August, September 2006
Presentation of the exhibition Neighbours Who Dissappeared in Los Angeles Holocaust Museum
- a letter from Dr. Barbara Kroll (September 2007)
We hear so much anti-Israel rhetoric, much of it overlapping with vitriolic anti-Jewish sentiments, that I thought it would be refreshing to share with you our afternoon experience at the small Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust where Ruth and I went for the opening of an exhibit called "Neighbours Who Disappeared."
About 1999, the Czech Republic, under the direct auspices of then president Vaclav Havel, instituted a school-based project for students in what we call elementary and high schools to investigate what had happened to the Jewish people who used to live in their hometowns. The focus was on smaller places and not the major cities. The project was designed to allow the present generation of non-Jewish Czechs growing up in Jewish-free places to learn through extensive research who their neighbors used to be and what had happened to them.
History and other teachers signed on to make this project a requirement in individual schools, including the secondary school in a town called Chotebor, which is about 60 miles from Prague. Today we met three non-Jewish residents of Chotebor who came to speak and open this exhibit: a history teacher, an English teacher, and a recent high school graduate. The student explained (in nearly flawless English) how he personally had been watching the unfortunate spread of neo-Nazi ideas and the growing number of skinheads whom he admitted to being afraid of. He wanted to arm himself with information, he said, so that he could use facts to counter the propaganda they preach and which he suspected was not true. This project more than accomplished that for him.
The outgrowth of the project throughout the Czech Republic was the creation of artistic and colorful display panels each of which represents a single student's or single school's final project. About a dozen panels were chosen for a traveling exhibition to come to the US and thus were translated into English. They also had a map of the Czech Republic dotted with the names of the towns where the "Neighbours" projects had been undertaken.
Eerily, as spelled out on the panels, numerous children found when interviewing their grandparents about "ancient history" (=WWII) that they themselves had a Jewish grandparent or great-parent, a family history that was not previously known to them. (Shades of Madeleine Albright's and John Kerry's stories here.) But even for the ones without that extra personal connection, their efforts in unearthing photographs, diaries, school records, gravestones, and other realia and documentation was remarkable and moving. Students also traveled to Prague to meet with members of the Jewish Museum to learn about Czechoslovakian Jewish history as well as how to do archival research. Many traveled to Terezin and Auschwitz with their schoolmates to gather more knowledge also. Remember: we are talking about European youth from completely non-Jewish towns and with no prior knowledge or interest in things Jewish. This is in today's Europe, often the scene of large anti-Israel rallies and graffiti attacks and desecration of Jewish institutions.
The 200 or so people who turned up today in LA to hear about the project and to view this small exhibit were mostly moved to tears but not just by calling to mind the horrors of what happened in the 1930's and 1940's and documented with the inevitable long lists of dates of death between 1942 and 1945. In fact, I personally was moved to tears knowing that throughout the Czech Republic today there are hundreds of young people whose engagement in this project may well have enlisted them in what seems to be a diminishing percentage of the world's population willing to speak up on behalf of Jewish rights. This was the first positive "pro-Semitic" event we have experienced in a long time. I hope it will make you feel a little less awful about the president of Iran and Sheik Nasrallah.
Leah Adler (matka Stevena Spielberga), Petr Adam, Reneé Firestone