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Last Updated: Friday, 3 November 2006, 16:44 GMT
Pupils remember communist era
By Rob Cameron
BBC News, Prague

Jan Wiener
Jan Wiener was arrested by the communists
As the Czech Republic marks the 17th anniversary of the overthrow of communism, a new project called Stories of Injustice is attempting to fill in the gaps in children's knowledge.

Many have little or no awareness of the tragic events of the communist era.

Tens of thousands of Czechs were persecuted by the communist regime between 1948 and 1989.

But there is little detailed information about the period in the nation's school books.

"Stories of Injustice" is an attempt to rectify that. Launched in 2005, schoolchildren were first shown documentaries about the communist period, and those who survived persecution were invited to talk about their experiences.

This year the project has gone a step further, with the launch of an exhibition showcasing research carried out by schoolchildren themselves.

Mother taken to the camps

Of the 20 documentaries being shown in Czech schools this month, one of the most moving features the story of Jan Wiener, now a sprightly 86-year-old.

In 1939, as a 19-year-old Jewish teenager, Wiener fled Prague, then under Nazi occupation. He had watched as his mother was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she later died.

He managed to join his father in a small village in Slovenia as the German army massed on Yugoslavia's borders. He watched his father commit suicide, rather than face deportation to the death camps. He held his father's hand as he and his stepmother swallowed poison.

Parentless, Wiener made a daring escape, crouching above the urine-spattered wheels of a train bound for Italy.

There he was caught and sent to a POW camp. After several failed breakouts, Wiener finally made it to England, where he joined the RAF's Czechoslovak 311th Bomber Squadron. As a radio operator, he flew many missions over occupied Europe.

Persecuted by communists

In 1945 he returned home a hero. In 1948 the communists came to power. Within months, Jan Wiener was under arrest.

"I got it in writing. I was accused - I was never tried - of an anti-people's attitude and anti-state activities," he said.

"But I can assure you I was never feeling sorry for myself. I was feeling sorry for the country that allowed such a regime and did not protest.

We should respect these people - they were treated badly and we should apologise
Jiri Duben, pupil, 15

"This country was the only country that punished her heroes."

In 1955, after five and a half years' hard labour at the Marshal Koniev Ironworks near Prague, Wiener was released.

In 1964 he made a final escape from Czechoslovakia, starting a new life in the United States.

Wiener was just one of the 247 Czechoslovak airmen who were either executed or imprisoned by the communists in the 1950s.

Many more people were killed, tortured and wrongfully imprisoned - soldiers, priests, politicians, writers and others.

An estimated 8,000 perished doing slave labour in mines, steelworks and quarries. Around 600 died after being interrogated by the secret police.

And 500 were shot dead or electrocuted whilst trying to cross the border. More than 250,000 were sent to prison for "anti-state activities". Over 400,000 emigrated.

Visits to schools

Over the next month, Jan Wiener, and dozens more living witnesses to the regime's cruelty, will visit primary and secondary schools across the country. They will sit with the children as the documentaries are shown, and then answer questions.

"It is a visual generation," said Simon Panek, director of the NGO People in Need, which organises the project.

Margita Rytirova
Margita Rytirova said pupils cried when they heard her story

"So the film is a good kick-off for discussion."

Stories of Injustice was launched in 2005 and seems to be rapidly growing in popularity. Last year, 350 schools were involved. This year there are more than 520 - out of around 4,000 in the country as a whole.

The Stories of Injustice exhibition is the result of a year of research carried out by children, who were encouraged to seek out people in their own community who were victims of communism but whose stories remain largely untold.

One of them is Margita Rytirova, who was persecuted by the communists for her membership of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, the women's arm of the RAF, during the Second World War.

She was approached by pupils from a primary school in the village of Liten, outside Prague.

"I'm surprised how interested they are in it," she said, at the launch of the exhibition.

"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."

The pupils themselves praised for the project.

"What happened to those people was a huge mistake in our history," said Jiri Duben, 15, one of the Liten schoolchildren.

"We should respect these people - they were treated badly and we should apologise."




SEE ALSO
Country profile: Czech Republic
04 Oct 06 |  Country profiles
Czech schools revisit communism
01 Nov 05 |  Europe

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