Central Europe’s Next Generation Down

A Czech grammar school principal wants more schools to include special history programs that deal with the Communist era of central Europe. He believes that the next generation is being let down by the education system.

By Michael Huguenin

The principal of Gymnázium Ostrava-Hrabuvka, a grammar school in the north of the Czech Republic, has challenged grammar school principals throughout central Europe to invest in special history programs.

“With the Soviet Union forever…but not one minute longer” - Artistic project from Gymnázium Ostrava-Hrabuvka. Photo: Michael Huguenin

Josef Svrcina has overseen two such programs at his school over the past year and believes they’ve been invaluable. Students volunteered to participate in the projects that dealt with central Europe’s Nazi and Communist history.

“[The projects] had an effect not only on the students involved but [also] the others who saw the results,” Svrcina said.

Hear about the experiences of Gymnázium Ostrava-Hrabuvka students

Great response from students

Around fifteen students in their second-last year at Gymnázium Ostrava-Hrabuvka (GOH) have just completed a semester long, Communist-history project. The project was organised with a Polish school in Strumien, just over the Czech-Polish border.

Gymnázium Ostrava-Hrabuvka's new history experts. Photo: Michael Huguenin

The project’s cross-border nature meant it was eligible for 85 percent funding from the European Union’s European Regional Development Fund. This funding helped organise many field trips, which the students claim made a big difference.

“When you just sit and learn in a classroom, it’s not something you will remember for a long period of time,” Lucie Fiserova said at the project’s feedback session.

“When you see the concentration camps, for example, it will stay with you.”

Black hole after 1945

Principal Svrcina is concerned by how little Czech students know about their country’s Communist history. Dr. Tadeusz Siwek, who teaches a subject called Poles and Czechs – Today and History at the University of Ostrava , agrees it is a problem.

“Many teachers are confused how to teach because when they were young it was during [the] Communist regime and history was [taught] in different way to now and now they are confused and they try to avoid this,” Dr. Siwek explains.

Czech students want the education system to fill this hole in their knowledge.

“We never lived in that era and our parents didn’t want to talk about it because they’re angry with that,” points out GOH student, David Syba.

Fighting the good fight

The twelve newest members of the EU can receive 85 percent funding for cross-border projects but the projects must be pre-financed. The EU reimburses after the project is finished. Principal Svrcina says many schools balk at that requirement.

The Visegrad Fund is another organisation that supports educational projects focused on central Europe. The Visegrad Fund was set up in 2000 to support cross-border projects in the Visegrad Four (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary).

Jana Benicka is thankful for the Visegrad Fund. Photo: Michael Huguenin

Professor Jana Benicka is the coordinator of a new course, Central European Studies (Visegrad Studies) that will start at Bratislava’s Comenius University in September. Crucially, her course has received €50,000 from the Visegrad Fund.

“We can buy textbooks, organise trips and pay for teachers who will teach in English,” Benicka explains.

A long way to go

University of Ostrava student, Vladimir Zapletal, insists more should be done. He says his history lessons at grammar school dealt with everything between the prehistoric era and World War II. But never the Communist era.

“How can you understand the world if you don’t know what happened last forty, fifty, sixty, seventy years?” Zapletal asks.

“I mean that’s like three generations. It’s ridiculous, basically.”

GOH student, Magdalena Krejci reckons a good start would be to make her school’s project compulsory for all central European teenagers.

“[They] would learn more about Communism,” claims the grammar school student.

“Our history is the most important thing that we have.”

Communism’s shadow remains

Principal Svrcina would also love to see more schools follow GOH’s example but he believes it’s unlikely.

“Only some principals from the region are willing,” Svrcina admits.

The Communist party still exists in the Czech Republic and people, including some teachers, are still members. They are, at best, confused and, at worst, suspicious about teaching Communist history. It is a difficult legacy to work around.

“I think it will change after changing generation,” states Polish-Czech lecturer Dr. Siwek.

“Now there are teachers [who are] very good and they are mainly young teachers.”



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