Mock prison camp on Wenceslas Square to jog memories of communist past

Photo: Stepanka Budkova

It's eighteen years since the Velvet Revolution that toppled communism in Czechoslovakia, so if you're walking through the centre of Prague in the next ten days you might be surprised to stumble across a communist-era prison camp just a few metres from the McDonalds on Wenceslas Square. The mock camp is actually an exhibition to remind Czechs of the 8,000 people who died in prison camps and uranium mines during the communist era.

Photo: Stepanka Budkova
Wenceslas Square has meant so much to Czechs throughout their history; it's seen so many revolutions and demonstrations. It was where the people gathered in 1989 demanding the end of the communist regime. Today, and for the next 10 days, it's housing a mocked-up communist-era work camp, complete with barbed wire fences and a watch tower. There's also a sign over the entrance reading "Praci ke svobode", which translates as "Work Towards Freedom" - reminiscent of the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign over the entrance to Auschwitz. Inside, there are rows of cardboard cutouts of political prisoners, detailing their "crime" and what happened to them. The camp was erected by the leading Czech NGO People in Need, and the director Simon Panek told Radio Prague what it was all about.

"The central idea is to turn the interest and the focus of the media and the public back to our very near history, which is unfortunately becoming further and further away, psychologically. The exhibition is also launching a project in secondary and high schools called Stories of Injustice, which is a way how to show teenagers what happened here during the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s by using documentary film."

It's just eighteen years since the fall of communism Simon - are people already forgetting what happened during four decades of totalitarian communism?

Photo: CTK
"I don't think that older people, who lived through communism, are forgetting, but the young generation, which is living in a completely different world, and who often face this only with a few classes at secondary and high school - they don't have enough time to realise what this time was like for the whole of Czechoslovakia. The teachers have problems dealing with that, because teenagers now are a free, cool generation who really don't pay much attention to moralistic lectures about the past."

Precisely - do they really care do you think?

"I think they do care, but it's necessary to get under their skin. The fashionable skin is not to care about anything, and documentary film is a very good way to get under their skin. Emotions are very strong among teenagers, amongst young people, but you can't provoke emotions in twenty-minute lectures done by the teacher."