Council of Europe calls on Czech Republic to teach Roma history in schools

Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Public Domain

The Council of Europe has called on the Czech Republic and other member states to include the history of the Roma in the school curriculum and teaching materials. According to the recommendation, it would help to improve the understanding that Romanies are an integral part of both national and European societies.

The recommendation of the Council of Europe emphasises the importance of teaching about the Holocaust, as well as other acts committed against the Roma across Europe.

It calls on governments to integrate activities related to the remembrance of the Roma Holocaust into education, either in connection with the European Roma Holocaust Memorial Day or other local anniversaries.

It also highlights the importance of presenting positive narratives about Roma history, such as their contribution to local, national and European cultural heritage.

Marie Smutná from the Terezín Initiative Institute, which focuses on educating new generations towards tolerance, against racism and anti-Semitism, explains why they welcome the recommendation.

Marie Smutná,  photo: archive of Terezín Initiative Institute

“When we started visiting schools all over the country with our educational projects focused on human rights, there wasn’t a single class where we wouldn’t encounter prejudice against the Roma. At that moment, we realised we had to do something about it.”

At the same time, Mrs Smutná says that, while teaching about Roma history and culture is essential, what is even more important is how the topic is approached.

“From long-term experience in the sphere of education, I can say that just informing about these topics is not enough. Presenting facts on the subject is not effective if there is no direct contact with members of the minority in question.

“It is also important to realize that one-off projects and several hours dedicated to the topic are totally insufficient when it comes to teaching respect and tolerance towards people of a different ethnic background. This is something that needs to be addressed on a long-term basis and it has to be integrated into other subjects.”

Marie Smutná also says that most history textbooks currently available to Czech teachers do not dedicate enough space to the history of the Roma:

“Just like the Jewish minority, the Roma minority, if it is mentioned in textbooks at all, is only mentioned marginally, as if it wasn’t part of history but just some kind of a side phenomenon. This needs to change. It has to be integrated in the mainstream.”

Over the past years, the Terezín Initiative Institute has organised a number of educational projects for school children and teachers. One of them was a 30-hour-long programme, including a visit to the site of the former Roma concentration camp and meeting with members of the Roma community. Mrs Smutná says the outcome took them by surprise:

“After the project ended, the children would say: ‘We now see the Roma with different eyes. We realize we didn’t know them before.’

“So I would say any education about Roma history, culture and most importantly, their presence, is extremely important, as long as it is not presented as a ‘different culture.’”