Murray Greenfield: encouraging Czech children to learn about the Holocaust

The Jews' Secret Fleet' by Murray Greenfield

In this week's One on One, David Vaughan speaks to Murray Greenfield, a Jewish American who - like his four brothers - was drafted into the services at the outbreak of World War Two. After the war, Murray - who had served in the merchant marine - was asked to volunteer his services in the semi-legal operation to bring Jews out of Europe to Palestine. He later settled in Israel, where he met his future wife Hana - a Jewish Holocaust-survivor from the Czech town of Kolin. Both have written books about their experiences. The couple recently visited the Czech Republic - and when Murray came into the studio, David asked him what had brought them to Prague.

"What I am doing? First of all, I'm a good driver! That's what my wife says. She likes me to be with her because I drive at night. We're here for a very special project. Hana is a survivor of the Holocaust. And when the Velvet Revolution took place, we of course came immediately to visit - she wanted to see her homeland as it used to be. We went to visit the Terezin 'ghetto museum' as it was called. Terezin was a place where all the Jews of Czechoslovakia were brought during the war. They were first brought there as a transit camp, and from there they were sent on to either work as slave labourers or to the Auschwitz murder camps. And at this museum the Communists had a little exhibit. The exhibit was about "anti-fascism". It said nothing about the Jews, and yet this was a place to which tens of thousands of Jews from all over Bohemia and Moravia were deported, and then transported on. So when we were there, my wife spoke to someone, and it was the beginning of an educational programme. And she suggested that in view of the fact that Czech Jews were here for a thousand years, as long as anyone, and there was no place indicating that it was not "anti-fascists" who were murdered in this camp - it was Jews who were deported from their homeland. My wife is from Kolin, and her whole town was deported overnight and sent to the camps. And no-one survived, only herself and her sister and a few others. It happened in every town throughout the country. So she suggested an educational programme based upon teaching children about the Holocaust. It would be a contest - paintings and articles - and discussion and learning. And that project has been going for ten years, and I'm back here now for the tenth year. We've been giving out prizes to children, and former President Havel sent a very beautiful letter saying how much he thought of the project. He mentioned my wife in particular which of course made me very proud in spite of the fact that I don't know Czech."

So what are you actually encouraging the children to do?

"Well, the idea is for children to learn a little bit about the Holocaust. How do you get children to learn about it? Well, my wife created a competition. The competition is such that after you get you learn something about the Holocaust, you can paint a painting or write a essay. Then these essays and paintings are brought before a large committee, and you win prizes - if you're lucky. This year, we gave out nearly 450 prizes. 2,500 children participated. The whole idea is to get the children interested. Now, we come every year for the prize-giving, and one of the other very interesting parts of the competition is that this year I saw not only children, but also many parents bringing their children to the prize-giving ceremony. At first it flabbergasted me. But then I started to talk to the parents, and I found out that they also had developed an interest in the Holocaust, because of what their children had learnt, and they wanted to come and see something in the museum and also see what the children were learning."

It must be very difficult for Czech children to grasp - in any way - what the Holocaust was. What sort of things do they write about or draw in this competition? How can they gain some kind of understanding of the sheer scale of what happened?

"I don't really believe they get the scale, but they get the idea. Children are smarter than adults, we have to agree on that. When they learn about children who were taken away from their parents, and the parents were then murdered, and that some of these children survived, and they lost their parents only because they were Jews - they learn about it, they hear it. They then interpret this in terms of present-day living. You see paintings for instance by children and it's light and dark. You ask the child and they say 'well, you know, they went from light into darkness.' Then you see others moving from darkness into light, and they say 'I knew it was dark in those days, it was terrible, but I want to wish them the best.' Or they make paintings of birds flying and a fence down below, and they say 'looking for freedom.' To me, their interpretations are very clever, very meaningful, and you feel it also once you start looking. I even saw a few with Hebrew letters - I tried to figure it out, but it's just because the children know that there's a Hebrew language and they tried to put the letters in. I tried to make words out of the letters, it didn't work! But I could see their connection. I saw a number of them using the Star of David as a symbol in which they had barbed wire all over the background and the barbed wire came out and suddenly there was a Star of David, without the barbed wire. It was meaningful in the sense that they realised that these people who were Jewish citizens of Czechoslovakia, families from maybe a thousand years back - my wife's family goes back 600 years - were suddenly taken away. Another thing that happened with some of these children was that they found out that in their town there was an old building which was a synagogue or they found an old cemetery. And some of these children went to look at the cemetery and brought back a little painting that also reflected the local problem: A Jewish cemetery, with no Jews. Or a Jewish synagogue, with no Jews. So they're smart."

You mentioned that the Communist regime ignored the Holocaust, or pretended the people who died in Terezin were "anti-fascists" and not Jews. Do you find any residue of that - trying to push the whole issue under the carpet or not wanting to talk about the Holocaust - still present in this country?

"Well let me say this. A few years ago, yes. It was not easy. When we would visit people we would hear 'Don't talk about it. We have nothing to do with it.' That's why I was so surprised this year when I saw all these parents coming. So I have a feeling that things are changing. The Czechs who were at first busy building their own little society and not wanting to be interested in the rest of the world are suddenly becoming interested in what this country was and what happened, and the Holocaust is a part of what happened in their parents' lives."

What's the next step? Are the pictures and essays exhibited regularly? Will this year's winning entries be put on show?

"One of the things that we realised is that some of these paintings are so good, we should do something with them. Not just have them painted and then stay here. Today there's an exhibit travelling through the United States. It goes to various communities, and schoolchildren are invited to see what Czech schoolchildren are painting and how they see the Holocaust. There's also a travelling exhibition here in the Czech Republic, and my wife Hana said to me the other say - 'Murray, we should bring a group of paintings to show to our Israeli children.' And that's the next stage. We will shortly put together an exhibit which will come to Israel and we'll be showing both Israeli children and adults what Czech children are learning about the Holocaust."