Lost Neighbours project uncovers forgotten stories from Holocaust

Several years ago the Jewish Museum in Prague launched Lost Neighbours, a project aimed at piecing together the forgotten stories of Czech Jews persecuted by the Nazis in the Holocaust. But most unusually, stories are researched and recorded not by journalists or historians, but by elementary and secondary school students. The aim has been to help young people better understand the tragic events of more than 60 years ago.

Each and every year students taking part have been able to uncover previously untold stories of Czech Jews who suffered in the Holocaust, stories that might otherwise have been completely forgotten. Through the project children and young adults have been ab le to learn up-close what the Holocaust meant, like class 3A at Strakonice high school in southern Bohemia. Teacher Pavel Sekyrka has been organising trips to Auschwitz for several years now so that students can learn first-hand about the Nazis’ infamous Final Solution:

“I have now organised visits to Auschwitz for four years, ever since I first began teaching at this high school, primarily so that students could learn more about the Holocaust. The idea is to go beyond ‘abstract’ facts they find in their textbooks. Interest in the trip is always high – perhaps because they see something sensationalistic in it – but they are always ultimately shocked by what they see. It’s not only the remains of human hair and the ovens but a hypothetical realisation: the understanding that their grandparents could also have been targeted. Heydrich would have treated us the same as the Jews – for them this revelation is most sobering.”

Mr Sekyrka’s class of third-years, all around 18, made headlines in the Czech Republic recently when his students uncovered the story of Czech-Canadian George Ehrman, whose family owned a local department store in Strakonice before the war. Mr Ehrman (now 88) and his brother were the only ones from their family to survive first Terezín in north Bohemia, and later the death camp Auschwitz. Pavel Sekyrka again:

“This isn’t the only case they have uncovered but it is one of the most unusual ones. We were approached by a lady whose granddaughter had met a certain Mr Ehrman who had overheard her speaking Czech on a Montreal street. It turned out it was the same Ehrman whose family had lived in Strakonice before the war. For fifty years no one really knew his fate.

“He has now promised to tell us his personal story. So far he has sent a shorter version and a photo, but we would like to learn more, even if his telling the whole story will probably be difficult for him. The point is to bring home the fact that you could be somebody waiting with a suitcase at a train station one day and the next you were only a number – no longer a person.”

75-year-old Eva Vaclavíková is a survivor who has lived in Strakonice her whole life. She was just 12 when she was separated from her parents and was hidden by an aunt for the better part of a year. Her parents survived, but she says she still dislikes recalling the past – saying it always brings back only the worst memories. On the other hand, she feels she has to discuss what happened to remind young people about what was at stake.

“I have to do it so it isn’t forgotten. The young people from the school spent time with me: first one afternoon with lots of questions and since then there has been an exhibition and they have been in touch. I am glad that’s how things are. Some still greet me on the street, although there were too many to remember them all. I do think there’s a risk, of course people forget.”

Mrs Václavíková’s father escaped from Terezin and took part in the Prague Uprising in the final days of the war. She herself was of a feisty spirit even as a little girl, proud at first of having to wear the Jewish star:

“I was an only child and when our family got the stars to put on, my parents sheltered me by saying not everyone had gotten them, making me think I was special. Eventually it dawned on me what it all really meant. ”

In another incident, Eva Václavíková jumped a boy in the Hitler Youth who shouted at her mother as they walked down the street. The little girl grabbed him and began to fight – leading to fears there would be repercussions.

“The boy shouted at my mother ‘You Jew - get off the sidewalk!’ and I began to beat him up. But luckily his parents didn’t make an issue out of it – perhaps they didn’t know all the details, nothing ever happened. Otherwise two other girls I used to play with as a child were also in the Hitler Youth. But if you imagine none of my relatives – none of them on my mother’s side ever returned – you understand why I cannot just let the matter rest.”

Students in Strakonice are still only halfway through their contribution to the Lost Neighbours project and eventually the school is hoping to publish their subjects’ life-stories. And that’s not all. Teacher Pavel Sekyrka again:

“Research is not our only goal – we are also trying to collect funds for a memorial and we also want to organise a trip by students to Israel. For example, we would like to bring back a cedar and plant it on our school grounds, and to have a meeting with survivors. It is our hope that through these activities – which for us represent a broadening of the original Lost Neighbours project – we will be able to put renewed focus on what happened to Jews in Strakonice and to stir people out of a certain apathy.”