journalist - lecturer - researcher
When children record stories
from the past
written by Judita Matyášová, published in weekly magazine Vlasta
(21. 3. 2018)
You often hear that young people are not interested in history. Dates are nothing more than a few digits in textbooks, they cannot picture any specific fates behind them. However, thanks to the project “Stories of Our Neighbours”, the situation is changing. Almost three thousand children from the entire Czech Republic have become involved in the project. Not only did they record the stories of old-time witnesses, but they also realised why it is important to listen to the older generation.
Someone cannot wait for the Oscar winners every year, I always look forward to see the results of this wonderful project, which has been in existence for six years. It gets better year after year because it is no longer just about audio and video interviews. Children from elementary schools spend several months by drawing comics and organising exhibitions or lectures for younger schoolmates. Each and every of their stories is interesting and I always wonder what will happen during those months of intensive work with old-time witnesses. Something special will start moving in the teenage hearts, minds and in their perception of older people. “I have never talked like that with my grandparents,” says a vast majority of children at the beginning. However, they are talking differently during the final presentation: “I have become interested in the history of our family. What happened during the war, why was my Grandpa sent to the camp.”
FIRST STORY: Jaroslava Doležalová – Bring the Jewish girl to our place!
A FEW MONTHS AFTER HER WEDDING, JAROSLAVA (18) DECIDED TO TAKE CARE OF JARUŠKA (5). SHE COULD HAVE BEEN SENTENCED TO DEATH FOR SHELTERING THE JEWISH GIRL BACK THEN. SHE LONG KEPT THE EVENTS SECRET.
The story might have remained completely forgotten if Tom Koupal (14) had not happened to watch the TV news last year. A report about his great-grandmother, Jaroslava Doležalová, was on. “She never told us about the war. She always left out certain period, we did not learn about her saving the Jewish girl until the TV report. I thought that this only happens in movies and suddenly, it was about our family. My great-grandmother was discovered by a man uncovering the fates of Jewish children around Žďár nad Sázavou; someone told him that my great-grandmother had sheltered one of them,” says Tom, who told about the family discovery to his history teacher, Vladimíra Horká, working at the Elementary School at the Square of the Freedom in Prague. It occurred to her that Tom and his 9-grade classmates could participate in the project “Stories of Our Neighbours”. In November, Tom, Anička and Eliška went to Žďár to hear the story of Mrs. Doležalová (93). They started with a few questions, but then they completely immersed themselves in her exciting description of facts, hardly breathing during the two-hour recording.
Jaroslava grew up on a family farm in Žďár; her parents had a renowned pub and a butcher shop. When she was nine years old, her father died and her mother was condemned to being alone with two children. “I remember 1938 when we lost the Sudetenland, I was at the second grade of an 8-year academic secondary school. I went to school by train in the morning, to Nové Město na Moravě; people were crying. The first lesson was German. The teacher asked me to read out a few German words but I couldn’t do so. I gritted my teeth and remained silent. She sent me away and nobody said a word until the end of the lesson,” says Jaroslava, who was lucky enough not to be sent to work in the Reich based on the decree as she was a few weeks too young. Her classmates born in 1924 were not so lucky. They had to go to Germany. After they left, there were merely seven girls and ten boys in the class.
Mr. and Mrs. Handsome
When she was eighteen years old, Jaroslava got married. Soon, she had to make another decision possibly endangering her entire family. “The manufacturer’s wife in Žďár was a friend of Mr. Wilhelm from Nové Město na Moravě. His wife was Jewish and he was afraid that Hitler could start sending children of mixed marriages to camps as well. So he wanted to hide them for a while by his friends and return for them after the war. The manufacturer’s wife asked me whether I would be willing to take care of five-year-old Jaruška Wilhemová and I told her: ”Sure, bring her to our place!” She was a beautiful girl, extremely intelligent. It was love at first sight, she was not afraid of anything. She quickly got her bearings in our names – my husband was Jaroslav and I am Jaroslava like her, so she said: “You are Mr. Fešák (Handsome), you are Mrs. Fešák (Wife of Handsome) and I am Jaruška!” I was walking with her to the woods every day, taking care that nobody saw us. My Mom and the mayor of the adjacent village were the only ones who knew about her. The mayor gave me a certificate confirming her temporal stay,” said Jaroslava to the children, showing them a letter from Mr. and Mrs. Wilhelm who eventually managed to survive the hardships of war. They remained grateful to her for the rescue of their daughter until the end of their days.
History hidden in a computer
Tom and his girl classmates made a radio report on Jaroslava, they also issued a special edition of the school magazine and organised an exhibition. “I often hear that young people do not care about anything, only sitting in front of their PCs, but I, for instance, managed to learn English with the help of PC games and found out many facts about World War I and World War II. I also became interested in the French Revolution,” says Tom. And now a few words about Mrs. Doležalová from Tom’s teacher: “We were very sorry to learn about her death a few days ago. She received an award from the Israeli ambassador last year and she was also planning to visit Israel. Once again, I have realised how important it is to record the stories of old-time witnesses. I am very glad that we made it.”
The children attending the Elementary School at the Square of the Freedom turned the several-hour narration into a radio report. They also presented the story in a special edition of the school magazine. In January, they launched an exhibition in the Prague 6 City Ward Gallery.
SECOND STORY: Božena Hlaďová – Husband loved flying and suddenly he wasn’t allowed anything
THE NEWLYWEDS WERE LOOKING FORWARD TO THEIR QUIET LIFE. HOWEVER, THEIR IDYLL ENDED IN 1948. BOŽENA HAD TO LEAVE THE HOUSE AND HER HUSBAND – JUST LIKE THE OTHER SOLDIERS OF THE WESTERN ARMY – WAS TO BE PUNISHED.
Dana Schlegerová, a history teacher at the Elementary School “Na Dlouhém lánu” in Prague, denies the pessimistic theory according to which it is not possible for history teachers to go through all the chapters of modern history with 9-grade students. “I certainly do not think that it is impossible and I do not understand teachers who say so. We will finish World War II in mid-March and then we will discuss the post-war events both in our country and abroad. Luckily enough, there are plenty of documentaries and other materials that help us to bring those times closer to children. Interviews with old-time witnesses are very interesting variations of our lessons,” says Mrs. Schlegerová, who has registered her students to the project “Stories of Our Neighbours” for the fifth time already. Two 8-grade boys and two 9-grade girls visited Mrs. Božena Hlaďová.
The ninety-one-year-old woman born in Trhové Sviny told them about her war years: “Our family house was confiscated by the Germans. They also seized our car. But that was not the end – when the Germans left, our house was occupied by the Russians. Some major moved to my white and pink room, guards at the door, refusing to let me in,” says Božena, who met her future husband Jaroslav in 1946. During the war, he was one of the best RAF airmen from Czechoslovakia and after returning home, he was appointed chief of the airport in České Budějovice. The young married couple moved to the chief’s villa and had two daughters, hoping to enjoy a calm family life. However, the idyllic times did not last long. Immediately after the February of 1948, the Communists began to persecute war heroes who had been members of the western army. His operation for appendicitis was a blessing in disguise for Jaroslav Hlaďo – due to complications, he had to spend several months in hospital and, therefore, he was not punished. But he had problems anyway – his wife was forced to move out of the villa with the girls and he was not allowed to work at the airport anymore.
Thousand pages in the archives
“My husband loved flying and suddenly he wasn’t allowed to enter any Czechoslovak airport. He could only give lessons about aviation. So we moved to Prague where he trained officers. Later on, he was offered to train airmen in Indonesia. He spent nine months there. In 1967, he flew to Uganda. These were the best years of our marriage – we made many friends there, especially among British airmen. This was because, back then, Uganda was still part of the British Empire,” said Božena to the students, remembering the change awaiting them after their return to Czechoslovakia. Michal (14) was most interested in the story about the spies: “The Secret Police was spying on them almost all the time. It was not until 1989 that Mrs. Hlaďová could see the files kept about them by the spies, they had about one thousand pages. She told us about her amusement when she had discovered that one of the spies had secretly accompanied them even during their vacation in Bulgaria. Her husband went for long walks every day and the spy had to run to follow him.” Her talk about history caught Michal’s attention so much that he assailed further investigation, this time in his own family.
This aspect of the student project is the most important one for Dana Schlegerová. “Certainly, it is important to preserve the memories of the old-time witnesses, but the most interesting part for me is probably the transformation of children that occurs several months after the end of the project. They are thinking about themselves and their family more than ever before. Gradually, they realise that people were addressing much more complex issues during the Communist era than the current (non-)availability of bananas. Once a year, children present the results of their investigation to the public and to younger schoolmates. I actually believe that this makes my job a little easier because it is something absolutely different to hear the stories about history from other children,” says the teacher with a smile.
Book as a keepsake
Children from the Elementary School “Na Dlouhém lánu” recorded Božena’s description of events. They were so impressed by her life story that they created a book of old photos for her. It looks almost like a Master’s thesis.
THIRD STORY: Lina Čmolová – It took me a long time to see through the propaganda
LINA (8) WALKED THROUGH THE MOUNTAINS FROM GREECE TO YUGOSLAVIA. SHE HOPED TO MEET HER PARENTS SOON. SHE LIVED IN A CHILDREN’S HOME FOR SEVERAL YEARS, WHERE SHE WAS TAUGHT THE IDEALS OF COMMUNISM.
Nikola, Adéla, Kateřina, Sára and Julie. The five girls from the ninth grade of the Elementary School of Emma Destinová in Prague record the stories of old-time witnesses for the second time. Last year, they recorded a story about emigration in 1980s and in the autumn, their teacher, Lucie Soukupová, arranged for another meeting. One of the girls, Adéla recalls: “At first, I was a bit worried whether I could understand everything.
I was afraid that the old people would be rude, grumbling that we were just spoiled children without any experience, but in the end, it was very nice. Both women explained to us a lot of things that cannot be found in textbooks. We have one history lesson per week, that seems way too little for me.” Her classmate Julie adds: “My grandparents are very active, so it never occurred to me to think that senior citizens could be rude. That is like to say that all children in our class are great just because they are teenagers. This is extremely individual.”And she depicts their first interview with Lina Čmolová (78), who came to Czechoslovakia in 1948 from northern Greece, which was struck by a civil war. Czechoslovakia and other socialist countries offered assistance to several thousands of children from the affected area.
Walking through the mountains
Lina was eight years old back then and together with her older sister and other children from their village, they walked through the mountains to Yugoslavia. From there, they went by train to Mikulov where the entire group split and the children from Greece travelled to all corners of the country. “I lived in several children’s homes, we were treated like students of military schools in all of them. Their main objective was to prepare us for building of socialism as it was assumed that we would return home, i.e. to Greece, soon. The ideological education was absolutely wrong – we could not read anything but Soviet literature, we did not know almost any Czech authors. Stalin’s death made me cry perhaps more than the death of my parents. It took me a very long time to see through the ideological propaganda. But I was so conscious back then that when they offered me the Party membership, I told them not to be good enough to become a member,” says Lina who studied hard to be accepted to her dream school – the School of Pedagogy.
Lina’s story caught the attention of Adéla (14) so much that she tried to find certain links to the modern times: “Children accept absolutely everything if they do not hear anything else since their childhood. It is then easy to control them. Mrs. Čmolová did not know, back then, that those things were nonsense. But this is not very different now – we are also influenced by politicians. For example, when children watch TV with their parents who keep complaining about certain politicians, they simply start to believe it.” Ideology was very important for Lina also when she was choosing her profession. She decided to become an exemplary teacher who would direct the children to the ideals of socialism.
She graduated from a Prague school and voluntarily applied for a job on the frontier. “It was my dream to be like a teacher I had seen in a Soviet movie, but I soon realised that the reality was rather different,” she says, recalling her first years as a teacher when she – a nineteen-year-old graduate – was entrusted with the management of a kindergarten in Březová near Sokolov. The small village gradually expanded and her kindergarten became a model for others in the region. Lina taught children and trained the staff for almost forty years.
After she retired, she moved to Prague to her daughter. “Her talking was great to listen to. We chose some quotes for our final presentation of the project,” says Julie, who joined her classmates in a presentation held in the crowded hall of the National Technical Library in Prague. Parents, classmates, teachers, friends: all of them waiting to hear the individual stories. But their excitement was nothing compared to the old-time witnesses, sitting in the first row. They attentively listened the emotional presentation of the children. Suddenly, they no longer faced “teenagers always sitting in front of their computers”, but rather perceptive listeners to whom it is worth to talk about history. About joyful and painful events, about anything, but not to remain silent.
The team of students searched the files kept in the Security Services Archive for more detailed information about Lina’s story. The girls also went to Czech Radio to edit the report. Parts thereof can be accessed at the “Stories of Our Neighbours” website.
About the project
- The project “Stories of Our Neighbours” is organised by Post Bellum since 2012,
- 2,714 children from the entire Czech Republic have become involved therein.
- The children have recorded stories of 637 old-time witnesses, including survivors of the concentration camps, prisoners from 1950s as well as expatriates
- Recording of stories has been co-ordinated by 354 teachers at 422 elementary schools.
- The project results include audio and video interviews, exhibitions, lectures and presentations published at the “Stories of Our Neighbours” website.