For nearly 20 years, the Multicultural Centre Prague has been involved in promoting human rights and respect for cultural diversity. Their activities and projects focus on the social and economic advancement of migrants in the Czech Republic or inclusion of socially disadvantaged minorities. I met with the centre’s director Zuzana Schreiberová to discuss some of their activities, including a project called Prague Shared and Divided or the recently published Prague-Warsaw newspaper:
“The Warsaw-Prague papers are part of a bigger project called Democracy on the brink, funded by the Czech-Polish Forum and European Commission. Its main aim is to share and promote multicultural history of Warsaw and Prague.”
One of the aims of the project is to point out the parallels between the interwar period and the current times. Where do you see the biggest similarities?
“We have recently experienced an economic crisis. We are also dealing with the rise of authoritarian regimes and with propaganda. And in the 1930s, the countries also faced a problem with refugees and minorities.
“Many German Jews and other opponents of Hitler’s regime were forced to flee Nazi Germany and I can show you some articles in old Czech newspapers which claim that they cannot be integrated into the society because they have different habits and customs.”
The papers focus on Prague and Warsaw in the 1920s and 30s. What would you say were the main similarities and differences between Czechoslovakia and Poland?
“Both countries were created as independent states but in Poland there was a very strong affiliation to the Catholic Church. But Poles had much bigger problems with minorities. While Czech Germans and Czech Jews were mostly assimilated, in Poland antisemitism was very strong at the time.
“But I have to say Czechoslovakia also dealt with minorities and for instance the law against the Roma were just awful. There were also some concentration and labour camps for the Roma during the First Democratic Czechoslovak Republic.”
Why did Poland have such as strong aversion towards the Jewish minority?
“I think it was a problem of Jewish emancipation. In Poland there was a strong Hassidic movement and very strong traditional Orthodox Judaism. Czechoslovakia was more secular than Poland.
“Most Jews in Czechoslovakia at the time were very much like all the other Czechoslovak citizens. They would scarcely visit the synagogue, they didn’t eat kosher and they wore the same clothes as Czechs.”
“The traditional narrative of the Czech and Polish nations is the story of one nation. At school I history lessons we don’t speak so much about minorities. So we are trying to promote and show how rich was the culture at those times.”
“We want to show to people that Prague was not a city of one nation. There were Germans as well as Czech and German-speaking Jewish communities, and there was also a strong Zionist movement.
“There was also some immigration from Russia. After the Bolshevik Revolution many scholars and professors as well as important figures from cultural life came to Czechoslovakia.”
Can you tell me a little bit more about the project?
“The most important part of the Prague Shared and Divided project is an interactive map on our website. There you can follow various topics, such as Holocaust, refugees, or cultural topics, for instance Prague cafés, or German literature and music.
“You can also check interesting places in your neighbourhood. For each place we prepare a text, and audio-visual material or an interview with experts.”
“So we have quite a big community of experts who prepare texts and prepare guided tours and commented walks, which are really quite popular.”
Is this project only limited to Prague in the inter-war period?
“We have had a big discussion in our organisation concerning his issue. Originally we created the project to show the German and Jewish part of Prague.
If you want to discover more about Prague’s multicultural history, visit the project’s website at praha.mkc.cz.
“But in the current situation, with rising sentiments against foreigners, refugees and minorities, we decided to also add some topics from the present time.
“We are currently preparing a project about life of foreigners in Prague. We have also covered Vietnamese bistros and cafeterias, so I am really happy that we are doing that.”