Czechs mark Holocaust Remembrance Day

Auschwitz, photo: CTK

A week of commemorative ceremonies remembering the Holocaust reaches a climax on Thursday, with special events on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi death camps, where over 1.5 million Jews lost their lives. Six million Jews were murdered in Europe as part of Hitler's so-called "final solution".

Auschwitz,  photo: CTK
A Czech delegation has joined world leaders and elderly survivors gathered in Auschwitz to pay homage to the memory of millions of Holocaust victims and join forces in combating the neo Nazi ideology.

Here in Prague, Holocaust Remembrance Day is being marked with a special ceremony in the Senate attended by Parliament deputies, foreign diplomats, the Prague Jewish Community, war veterans and cultural figures.

The plaque at Pinkas Synagogue and its author Jaroslav Rona,  photo: CTK
On Thursday morning a plaque was unveiled at Prague's Pinkas Synagogue to people who helped save Czechoslovak Jews from the Holocaust. Children present at the ceremony lit candles in memory of the 80,000 Czechoslovak Jews who perished. Two hundred Jews, many of them children were miraculously rescued by people like Jana Draska. She recalls the trauma of those days:

"There was an order for Jews to be transported to concentration camps and we knew we had to hide as many children as we could - say they had got lost or died or something. Doctors would give us false death certificates and the children were sent wherever we thought it would be safe for them, Christian families or they were smuggled abroad with the help of others. It was a great risk for people to take - because the price of hiding a Jewish child was great -it meant a death sentence not only for the perpetrator but for his whole family and even relatives."

Throughout the day there were calls for the lessons of the Holocaust to be handed down to future generations. But sixty years, and two generations on from the events of 1945, how do today's young people perceive the Holocaust? Rosie Johnston went back to school to find out.

Pinkas Synagogue,  photo: CTK
I'm sitting in on a lesson with Rostislav Konopa, a history teacher in Prague's Smichov district. The school is rather exceptional; with table football on every corner, and voluntary seminars, held over the weekends. So are Rotislav's teaching methods:

"I think the best way of learning is through experience. I try to bring the history to my students through plays, through excursions. This is why my class have gone on excursions to Auschwitz. I show them photos, I play them audio and video sources"

Konopa devotes a lot of his syllabus to the Holocaust in particular. He is responsible for a harrowing frieze in the entrance hall, with photos and texts depicting life in Auschwitz. He has also arranged work-shops on the subject. He explains why he thinks it still so important:

"He who cannot understand the past, can not possibly understand the present. And the roots of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism lie in the past."

But what of his students? Do they share Konopa's zeal, and think a memory of the Holocaust has a place in the modern world?

"I read books on the Holocaust and I saw many films, I heard things from the people who were there, and I think the Holocaust is the world's greatest massacre. It is a very bad thing."

Auschwitz,  photo: CTK
"We learnt about it but we didn't go there. I would not like to see that place where so many people were killed"

"I sometimes hear the word Holocaust, and I think about it. It was the biggest problem of the twentieth century. I think how horrible people can be to each other, and that is the biggest problem of our world."

Thanks to Mr. Konopa and his colleagues, students at this one school in Prague seem to know a surprisingly large amount about the Holocaust. But surveys conducted elsewhere in the Czech Republic suggest that this is an exceptional situation, and that sixty years on from the liberation of Auschwitz, our memories of the Holocaust are fading at an alarming rate.