The heart of Prague had been ripped out

John ShattuckU.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic
in conversation with
John W. ErwinDirectorThe Stories Exchange Project
U.S. Ambassador’s ResidencePrague28 November 2000
John Erwin
When we were in Terezin together in September – on that day of course one dark-skinned member of our group, Kumar Vishwanathan from India who works with Roms in this country was detained by the local police because he was said to fit their profile for criminal suspects.
[see transcription of ARTS OF TOLERANCE: Session 1:
"Futures for the Stories Exchange Project?” Terezin, 18 September 2000
That played into our theme perhaps all too well.
In any case, two questions about Terezin.
You’d been to Terezin before, I assume, but how did you experience that gathering of Roms and Czechs 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, as you were indicating.
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 the Stories Exchange Project and other projects are trying to encourage that.
There are so many complicated issues of civil rights in this society and indeed in our society for that matter. Sometimes they are issues of law: how does the law discriminate against people?
But they’re more often than not issues of misunderstanding and ways in which people’s prejudices are allowed to run wild because they’re never reined in by having stories exchanged.
I think even the most confirmed racist, if he or she is put in one place with a person of the race that he or she believes is totally inferior, I think that person will change. And they will change especially if they have these kinds of exchanges of information.
So more and more of what that Terezin event was all about would I think very useful – not that there were racists in the room. In fact it would have been more useful if there were.
So if I have one piece of advice for the Stories Exchange Project: I think you need to reach out more broadly into the society and bring in a wide variety of Czechs – and maybe people in other countries as well.
John Erwin
Yes, that’s the challenge. And we’re beginning a big effort to do so, especially by moving the Stories Exchange Project into schools throughout the Czech Republic.
[see “Stories Exchange Education Project” in “News” on this page.]
And we hope in the UK and maybe Germany.
About Terezin for another moment, though: I find that stories of the Holocaust can be very powerful in this country because these are recognized stories of racism and of the horrors which result from that.
What’s your sense about how Czechs respond to those stories? And do theyrelate them to what’s gong on today between a lot of Czechs and Roma?
John Shattuck
I think that the Holocaust experience is right at the heart of what this country is going through right now.
I spoke several days ago at an event where we planted trees in memory of the people who were rounded up in Veletrzni, an area less than a kilometer from where we’re sitting: they were rounded up and sent to Terezin and then on to Auschwitz.
I said in my remarks that what happened in 1938, -39 and -40 was that the heart of Prague had been ripped out. Prague of course is at the heart of Europe, I meanliterally, geographically, if you look at it. And there were tens of thousands of Jews who were at the heart of the participating culture here, democracy and the very colorful and diverse culture that was Prague. So I think that story is at the heart of this society.
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.
I might add just a footnote because it’s interesting to me. I first encountered her in the Harvard Law School Library where she served as the Librarian for thirty years after escaping from here in 1968. Of course I had no idea what her story was.
John Erwin
What effect do you think stories about that time have in this country?
When you tell stories like this to the generation that’s coming up, howdo they respond?
John Shattuck
I think that stories need to be both historical and contemporary, and I think the historical stories still resonate here.
A close friend of mine here, Jiri Stransky, is a writer who spent eightyears in the uranium mines and wrote a film called Boomerang which is about that period, the nineteen-fifties. It had a tremendous response from the Czech public when it was shown on Czech television.
But it’s certainly true that we all like the stories that are closest to our own experience. Naturally a younger generation will want that. I think the students in Ivansice who brought this water system to the village will tell that story to other students. And they may even understand that story better than they would the history of theHolocaust.
On the other hand, it’s very important to keep the real truth of historyalive.
I have a story about that.
Every year I go to Plzen, which was liberated by American troops in 1945, General Patton, and in 1948 when the Communists came in — each year I go because there is an event commemorating the liberation — butin 1948 the Communists basically changed history by saying the Americans didn’t liberate Plzen, it was liberated by the Soviets, and for forty years that’s what was taught in the schools.
Well, the people of Plzen knew better, and they had kept in their barns and in cellars paraphernalia from that period: they had American jeeps that were there and in 1990 when the first of these commemoration events thanking the Americans for liberating Plzen took place, all these jeeps somehow miraculously appeared on the streets.
You really can’t rub out history. Fortunately, people remember.
[For another response to the story of Heda Margolius Kovaly, see “Heda, Eva and Janko make catastrophe dance” also in this menu, The Holocaust, in Stories and Responses on this Web-page.
You can also find a transcript of this whole exchange, “You really can’t rub out history,” in “Interviews” on this Web-page.
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One Response to “The heart of Prague had been ripped out”

  1. My husband and I lived in Prague for a year in 1999. In fact, we were married there. We visited Terezin and later, read Heda M. Kovaly’s book “Under A Cruel Star” which we both found incredibly moving. We would like to meet her, if possible, when we return to Prague in June. Is there an address where she might be reached for permission? Thank you for the web site.

  2. I just read Under a Cruel Star, evaluating it for use as a summer reading book for an integrated English/modern European history curriculum in grade 10 at The MacDuffie School.

    I found John Shattuck’s remarks about Kovaly informative. Thank you for the website!

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