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Czech Republic

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The Czech Republic has become a star student in Holocaust remembrance, even though its government is tinged by anti-immigrant, nationalist sentiments.

    

Overview

   

Throughout its history, Czechia welcomed and integrated Jews, creating a contemporary
climate in which the Holocaust is accorded solemn respect. Even among the ascendant
far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party, hatred and systematic scepticism is reserved
mostly for Roma and Muslims, rather than Jews.

     
In interviews, Czechs were adamant that the political climate for Jews was positive. Many
brought up in conversation the threats faced by the Roma population without prompting, often to criticise their own country and compare their dire situation with the relative peace enjoyed by Jews. While the Czech Republic has succeeded in creating a positive remembrance culture around the history of the Jewish Holocaust, it clearly has a long way to go in its recognition of the persecution, both historical and contemporary, of its other ethnic minorities, especially the Roma.

    
The Czech Republic has also made strides in education, property restitutions, and official
commemoration, as detailed in the following sections. While not exempt from the larger trend of populist ethno-nationalism sweeping across Europe, Czech right-wingers generally keep quiet about the Jewish Holocaust.

     
The Holocaust in the Czech Republic

     
The Czech lands were pulled into the war following the 1938 Munich Pact, the agreement made between the allies and Hitler permitting the Nazi leader to annex the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland. Hitler broke his promises and engineered a pro-Nazi secession movement in Slovakia and sent German troops into Prague in March, 1939. The Nazis established the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, maintaining military occupation until the end of the war.

    
The nearly 120,000 Jews who resided in the new protectorate became subject to an
increasingly anti-Semitic culture, both socially and legally. The spring and summer of 1939 saw a sharp rise in anti-Semitic violence, with a synagogue in Jihlava burned and pogroms occurring in Brno. Jewish doctors and attorneys were prohibited from practicing at public institutions and Jews in all sectors lost leadership roles. The Reichsprotektor, the Nazis’ representative and the true governing authority (ethnic Czechs continued to serve in the offices of president and prime minister but without any real power) officially applied the criteria of the Nuremberg laws to Bohemia and Moravia.

     
The government supported Jewish emigration, although it was expensive and increasingly
difficult as the number of countries willing to accept Jews was tiny. A curfew was instituted in 1939 – Jews were not to leave home after 8 pm – and from November 1940 Jews were no longer permitted free movement without special permission. From 1941, Jews were required to wear yellow stars in public, one of the last measures taken before transports to camps began en masse.

      
In November 1941, the Nazis began using the walled city of Terezín as a ghetto. The
settlement’s 18 th century origins as a fortress for the Holy Roman empire and convenient
location between Prague and Germany made it a natural choice. Theresienstadt, as the camp was known in German, was a transit camp, serving as a temporary base for Jews before they were sent to death camps further east like Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Nazis deported more than 70,000 Jews from the Protectorate with the help of the local Czech gendarmerie.

    
Theresienstadt wasn’t as abject as the death camps further east. The camp was used as
propaganda to suggest to the international community that the ‘settlements’ where Nazis were moving Jews were humane. Not that prisoners there were spared – on the contrary, infamous Nazi practices such as requiring prisoners to stand outside for many hours in the cold were common – but the camp could be made to appear more liveable than it was, as when the Red Cross visited in 1944. The Red Cross later took over administration of the camp in the spring of 1945, just days before the Soviet army arrived.

     
Today the Czech Republic is home to approximately 3,900 Jews, most of whom live peacefully in Prague.

     
Timeline

     
- June 1945: Czechoslovakia re-established.
- 1948: Czechoslovakia incorporated as a Soviet Socialist Republic.
- 1952: Communists hold Slánský trials against ‘bourgeois nationalists.’ 11 Jews (out of
14 total defendants) convicted of conspiracy and mostly executed.
- 1968: Following the Prague Spring, the country is under military occupation until 1989.
- 1989: Czechoslovakia secedes from the Soviet Union.
- 1993: Czechoslovakia dissolves in the ‘Velvet Divorce’ and Czechia gains
independence.
- 1991: A law allowing for the restitution of property confiscated by the communists
between the years of 1948-1989 is passed.
- 1994: The 1991 law is amended to include claims made on property confiscated by the
Nazis during the war.
- 2000: Another law is passed to help Shoah victims reclaim lost farmland and art from
state museums.
- 2001: An endowment fund for Holocaust Victims is established with 300 million Czech
Koruna (about US $7 million at the time) to be distributed over the next four years as
lump sum payments for education, social service, and for survivors who could not or did
not reclaim property.
- 2002: The Czech Republic joins the International Holocaust Remembrance Association
(IHRA).
- 2004: The government officially adopts the international Holocaust Remembrance Day
of 27 January.

    
Government

    
As in other Communist countries, little public discussion of the Holocaust took place during the Cold War. According to Jan Roubínek, director of the Terezín Memorial, ‘The topic of the Shoah was intentionally silenced by order from the highest ranks of the Czechoslovak communist party and decision makers in the Soviet Union.

     
During the communist regime (albeit with a short exception in the sixties when there was briefly a period of liberalisation before the Soviet invaded in 1968), the government dictated the ways Czech history could be presented, including and especially with regards to World War II. This historical narrative celebrated the communist resistance movement against the Nazis, overstating its historical significance. The communists highlighted the small fortress at Terezín where political prisoners and communists were held, neglecting the larger ghetto complex where the Jews were confined.

       
After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, historical research at Terezín and elsewhere became

possible, and the true stories of the ghetto, as well as those from the rest of Czech lands, began to emerge. Roubínek mused, ‘We didn’t miss the train that much, as it was only around this time that the commemoration of the Holocaust started really reaching the national historical narratives of many countries.

       
The current governing coalition has a solid record regarding Holocaust remembrance. Prime Minister Andrej Babis refuses to engage with the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party which became infamous for its hostility to Roma, Muslims, and immigrants during the 2017 parliamentary elections. However, in 2018 he also stated that Tomio Okamura, the party’s leader, should not have to resign his position after apologising for inflammatory remarks about the Romani Holocaust.

       
President Miloš Zeman, whom Politico has deemed ‘the European Trump’, is a vocal supporter of Israel, including the United States’ move to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem. He is outspoken about anti-Semitism, but his concern for Jews is couched in an extreme
Islamophobia. He has said that Islam is a movement calling for the mass murder of Jews and has warned that accepting any refugees could lead to a ‘super-Holocaust’ of Jewish and Christian Europeans alike.

       
In late 2016, Zeman caught backlash for withdrawing a state honour that was to be given to
Holocaust survivor George Brady. Brady’s nephew and Minister of Culture, Daniel Herman, had met with the Dalai Lama at a moment when Zeman wanted to avoid antagonising China. 

      
Education

      
Czech educational curricula include teaching the Holocaust as a part of World War II history.
Twice a year there are also training programmes to help teachers better facilitate this difficult
topic. School districts are willing to pay for their teachers to attend because they are accredited
by the Ministry of Education and thus considered professional development. Teachers who
complete all the courses gain over a week of training on teaching the Shoah and antisemitism,
as well as Jewish history and culture.

     
Teachers can also attend training at Terezín as part of a programme in which they begin by
training at Czech sites before traveling abroad to sites in Germany and Poland (including
Auschwitz) and finally, Yad Vashem in Israel. Apparently, there is more demand than can be
accommodated.

      
Commemoration

     
The Czech government officially recognises both 8 March and 27 January as Holocaust
remembrance days. The March date marks the anniversary of the liquidation of the
Theresienstadt family camp in 1944. The Czech Republic became a member country of the
International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) in 2002 and adopted the
international date of 27 January as well, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

     
On Yom Hashoah in May, Czech towns and cities all over the country participate in a ceremony

in which all the names of the Jews from each municipality who were deported to Terezín are
read aloud in the town centre. There is also a successful programme to fund the installation of
Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) to mark the former homes of Jews all over the country.

    
In Prague, the Pinkas synagogue, part of the Jewish Museum and the second oldest synagogue
left in the city, hosts a striking memorial to the Jewish victims of the war. The names of
approximately 78,000 Czech Jews who died in the war are written in tightly wound rows
encircling the walls. The names were originally painted on to the walls in the 1950s and have
been restored multiple times since.

     
Legal Environment

    
Holocaust denial has been illegal in the Czech Republic since 2001, when the ‘Law Against
Support and Dissemination of Movements Oppressing Human Rights and Freedoms’ was
passed. It criminalises the denial, justification, or doubt of both Nazi and communist crimes.

    
Convicted perpetrators face prison sentences of six months to three years. The fact that both
Nazi and communist crimes are addressed in the same law does not necessarily reflect any
effort to equivocate the magnitude or moral weight of the respective crimes, but rather the
historical circumstance that those living in Czech lands suffered under both regimes in the
course of the twentieth century.

     
Attempts were made to ban the use of Nazi and communist symbols and propaganda in 2005,
but the motions failed. The efforts were aimed primarily at forcing the contemporary communist
party to distance itself from its past. The Nazi salute, however, is illegal.

    
Victimization

    
Czechs don’t harbour resentment toward the Holocaust’s prominence in political culture as
some in other post-Communist countries do. Locals do not feel that their own historical suffering
is reduced or neglected by discussion of the Holocaust.

     
During the 19th century, the Jews of Bohemia became highly integrated into Czech society,
serving in all sorts of professions and speaking Czech. Many interviewees cited the legacy of
Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia (1918-1935) who was renowned
for his humanism. He took his wife’s family name into his own (Garrigue) and fought against the
Jewish Blood Libel long before even taking office.

     
Bohemia became exceptionally tolerant of Jews for its time and Jews played a positive role in
Masaryk's newly created Czechoslovak state, acting as loyal citizens and finding success in
most professions. The loss of Jews during the war is understood by Czechs as not only as a
catastrophe for the Jewish community, but as a national tragedy as well.

     

Archives

     

According to Tomas Jelinek, former chairman of the Jewish Community of Prague, what
archives remain are fully open to the public, but much was destroyed either during or after the
war.

    

Restitution

     
More communal property has been restored than private property. The restoration of communal
property such as synagogues and cemeteries is straightforward compared to the process for
individuals’ property. While such communal property is incontrovertibly Jewish, it is often difficult
to prove the provenance of farmland, artworks, or even whole companies which were stolen
from their Jewish owners.

     
The post-communist government passed legislation ensuring property restoration in 1991. It
applied only to property taken between 1948 and 1989, by the communists. It didn’t apply to
property seized by the Nazis. A 1994 amendment widened the scope to include Nazi seizures,
but survivors had a limited window in which to make their applications.

     
Later, in 2000, a fund to provide for the victims of the Shoah was established to give lump sum
payments for education and social care to survivors. Another law passed in 2000 provided for
the restoration of confiscated farmlands and artworks residing in state museums. The Jewish
Museum of Prague, with its multitude of monuments and Jewish valuables, was restored to the
Jewish community.

     
There was also the issue of how to resolve the sizeable deposit of gold and other precious
metals taken from Czechoslovak Jews. After the war, the communists confiscated the valuable
metal and transferred it to Prague. During the Velvet Divorce, the Czech government worried
about the safety of transferring the valuable metals to the new Slovak government. Instead, it
donated them to the Federated Jewish Communities, with two thirds going to the Czech Jewish
community and another third going to Slovak Jews.

      
The government has appointed a Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues who is responsible for
resolving remaining disputes. Full restitution remains a practical impossibility, says the
president of the Federated Jewish Communities, Petr Papousek. Before the war, Czech Jews
owned vast amounts of property; only a small portion of what the community once held will ever
be returned.

      
Opposition

     
The main far-right party in the Czech Republic is the Freedom and Direct Democracy party. In
2015 it gained representation in parliament, winning eight seats. In 2017 it took fourth place in
the elections with 10.6% of the vote and now holds 22 seats. Like its counterparts in Slovakia,
Poland, Germany, and elsewhere, the party and its supporters are hostile to immigrants and
ethnic minorities and feel that the Czech Republic must assert its identity as a Christian nation.
There have been some instances of anti-Semitism from this camp. Just last year, according to

multiple witnesses, the party’s secretary Jaroslav Staník said in a restaurant that ‘Jews, gays
and Roma should be gassed’. He reportedly also said that homosexuals, Roma, and Jews
should be shot at birth.

     
While these comments target Jews, Roma, and homosexuals together, it is important to note
that the larger party’s policies and statements are far more dangerous to the latter two groups
than to Jews. Tomio Okamura, the leader of the Freedom and Direct Democracy party, has
repeatedly questioned and denied the history of the Nazi campaign against the Roma people.
He has stated, against the facts, that the Roma concentration camp at Lety was unguarded and
that inmates were free to leave. While he partially rescinded some of his more egregious claims
after widespread outrage, he has continued to stand by many of them.

     
Serious anti-Semitism is relegated to the extreme fringes of Czech politics, such as in the ‘No to
Brussels - National Democracy’ party, which has little popular support (its candidate for
president received fewer than 30,000 votes in the most recent election). A court convicted two
of the party’s leaders, Adam Bartos and Ladislav Zemanek, of illegal hate speech after they
wrote a note supporting the blood libel, an ancient anti-Semitic myth.

    
Civil Society

    
Czech civil society considers Czech Jews welcome full citizens and this is reflected in the
history of Holocaust commemoration. Whereas in Poland, most of the restoration efforts to save
old synagogues after the war were funded by Americans and Israelis, local Czechs here have
made significant contributions.

     
In Prague, the Jewish Museum, which was the first of its kind in Europe, was founded in 1906.
Today, the museum is a leader in Holocaust remembrance, running education programmes for
students as well as teacher training seminars to better equip educators to handle this difficult
topic. Additionally, the museums maintains a traveling exhibition which is so popular it is on the
road nearly all the time.

     
Unlike in Slovakia, where a priest led the wartime state and where the Catholic church
continues to have a strong presence, the Czech Republic is by many measures one of the most
secular, even atheist, states in the world. Correspondingly, the influence of the church is weak
in comparison to neighbouring countries and does not extend in any significant way to
Holocaust remembrance.

     
Media

     
The Czech media is proactive about covering issues related to the Holocaust. According to
Jelinek, the media does a good job of paying attention to history, telling the stories of survivors,
and keeping up to date with commemoration events. None of the major publications in the
country are known to publish pieces which advance a revisionist agenda.

     
According to staff at the Terezín Memorial, the media sometimes makes innocent mistakes in
their coverage of events at the former camp. For instance, images of the small fortress are often

featured in stories about the Jewish ghetto, despite the fact that the fortress element of the
camp was a Gestapo prison largely inhabited by political dissidents, whereas the Jews were
interned elsewhere. Many have come to associate Terezín exclusively with the Holocaust rather
than as a site which served multiple purposes and housed multiple populations.

     
Jewish Community

      
Owing to the long history of assimilated Czech Jews making significant cultural contributions
and a political culture which embraced them, the Jewish community has remained in good
standing in Czech society, despite years of Nazi propaganda and generations of communist
anti-Semitism. Not one anti-Semitic pogrom occurred after the war ended, a rarity for central
European countries. According to Papousek, anti-Semitism has remained low.

     
The Federated Jewish Communities of the Czech Republic monitors anti-Semitic incidents
online and publishes an annual report. Papousek says the greatest concern for many in the
community is not violence but intermarriage. Because Czech Jews are so assimilated, it is
perhaps an even greater concern than in other countries.

     
Czech culture is not merely not anti-Semitic, though; it is welcoming to Jews. Leo Pavlat, the
president of the Prague Jewish Museum, said he has been pleasantly surprised at how proud
Czech gentiles are of their Jewish history, and that many of them truly mourn the loss of Czech
Jews as an injury against their larger Czech culture.


-Author: Jeremy Epstein