Stories of Injustice - those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

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It's just a few weeks now before November 17th, the seventeenth anniversary of the beginning of the Velvet Revolution, when peaceful demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of people brought the country's communist regime to its knees. Seventeen years on, coming to terms with the past is still difficult. One problem is the country's schoolbooks, which give only the briefest glimpse of the indignities and cruelties of the communist era. But the Czech NGO People in Need is trying to change all that.

The Stories of Injustice project attempts to shed light on a subject that receives only the scantest attention in Czech schoolbooks - the injustices of the communist era. Throughout November, People in Need will be distributing videos and DVDs of documentary films to primary and secondary schools up and down the country, and will also be arranging discussions with living witnesses to the cruelty of the regime.

In the forty one years of totalitarian communist rule in Czechoslovakia, 241 political prisoners were executed, around 8,000 died doing slave labour in mines, steelworks and quarries, some 600 died after being interrogated by the secret police, 500 were shot dead trying to cross the border and more than 250,000 were sent to prison for "anti-state activities", often on trumped-up charges.

"The worse human quality is indifference. And there's a lot of indifference in this country."

One of them was Jan Wiener, now a sprightly 86-year-old with a handsome handlebar moustache. A Jewish teenager when the Nazis invaded his country in 1939, he saw his mother sent to a concentration camp and held his father's hand as he committed suicide rather than meet the same fate.

After a convoluted journey across Europe, including several daring escapes from prison camps, Jan managed to get to England where he joined the RAF, flying bombing missions over occupied Europe. He returned to Czechoslovakia after the war, but when the Communists came to power in 1948 he was sent to prison as an imperialist "enemy of the state". He was released in 1955, two years after Stalin's death.

"I came out of prison camp here - Cerveny Ujezd, five and a half years, a slag worker, for punishment. When I came out, I saw on the street, on Narodni Trida, I saw an old friend. I hadn't seen him for five and a half years. So I said - I called out - Nazdar, Jardo! - and he shortly waved, but quickly went into a house, not to speak with me in public, an ex-political prisoner. This is the thing I detest. Have you ever read Philip Roth's novel The Stain? Well, this country has a lot of stains."

Jan Wiener's story - and that of the other 246 Czechoslovak airmen who were either executed or imprisoned by the Communists after the war - is featured in one of the twenty documentaries being distributed to schools. The project is now in its second year, and seems to have received a positive reaction. Some 350 schools were involved in 2005; this year there are more than 520 - out of around 4,000 in the country as a whole.

Despite its success, the Czech Education Ministry has declined to support the Stories of Injustice project. The organisers say they can't understand why, but speculate that it might simply be too controversial for a country still scarred by four decades of totalitarian rule. Stories of Injustice has also earned People in Need a number of enemies. Filip Sebek is the project's spokesman.

"Who do you think? People from the Communist Party. We are a democratic system, so the Communist Party still exists and still has about 12-13 percent of votes. So mostly these people criticise us, because we are telling the young children, the young generation who were born in the free society, what was happening here before it. They are not very happy that we are doing this project. But in fact we're very happy that they're loudly speaking against us because for us it means that they know how dangerous for them is what we are doing."

The project also encourages schoolchildren to become amateur historians, seeking out people in their own community who were victims of communism but whose stories remain largely untold. The fruits of their labour are on display in a new exhibition, at Prague's New Town Hall. One of the subjects is Margita Rytirova, who escaped to England in 1939 at the age of 14 and joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force three years later. She too was persecuted by the Communists after 1948.

"It's a very good idea, because the children ought to know. My own grandchildren all know about it, because they're grown up now. I think these little children, I'm surprised how interested they are in it. I went to tell the children about my life. I was so surprised, you know, how they were interested. Some of the children, they cried. I don't know why. They wanted to hold my hand. I was quite sort of distressed by this. Very nice of them."

One of those children is 15-year-old Jiri Duben, who goes to school in the village of Liten near Prague. Jiri was in charge of the team of young local historians who sought out Margita Rytirova to hear her story.

"There really isn't much about it in our school textbooks, just the basics. If you're interested in finding out more, it's virtually impossible to get it from the schoolbooks. What happened to those people was a huge mistake in our history. We should respect these people - they were treated badly and we should apologise to them."

Compelling documentary footage and personal contact with those who suffered under communism are obviously far more effective teaching aids than dry history books. And in a very real sense time is running out, as eyewitnesses who suffered the worst of the excesses in the 1950s enter the twilight of their years. The organisers of the Stories of Injustice project are very aware of that fact, and driven first and foremost by that oft-repeated quotation - "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

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