Czech teachers learn to teach about the Holocaust


The small town of Terezin in northern Bohemia is known to most people for its tragic fate during the Second World War. The Nazis turned the whole town into a ghetto where tens of thousands of Jews from throughout Europe were held. Most died, either in Terezin itself or when they were sent on to the death camps in the east.

Every year, the Terezin Memorial, an institution which has been dedicated to remembering victims of the Nazi regime organises a seminar for Czech teachers at which they learn how to teach their students about the Holocaust. I attended the conference and spoke to a number of lecturers and participants from various countries, including the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. But first I asked Dr. Jan Munk, the Director of the Terezin Memorial, to tell us how the project began:

"In the year 1999, the Phenomenon Holocaust conference was held in Prague and in Terezin. This started our activities as part of the International Task Force for Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research - an agreement of governments from countries around the world to support this kind of education. Simply because Terezin plays an important role in Holocaust remembrance, we organise these educational activities and have since given schooling to some 1,000 Czech teachers."

"My name is Frantisek Mensnik and this is my second time in Terezin. I teach history and Czech language in Hradek nad Nisou, a small town close to Liberec in North Bohemia. The holocaust is taught in ninth grade and the students are about fourteen years old. History is two times a week and about five or six lessons - about a month - are for the Holocaust."

Do you think it's enough time?

"No, I don't think so because it's necessary to do things outside school, such as excursions to concentration camps, the Jewish Museum or Synagogue in Prague. It's very important for young people to know about 20th century events and the Second World War because many people today no longer remember what happened forty or fifty years ago."

"We organise these seminars on different levels because what is needed at the first stage is information, the facts, the description of the history of the Holocaust and the role of Terezin in it, and how it happened in the Czech and Moravian region. The second level of the educational system is the possibility to give them the skills to work with this difficult topic in the classrooms with the children and students. The third system has special seminars abroad. Last year, for example, it was a seminar in Auschwitz, the year before to Dachau, and next year we intend to take teachers to Yad Vashem in Israel."

"My name is Stephanie McMahon-Kaye and I'm from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Holocaust education is very complicated. There are many questions about when to begin, how much to teach, what to teach, and it's a growing field in terms of the interest that has been generated both in Europe and the United States. I think some of the questions that came up were very interesting and very surprising to me. For instance, I didn't anticipate a question about how to spell 'Jew'. I think that the whole concept of who is a Jew and what is a Jew is a very complicated one and very difficult to really put a name on and grasp and I can imagine that in a community such as the Czech Republic where there hasn't been much connection with a large Jewish community that there would be many questions."

Piotr Sedkiewiczs is from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland. What's important, he says, is to give Czech teachers a step-by-step explanation of the Nazi regime's decision-making process on the future of the Jewish people because post-Communist Central Europe is still tackling one important question:

"The Jewish people in Poland were considered as members of the general resistance or as members of the Polish community that suffered under the Nazi regime. But, of course, in most cases the Jews were not members of the resistance and they were murdered because of their origins. This was recognised only in the late eighties."

Miluse Hnatova has been teaching about the Holocaust at a secondary school in the town of Tachov for several years now. She agrees that most Czech teachers still have much to learn, as little was taught about the persecution of the Jews under the forty years of Communist rule:

"Today, the Holocaust is part of the basic curriculum, which means that it is taught in both elementary and secondary school. However, it depends on the district and the teacher how the Holocaust is taught and that is why this seminar is very important as it gives us lots of information, especially facts that we did not have access to before 1989. Before the revolution, the Holocaust was only taught in reference to Communists who were killed. In other words, the Holocaust was treated as political persecution and not persecution on the basis of someone's race or religion. So it was a completely different concept."

And, as Alicja Bialecka - curator at the education centre of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland points out a well-taught lesson about the Holocaust could do much to reduce racism and xenophobia:

"I am responsible for trying to pass to the Czech teachers some methods of how to teach about the victims of the genocide in Auschwitz. I'm trying to present to them the individual people and bring back their identity and humanity and to try to present to the teachers that there were individual human beings in those huge numbers of millions of victims of the Nazi regime. This is one of the best methods to pass to students the message of how genocides, totalitarian regimes, and bad attitudes towards minorities, towards people who others perceive to be inferior, how they can demolish their humanity and the good virtues in us."

It was not just the Jewish community that was persecuted by Nazi Germany. The Roma Holocaust, or Roma Genocide as most teachers prefer to call it, received and still does receive little attention in Czech textbooks. It is at seminars such as these that people like Alicja Bialecka hope to make a difference - and it appears that they do.

"My name is Petra Vrbova and I am a teacher at an elementary school in the northern city of Usti nad Labem. This is my second time at the seminar. Our school is in a district that has a large Roma population and there are at least three Romany students in each class. I always stress, when I talk about the Holocaust, that the Roma too suffered at the time and those victims also ought to be honoured and commemorated. Before my lesson most of the Roma in my class were unaware of their forefather's persecution during WWII and it takes them by surprise as it is always completely new information for them."