Stories Exchange Project, Czech Republic 1999-2000

On 7 June 1999 Karol Sidon, Chief Rabbi of Bohemia and Moravia, spoke with two participants in the Stories Exchange Project: Ondrej Gina, Director of the Romany National Congress in the Czech Republic, and Ilona Ferkova, an internationally recognized Romany writer who later in 1999 emigrated from the Czech Republic to seek political asylum in the United Kingdom.
They were among panelists gathered in the offices of Andersen Consulting in the Nationale Nederlanden building on Rasinovo nabrezi in Prague. The panel discussed the Stories Exchange Project in the context of other cultural initiatives which are trying to respond to massive social and political problems that result from nearly half a century of totalitarianism, Nazi and then Communist, in Prague and throughout Bohemia and Moravia.
Other participants included Petr Uhl, Czech Government Commissioner for Human Rights, and Leo Pavlat, Director of the Jewish Museum, Prague.
Absent from Prague on the evening of the Prague-Los Angeles discussion, U.S.Ambassador John Shattuck was represented by John Beyrle, Acting Deputy Chief of Mission.
Organized by the Fund for New Performance/Video, New York in cooperation with the EastWest Institute, Prague and the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles the discussion was introduced by Barry Munitz, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the J. Paul Getty Trust. It was transmitted live on video to a large audience gathered at the Getty Center in Los Angeles for a conference organized by Karen Stokes “Mapping L.A.: A Global Prototype.”
One of the highlights of an informal discussion preparing for the video conference was an exchange between Rabbi Sidon and Ondrej Gina.
Mr. Gina asked Rabbi Sidon if, in view of the strong commitment by Jewish communities throughout the world to preserving their heritage, Jews in the Czech Republic might be willing to help Czech Roms preserve and articulate their traditions and similarly difficult history.
Rabbi Sidon answered very simply: “Yes. We can. And we will.”
Rabbi Sidon’s response recalled what he had said about the current situation of Roms in the Czech Republic during “Media Against Intolerance,” a conference organized six years before, on 6 December 1993, by the Fund for New Performance/Video: an event which in fact gave rise to the Stories Exchange Project.
“Intolerance has been with us for along time, and will probably never go away. But intelligent people should realize their responsibility for those who are perhaps less intelligent. They should realize that they are responsible for the future development of this country.
I am used to hearing about the Jewish question, and now we hear about the Romany question. This is silly. It’s the Czech question, really.
That is how it should be understood, and that is how the media should understand it. So the Roms can do what they want, but there should be a state with real laws and real police so that no one could force anyone to be Czech or to live like a Czech.”
[The complete proceedings of the 1993 meeting can be found on this Web-page, under Workshops, “Media Against Intolerance”]
The exchange on 7 June 1999 between Rabbi Sidon and Ondrej Gina during preparations for the Getty Research Institute/Fund for New Performance Video link between Prague and Los Angeles in turn inspired the Stories Exchange Project to organize ARTS OF TOLERANCE, a series of discussions, performances and workshops on 18 and 19 September 2000 in Terezin.
A Habsburg fortress town in northern Bohemia, Terezin/Theresienstadt had been used by the Nazis as a transport camp from which Czech and German Jews were sent to Auschwitz.
During ARTS OF TOLERANCE in September 2000 representatives of Jewish and Romany communities throughout the Czech Republic met guests from other countries to exchange stories about their experience and memories of the Holocaust and to discuss ways of applying that unspeakable history to racism throughout the world today.
On 28 November 2000 U.S. Ambassador John Shattuck spoke in Prague with John Erwin, Director of the Stories Exchange Project, about his participation in ARTS OF TOLERANCE three months earlier:
John Erwin
How did you experience that gathering of Roms in what was in a sense the wrong place, a Jewish memorial?
John Shattuck
Well, I think it was the right place actually: I think it was the right place because Terezin evokes the kind of crisis that stories sometimes can solve – if they are moved into action.
And I think having such a diverse group in Terezin, Roms who had experiences to share and were able to come forward as they did and then a group of international people including a number of Europeans, myself and others, in that kind of informal setting was very good – and I hope it leads to more.
I think that the Holocaust experience is right at the heart of what this country is going through right now.
And there are individuals whose stories are powerful. A woman named Heda Margolius Kovaly whose book Under a Cruel Star is well known to many Americans had the experience of living through the Holocaust, escaping from Auschwitz while her husband was in Terezin, and then finding him again after the Holocaust. And then they committed themselves to making sure that it never happened again, and then her husband came to see Communism as the solution. He climbed up the Communist party ladder, became a major figure in the early nineteen-fifties and then was executed in a show trial for crimes that the Communists later admitted he’d never committed, in 1952. She tried for thirty years to exonerate him, but above all she was driven by that powerful Holocaust memory.
And now Heda Margolius Kovaly lives in Prague again and is spending the last chapter of her life coming to grips with this extraordinary experience.
[A transcription of this 28 November 2000 conversation, can be found on this Web-page, in Interviews as “You really can’t rub out history.”]
Coincidentally, the Getty Research Institute/Fund for New Performance Video 7 June 1999 video conference had been introduced in both Prague and Los Angeles by an evocation of the story of Heda Margolius Kovaly – who, like Ambassador Shattuck, was unfortunately not in Prague that evening – in a short videotape for which John Erwin wrote the following narrative.
“Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry’s 1996 Nationale Nederlanden building is the right place to discuss the Stories Exchange Project: an American-Czech experiment in cultural recovery built of difficult memory and open-ended dialogue.
Gehry’s building provocatively exaggerates the undulations of Prague’s baroque and art nouveau facades and its double-curving river. So Prague named it for those famously graceful partners from L.A., Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
And the dancing towers of Gehry’s novelty have spun off many stories and discussions. To give the architect himself first voice: ‘The press,’ Gehry says, ‘started to call the glass building Ginger and the tower Fred. I explained that what they saw was purely in their imagination, in the eye of the beholder, and finished by telling them that they could call it whatever they liked.’
One beholder, Josef Pesch of the University of Freiburg, has seen in Ginger and Fred both Hiroshima and the Holocaust. Pesch stresses the fact that Gehry built on the site of an accidental American bombing during World War II, and sees the sketch of a dome that crowns the Fred tower as a mock-up of the Hiroshima memorial. He also sees Gehry’s brash choreography as an indirect challenge to the German practice of restoring bombed cities in order, as he sees it, to make people forget both the destruction and the hideous reason for the destruction.
Another beholder, London-based architecture critic Ivan Margolius, sees nothing but self-serving Hollywood kitsch in Gehry’s Ginger and Fred: ‘It is an odd and idiosyncratic building which has no roots or origins in Central European culture,’ he says. ‘Rather than contributing to Prague’s townscape it exposes itself as a flamboyant advertisement for its creators.’
A third beholder might see in the Gehry building a reminder that Prague herself has always been as much about deconstruction as construction. Continually changing her stories, Prague has made it painfully clear that cities are built of people not stones, but that people have the option of remembering pain constructively.
Nearly all the graceful old Prague houses may have elegantly survived World War II, yet nearly all their Jewish inhabitants were annihilated.
One Prague Jew who did not die in Auschwitz was in fact the mother of Gehry’s harsh critic, Ivan Margolius. Heda Margolius Kovaly survived the Holocaust in Prague – but then also had to survive a typical Prague turnabout. Czech Communists mimicked the violent anti-Semitism of the Nazi occupiers by executing her husband, Ivan’s father.
But Heda is a high-spirited Ginger in her own right. Her autobiography Under a Cruel Star makes recurrent catastrophe positively dance.
So our hypothetical third beholder might suggest that in bringing Los Angeles to Prague Frank Gehry has invited both cities to keep memory and conversation open: to defy all final solutions as persistently as this irreverent comeback of Ginger and Fred.”
As a refugee from both Hitler and Stalin, Heda Margolius Kovaly spent some thirty years in the United States. She was a librarian at the Harvard Law School when John Shattuck – and John Erwin and Mitchell Chanelis, his Boston-based colleague in the Stories Exchange Project – met her.
Like many members of two earlier generations of refugees who fled Central European totalitarian regimes to the United Kingdom (where Ivan Margolius lives) and the United States, Heda Margolius Kovaly brought to her new – and, happily, temporary – home abroad the wit, intelligence, and spirit of the perennially wandering Jewish nation.
But a current generation of asylum-seekers from the Czech Republic – including two participants in the Stories Exchange Project, the poet Margita Reiznerova as well as the prize-winning Romany writer Ilona Ferkova — are having increasing difficulties in finding any place in Europe (or, when they try to return home, in the Czech Republic itself) where they can demonstrate their own distinctive genius for life and art. [see comments made by Mita Castle-Kanerova, another Czech who divides her time between London and Prague, in Terezin last September during ARTS OF TOLERANCE: “Europe should open to Roms who do not want to live in the Czech Republic” appears in Being a Citizen, also under Stories and responses on this Web-page.]
Some witnesses think that the increasing homelessness of Roms in Europe is directly related not only to general ignorance of Romany culture but also to a widespread lack of knowledge about the wholesale slaughter of Roms by the Nazis.
One respondent to this Web-page, Ms. Ana Araujo of Venezuela, thinks too that Romany communities can learn a lot from Jewish communities in bringing knowledge of the Romany Holocaust as well as all aspects of Romany history to the wider public.
“I think that the problem is that your community, the Romany community, has not organized, for example as the Jewish community has done, and there is not much research and not many studies or analyses of this tragedy. If this is done, I am sure that the Czech people and others will start to see and understand how wrong they have been to all of you. I know that during the Communist time, nobody was allowed to talk about it, and the truth never came out. But now you must work hard to bring out the reality, the truth, and make sure that everybody knows about it. It’s more than your right: it’s your duty. Even if it is painful to know the history, you must reveal it to the public in order to prevent something like this from being repeated.”
[For Ms. Araujo’s whole contribution, see “It’s more than your right: it’s your duty” in this menu, The Holocaust]