Czech Children Unlock Secrets Of Holocaust-Ravaged Villages

Posted Aug 3, 2002 by Eric Johnson
PRAGUE (dpa) - Children across eastern Europe have wondered about the overgrown cemeteries in their villages for more than 50 years.

Those boys and girls brave enough to peek over old cemetery walls saw leaning tombstones with unfamiliar family names, many decorated with the Star of David. Some asked their parents about the Jewish people whose graves were covered by weeds.

Little was said. Like graveyard weeds, feelings of fear, sorrow and bitterness among villagers often choked out their willingness to discuss or even remember Jewish neighbours who fled in the 1930s, or who were taken away and killed in the Holocaust.

But some memories have survived, and for three years schoolchildren in the Czech Republic have taken the initiative to unlock the difficult past. They've pried grandparents and other elderly villagers for information about Jews they knew, compiled yellowed photographs of forgotten families, and dug into local records to document the history of Jewish communities in villages where none or few live anymore.

So far children in 50 schools nationwide have conducted in-depth studies of deceased Jewish villagers and their communities as part of the ongoing project called Neighbours Who Disappeared.

The project, thought to be unique in eastern Europe, has shed light on important local history as well as the life stories of more than 200 Holocaust victims. Studies are coordinated separately in each community by local teachers, with support from the office of Czech President Vaclav Havel and the Jewish Museum in Prague.

But the children and their youthful curiosity have spurred the project's success, explained project coordinator Marta Vancurova. That's why enthusiasm has spread across the country with minimal promotion.

"I'm finding new schools and I'm hearing from students who are working on projects all the time," she said. "I've been surprised by how it's grown; it's not from my power."

Vancurova enjoys telling the story of Michal Vessel, a 16-year-old in the western village of Sokolov who probed the pre-Holocaust history of Jewish families. Working alone, the teenager uncovered invaluable information about local businesses, entire families that were wiped out, and the burning of the local synagogue in 1938.

Local officials were so impressed that they financed an exhibition of his work in the municipal hall.

"He wrote the first work about the regional Jewish community which was totally destroyed by the Nazis, cemeteries and all" Vancurova said.

Michal even found facts that challenge the views of historians who claim no concentration camps were located in what is now the Czech Republic. According to his research, a so-called Nazi "work camp" in Sokolov was actually a place for killing.

"It was something historians didn't even know," Vancurova said.

A more personal discovery was made by Zuzana Krizova, a student who studied Jewish families in her home village, Stribro.

"I asked older members of our family whether any of my ancestors were of Jewish origin," Zuzana wrote in her project essay. "None of them were. But my grandmother told me she used to have a Jewish friend."

Grandmother proceed to tell emotional stories about her friend, Eva, who was forced out of school and later killed with her mother in the Auschwitz death camp. Years later, grandmother named her daughter - Zuzana's aunt - Eva, and grandmother's schoolmates did the same.

"They all named their daughters after her, so she would stay with them," Zuzana wrote.

Similarly touching and surprising details were found by students in the communities of Beroun, Brno, Klatovy, Losstice, Liten, Sumperk and others.

A 75-year-old woman in Lostice, for example, told students the story of a Jewish friend who survived a concentration camp. After coming home, she said, the friend refused to speak about the horrible experience because "you will be happier not to know".

A group of schoolgirls in Velhartice began their project in a neglected cemetery.

"That cemetery was five minutes from their homes," Vancurova said. "But it was totally abandoned.

"When they opened the heavy gate, suddenly they saw what looked like a magic garden, with tombstones from families" whose Jewish community was wiped out by 1939, she said. "The weeds were taller than the children."

But that was just the start. After collecting names from the stones, the schoolgirls asked elderly relatives whether they knew the families - and their neighbours who disappeared decades ago. The stories, long untold, were incredible.

"Until then, people were afraid to testify," Vancurova said. "But suddenly there was a reason to talk about it."

Although the project's initial goal was simply to teach the Holocaust, it has been far more than a history lesson. Elderly people have passed on local tales that otherwise would have died with them. Inspired by local students, residents in one village restored a crumbling synagogue. And teachers, Vancurova said, praise the project as an effective way to tackle a sensitive subject.

"It's very stressful to teach about the Holocaust, to stand in front of a class for 30 minutes, talking about genocide," she said. "This project helps teachers deal with it."

Indeed, the project's educational success stems not from classroom tasks but from the students' desire to explore their community independently, unlocking mysteries in their own back yard.

For decades, old Jewish cemeteries "have been secrets to the children" in many villages, Vancurova said. Now the secret is out.

"This is wonderful," she said. "And the children have done it all."