Ceremony honors Holocaust victims, Europe looks at tragedy's lessons

Michal Frankl, photo: CTK

Holocaust Rememberance Day marks the 63rd anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Commemorations in honor of the victims were held throughout the Czech Republic, and education ministers from across Europe met for a second day of talks on Holocaust education. An elderly survivor at one memorial in Prague reads the names and fates of many Czech Holocaust victims: A ghetto, a concentration camp, and the end.

Michal Frankl,  photo: CTK
An organizer explains:

"My name is Michal Frankl. I am from the Terezin Institute in Prague, and today we have a commemoration of the victims of the Yom ha Shoah (Holocaust) from the Czech lands and other prisoners from the former Terezin Ghetto. The program of this commemorative event is very simple. Basically, it's reading names. Also, we are showing photos of the victims that should illustrate what happened to them."

The commemoration was organized by the Terezin Initiative Institute and the Czech Union of Jewish Students. The date for Holocaust Remembrance Day was not chosen by chance, according to Mr. Frankl.

"This is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which started according to the non-Jewish calendar on April 19, 1943. The resistance groups in the Warsaw Ghetto succeeded; not to save their lives, but to defend themselves against the Germans for a significant period of time."

During the four-hour commemoration, survivors, students and some who were just passing through the park took turns reading more than 3,000 names from a stack of paper nearly two inches thick. The list is just a fraction of the nearly 78,000 Czech Holocaust victims whose names are inscribed on the walls inside the Pinkas Synagogue. Daniel Kolsky, president of the Union of Jewish Students, tells why Yom ha Shoah is so important to the some 230 members of his organization.

"For all of our members, it's a very personal thing. It's very much connected with their families, with the fact that their grandparents went through the Shoah."

As the names were read, a slideshow displayed the faces and names of the victims on a large screen behind the lectern. About twenty feet in front of the stage, volunteers handed out small booklets with these photos and a short story about the lives of the victims. Zuzana Kosakova, from the Union of Jewish Students, says that after she visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. she wanted to personalize - and publicize - the experience of victims to keep their memories alive.

Photo: CTK
"And I thought maybe the Yom ha Shoah would be a good day to tell people, and show them that the Holocaust victims were real people. To show them the photograph of the people and tell them, 'this was the person, this was their information,' so that they can personally feel how the Holocaust was terrible."

Michal Frankl agrees. His organization is working to build a database, called the Terezin Album project, which will put a face and story to Czech Holocaust victims. He hopes that the Terezin Album project resembles a family album.

Meanwhile, across town at Charles University, Former President Vaclav Havel answers questions after his keynote address. He spoke before a seminar of European education ministers. During his speech Mr. Havel described the Holocaust as a terrible example of what can happen when people give in to the temptation to hate. The ministers were gathered for a second day of discussions about the teaching of the Holocaust in European schools.

Vaclav Hampl
After the conference, the rector of Charles University, Vaclav Hampl, says the state of Holocaust education in the Czech Republic is good but adds that the topic must be approached differently than all others.

"We are used to attacking scientific problems in a way that a theory is attacked. We look for reasons why it is, or it is not, correct. That's okay with many scientific problems and so on. With the Holocaust, because it is so sensitive of an issue both for the victims and their relatives and also politically sensitive, it is kind of difficult to apply this method."

One reason for this difficulty is the risk of Holocaust denial. Deniers themselves use pseudo-scientific arguments.

"Still, we cannot pretend to the students that it is not possible to apply scientific methods to the Holocaust. It is. But we need to be aware that any discussions are at the theoretic level. It's not anything like a political rejection of the fact of the Holocaust."

Piles of documents, photographs and official testimonies are all evidence of the Holocaust. Camps and crematoria still stand. And of course there are the memories of the survivors. Some who survived the ghetto in Terezin told their stories on Monday to this week's conference.

Terezin,  photo: CTK
The ministers emphasized two main elements in Holocaust education. One is to learn from experience, to see the warning signs that led to this tragedy. The second is to remember the victims - not all of whom were Jewish. An estimated half-million Roma died in the Second World War, and anyone whom Hitler's regime classified as "undesirable" could be sent to the camps. That's another reason why organizers made Tuesday's commemoration public, according to Michal Frankl.

Terezin,  photo: CTK
"With this we want to stress that the victims whose names we read were not just Jews. They were also citizens of Prague, or other inhabitants of the Czech lands. They were integrated into their societies, and their commemoration is not just a matter for the Jewish community."

With each passing year, fewer and fewer survivors remain to tell their stories, and the brutal reality of the Holocaust grows more distant. Daniel Kolsky says that's why it's so important to remember that the victims were not just statistics, but real people.

"The people are already dying. The generation of our grandparents is dying. We are really looking for some documents. We are really missing the actual people who lived in the time. It's very important for us to find these personal stories, because these personal stories are something you can understand. You cannot understand six million people. You cannot imagine it. By doing these personal documents and small remarks and remembrances on the real people, we believe we actually help to understand what the Shoah was."

Understand what happened, and know what to look for, so that it never happens again.