"Stories of Injustice" - teaching schoolchildren crimes of Communist regime

It's less than two weeks until the 16th anniversary of the start of the Velvet Revolution that brought down Communism in Czechoslovakia. But memories of the Communist period are receding rapidly from the public consciousness, and the nation's schoolchildren have a particularly sketchy idea of what went on. To put that right, the Czech human rights group People in Need will be spending November visiting 330 schools, armed with documentary films detailing the excesses and cruelties of Communism. They're also bringing with them victims of the regime to share their experiences with pupils. Radio Prague's Rob Cameron has this report.

Stories of Injustice
The "Stories of Injustice" project was launched in Prague's Perstejn cinema on November 1st. It's the brainchild of one of the Czech Republic's best-known NGOs People in Need. Over the next four weeks primary and secondary schools up and down the country will be showing pupils documentaries - telling harrowing and often surreal tales of oppression in Communist Czechoslovakia, concentrating mainly on the Stalinist excesses of the 1950s. Filip Sebek from People in Need:

"It's seven different documentaries, mostly about one hour long. At present 330 primary and secondary schools are involved in the project. It's not just about showing the documentaries. A very important part of it is to invite a guest, mainly someone who really suffered in a Communist jail, and so it's a showing and then a discussion with that guest about his experiences."

One of those guests is Jiri Stransky, a writer and chairman of the Czech branch of the international PEN club who spent almost ten years in Communist prisons for his family's opposition to totalitarianism. He also made one of the seven documentaries.

"The schooling in this land doesn't care too much about these times, because a lot of teachers - older teachers - were involved of course in teaching the Communist ideology. So they're not too willing to teach these things now. As I'm the head of the Czech State Fund for Cinematography, we put together some money to promote these documentary films, to show the young generation. And the still living witnesses are going to these schools to talk with the young generation, and tell them what it was like."

People in Need complain that not only is the Communist period poorly taught in the nation's schools, but the Czech Education Ministry has also shown no interest in supporting the project. That lack of interest angers people like Jan Wiener, a sprightly, moustachioed man in his 80s. He escaped from the Nazis as a Jewish teenager, joined the RAF as a navigator, and returned to Czechoslovakia after the war. When the Communists came to power in 1948 they threw war heroes like Jan Wiener into prison for so-called "anti-state activities" - their punishment for fighting alongside the capitalist West.

"There were so many people here who joined an evil thing and found an excuse for themselves. If you ask them today why they joined the Party, they will tell you it was youthful enthusiasm, to build a better world. That is bullshit. It is bullshit. They built concentration camps, and they built hatred."

Jan Wiener emigrated as soon as he was released from prison in the 1950s, starting a new life in the United States. He says Czechs have still to come to terms with their Communist past.

"In Germany the Nazi party was outlawed. They could not take part in multiple decision-making institutions. They were outlawed. That never happened here, and the Communists here have never faced themselves. It is of no value to me at all if any Communist member tells people now 'we are sorry for what we did in the 50s'. This has no validity. They have to cure themselves, the same as the Germans did."

People in Need hope that giving pupils the chance to learn what happened to people like Jiri Stransky and Jan Wiener in the four decades of Communist rule will help fill the gaps in children's knowledge of their country's recent history. And also stop what they say is a creeping trend of collective amnesia.