and grandparents. As a result polls about communism in schools provide answers of the type “ the communists sent granddad to jail but, on the other hand, grandma had a job” or “people cared less about money then, families were closer-knit and there wasn’t so much violence – but people couldn’t wear T-shirts with English slogans”.

The fact that teachers themselves often have a problem coming to grips with the not-so distant past, has led the association The Forgotten to launch a school project in which students themselves should map entire family histories to find out how the communist regime impacted the lives of several generations of Czechs. Project coordinator Dana Gabalová says the first phase of the project, devoted to the hardline 1950s, should provide plenty of material:

“The project is devoted to the post-war years – the hardline 1950s with its show trials and persecution, up until the mid-1960s when some political prisoners were amnestied. We do not want a black-and-white picture but a true reflection of those days with testimonies of people regardless of what position they held in society.“

The 1950s are likely to reveal shocking stories of farmers who were forced to enter communist collective farming cooperatives –thus giving up their land - or those who refused and faced years of persecution, similarly those who succumbed to pressure to became agents of the communist secret police and those who held onto their dignity and paid the ultimate price – as, inevitably, did their children. The organizers of the project are hoping some of those who lost the fight with their conscience will come forward to tell their tale. Dana Gabalová again :

“Of course we realize that for some people it may be very painful to talk about these things, on the other hand others may welcome the chance to unburden their conscience and tell their story. There are many amazing family histories that have never been told – very often because there was no one willing to listen.”

Similarly as a successful 10-year project mapping the fate of thousands of Jews who disappeared during WWII- the project focusing on the communist era will place considerable demands –both in terms of time and resources - on the 12 to 18 year olds who want to take part. However the projects organizers say they know from experience there is no better way of learning about history than by word of mouth.