Just a few years ago the Jewish Museum in Prague launched its Lost Neighbours project, aiming to piece together the stories of forgotten Czech Jews persecuted by the Nazis in the Holocaust. The project, most unusually, brings together stories recorded and researched not by journalists or professional historians, but by elementary and secondary school students, with the aim of helping young people learn firsthand about what happened sixty years ago.
The Lost Neighbours project has now been underway for seven years but every year students taking part continue to uncover new information and untold stories of Czech Jews who survived or killed in the Holocaust. Through the process, children and young adults learn up-close what the Holocaust meant. Pavel Sekyrka is a teacher at Gymnázium Strakonice (Strakonice High School) whose students have been taking part in the Lost Neighbours project:
“For years now I have organised visits to Auschwitz so that they can learn more about the Holocaust, so that it goes beyond something ‘abstract’ in their textbooks. Students were always ultimately shocked by what they saw: not only the remains of human hair and the ovens but the hypothetical realisation that their relatives could also have been targeted under Heydrich. It is that which is most sobering: Heydrich would have treated the rest of us the same after the Jews. We have to keep talking about what happened sixty years ago – that is why we have continued with this project.”
Mr Sekryka’s class made headlines recently when they uncovered the story of Czech-Canadian George Ehrmann, whose family owned a department store in Strakonice before the war. Mr Ehrman – now 88 – and his brother were the only ones from their family to survive the Terezín ghetto and later Auschwitz. Pavel Sekyrka again:
“For fifty years no one really knew what happened to Mr Erhman. We have been in touch and hope he will tell us more, difficult as it might be for him personally, so that afterwards we can include it in a commemorative volume to those like him in Strakonice who were targeted. The point is to bring home the fact that you could be just like anyone else with a suitcase at the train station one day, the next, you were referred to no longer as a ‘person’ but only as a number.”
Another survivor who spoke with students is 75-year-old Eva Vaclavíková, who still lives in Strakonice today. She was only 12 when – separated from her family – she spent three-quarters of a year in hiding.
“It is not easy for me to talk about what happened but you only have to look around –neo-Nazi marches planned in Plzeň – to see how badly it’s needed. It is difficult for me to talk about what happened but I don’t want it to be forgotten.”
Class 3A in Strakonice is still only halfway through their contribution to the Lost Neighbours project: eventually the school hopes to publish their subjects’ life-stories as well as to broaden their involvement to include a visit to Israel.
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