Czechs discuss holocaust denial at public forum

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The issue of Holocaust denial hit the headlines again recently due to the highly publicized trial of well-known Holocaust denier David Irving in Austria earlier this year. Here in Prague, this highly controversial topic was recently discussed at a public debate held at the Austrian Cultural Forum.

Holocaust deniers often describe themselves as historical revisionists, who believe that the Holocaust did not occur as is represented in conventional historical literature. In the Czech Republic, where upwards of 95% of the Roma and 86% of the Jews were killed, Holocaust denial is a crime that can land you in jail for up to three years.

The debate on Holocaust denial was prompted by the recent publication of the Czech translation of Dr. Robert Jan Van Pelt and Dr. Deborah Dwork's seminal work Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present. Realizing that the arrival of such a book would initiate discussion, Agro Publishing house and Agora-Central Europe, in conjunction with the newspapers Lidove Noviny and Respekt, organized the event.

Public debates are not commonplace in Czech society; therefore, the non-governmental organization Agora Central Europe puts together debates in an effort to improve civic involvement. I spoke with their representative Vojtech Ripka:

"The rare thing about our debates is that the people which are normally seen as audience are involved and expected to express their opinion, not just to ask simple questions or listen to the panelists. I believe that we may raise some attention to the public issues not just for the audience to be passive consumers but also to be involved and maybe even to feel that their expressed views are listened to and considered as valuable."

A panel of experts including Dr Van Pelt, the director of the Jewish Museum Leo Pavlat, the professor of International Relations Dr. Pavel Barsa, and assistant to the constitutional court Petr Cerny answered questions from the audience on a variety of issues including the plight of the Roma, which Mr. Van Pelt says was largely neglected in the Holocaust historiography until a decade ago. Surveys by the American Jewish Committee indicate that Czechs are well aware that the Holocaust occurred, but are less sure of specifics including the numbers of Jewish and Roma victims. I asked attendee Gwendolyn Albert, director of the League of Human Rights, to comment on whether all Czechs are knowledgeable about the Holocaust:

"I don't think they are. I think people in Prague are and the rest of the country not. I think that it's been very piecemeal what's been taught about it here."

In connection with this issue, Dr. Van Pelt spoke of the importance of creating more professorships in Holocaust studies, in order to increase awareness though improvement of Holocaust education.

He also feels that public debates such as these are an important step in this process and called the debate a success:

"I thought there was an incredible energy in the room and I really admire everyone who showed up for the fact they filled the room and there was only standing place and the way everyone participated and I'm really impressed by the way people voted with their feet and chose to be here tonight."

Though the dialogue during the debate was unfocussed, it nevertheless illustrated the importance of public discussion in the creation of a civil society in the Czech Republic.