"So that children know" - a lesson in human rights


"Aby deti vedely" -or "so that children know" is an EU funded project that aims to teach fourteen and fifteen-year olds about human rights. The idea is not new - what makes it special is that it aims to break with the old practice of memorizing a text, instead encouraging children to talk about various aspects of human rights, and help them to understand the lessons to be learnt from the past.

If you ask Czech eighth graders about human rights most of them will be able to reel off a few - those that concern them the most. What the organizers of the project aimed for was to give them a broader picture - to show them how human rights were violated in the past and give them a deeper understanding of what is happening in the world today. Jarmila Knight is head of the project in the Czech Republic.

"We had to find a way of bringing this project "to life" and the Terezin ghetto is a place where so many human rights were abused during the Second World War. We wanted children to see this and make a connection to the present day. The lecturers who took part tried to show the children how it felt to be forcibly separated from your family and friends and divided into groups with strangers, they were put through the process of having to choose the few personal belongings they could take with them to the ghetto, what it felt like to be alone in such a place or in cramped quarters with many others where they only had a tiny little space for themselves. What it felt like to be alone in a crowded room with no one to relate to - and how you had to survive."

The one-day outing to Terezin is a very different experience from studying history books or human rights documents. The students are divided into groups and each is told to chose a human right and write down in what way it was abused in the ghetto. The abuse of various human rights is then discussed in connection with the present day, in connection with dictatorships and extremist movements, even in connection with school bullying. Radka Zuzankova is an eighth grade teacher who accompanied her class on the outing:

"One question that students keep asking you there is how it is possible that all these people followed Hitler - he was just a little man they say - so why did they allow this to happen. And I try to explain how easy it can be to get drawn into a group and blindly follow. Not just the extremist groupings that some young people join. But even to follow the example of a class leader or bully that they do not always agree with. So I say - well, why do you fall in line?"

Over the past year 600 students have taken part in this pilot project - most of them from the Czech Republic but also from neighboring Germany and Slovakia. Its results are so encouraging that other schools will be invited to take part next year. For a country which has experienced both the Nazi and Communist regimes - the lessons of the past are invaluable.