Helping to keep the memories alive

The Prague Post

Program looks to better educate kids on WWII horrors

Anti-Semitism. Racism. Xenophobia. The Holocaust. Such subjects are sometimes just skimmed over in classroom textbooks and lectures. But one organization is hoping to change that by offering local schools access to trained lecturers and teaching materials in hopes of better educating today’s youth about the past.

Three months ago, the local branch of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ), started Light of the Memory, a project geared toward high-schoolers that brings volunteer guest lecturers to classrooms around the Czech Republic to talk about the horrors of World War II. The lecturers are often accompanied by a Holocaust survivor, who provides students with a firsthand account of what happened less than 65 years ago.

But, while there are 30 trained lecturers roaring to go, ICEJ, which partnered with the Jewish Museum and Terezín Initiative to jump-start the project, admits that it has been tough getting the word out to schools.

The group doesn’t have any funding for the program, which is run completely by volunteers. The Jewish Museum trained and certified the lecturers and provided materials to use in the classrooms. But it’s up to the individual lecturers to make contact with a school to see if teachers are interested in having them come speak.

So far, about 300 teens have participated in the project. A big highlight for a selected group of students was a recent trip to the Auschwitz concentration camp in southern Poland.

“There was 160 students total: 80 Czechs, 50 Slovaks and 30 Poles,” reports Mojmír Kallus, director of the Czech branch of ICEJ. “One Holocaust survivor came as well, and we had two afternoons of joint programs together, addressing current and past anti-Semitism issues.”

The visit coincided with the March of the Living, an annual event that brings teens from all over the world to Eastern Europe to walk the short distance between Auschwitz and Birkenau (Auschwitz II), the largest concentration camp built during World War II. Kallus says about 10, 000 to 12,000 people attended this year’s march.

ICEJ is an ecumenical Christian organization that began in Jerusalem in 1980. Its goal is to increase the understanding between Christians and Jews, show support for Israel and provide information to Christians and others on biblical Zionism. The Czech branch has been active since 1995, mainly in educational activities and charity work.

“Beginning in 2004, we added public awareness events,” Kallus says. “We draw attention to anti-Semitism, which is active here, monitoring the rise of neo-Nazism.”

Kallus says that, while these events are positive, with both Jews and Christians participating and united in a common cause, the group is looking to extend its outreach.

“At these events, we are preaching to the converted. We need to go outside and reach the younger generation,” he says. This is pretty much how the idea of Light of Memory started.

Besides the lecture and visit from a survivor, students are also presented with copies of authentic documents from the Holocaust, like arrest warrants and papers detailing what happened when a victim was questioned. The document copies, according to Kallus, are provided by the Jewish Museum and often include pictures. Kallus says this allows students to “meet” and follow a certain person and learn what happened to them, and ask questions.

As the project is still quite new, Kallus says he hasn’t gathered much feedback on student or lecturer experiences, but both are requested to fill out evaluation forms to see how the program is going and what can be improved. At the end of the day, though, Kallus just hopes the students learn something and remember it.

Volunteer lecturers went through an intense three-day workshop, educating themselves on the history of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism and the relationship between Jews and Christians, with an emphasis on the two religions’ common ties. The workshop also included a part on the history of Israel.

While they all learned the same thing and utilized the same materials, the form each student workshop takes is up to the individual speaker, Kallus says.

“The training enabled lecturers to design their own program, which they had to demonstrate and be evaluated on,” Kallus adds. “They’ll have to do additional training every year to keep teaching the lectures.”

Kallus is hoping this will turn into a long-term project for ICEJ.

“We want to emphasize it has happened, and it can happen again,” he says. “We want to commemorate the victims, and at the same time, show it is not over. But we are losing time because the survivors are getting older.”