By Martin Šmok – Senior International Program Consultant of the USC Shoah Foundation.

Recently, Czech society has been sharply divided by reactions to the large number of refugees allegedly transiting through Czech territory to Germany. Similar upheaval could be observed in other European countries currently affected by the current pattern of migration.

This was not the first time Czech society has been struck by fear of refugees. The Visual History Archive of the USC Shoah Foundation offers a chance to reflect on the current events in comparison to similar historical events.

“The main point of the materials presented here is that human beings are individuals, and should be seen, observed and judged as individuals, not as members of some group who are all the same. This resource is not for or against “the refugees” and should not be understood as such. It is against seeing “the refugees” as being all the same, depriving them of their individuality in our vision. That key message is also what educators should teach with it.”

In 1946–1947 probably as many as 200 000 Jewish transients escaping Poland passed through Czechoslovakia, escaping hatred, violence and pogroms. The majority of the Polish Jews decided to leave the country after a bloody pogrom in the city of Kielce on July 4, 1946, which claimed 42 lives. They wanted to reach Displaced Persons camps in the Western occupation zones of Germany and Austria, from where they hoped for an onward journey to the USA, Canada or Palestine.

Jewish refugees from Poland in the train that is taking them from the city of Náchod to DP camps in Germany, 1946 – donated to OpenEye by Elchanan Gafni/Oded Gafni

These refugees were mostly repatriates, often returning from Soviet camps and labor assignments, Polish Jews who ended up under Soviet administration after the joint Soviet-German occupation of Poland at the beginning of WWII. The Czechoslovak border was the beginning of their journey towards the hoped-for new life.

Czechoslovak authorities were unable to cope with the increasing numbers of people irregularly crossing the state borders. On July 27, 1946, the Czechoslovak government passed a resolution regarding help to these migrants from Poland. With this resolution, the authorities expressed many stereotypical fears: the Polish Jewish refugees were considered a health hazard, black marketers and dangerous Zionist terrorists.

Jewish refugees from Poland in front of the train station in the city of Náchod, 1946 – donated to OpenEye by Elchanan Gafni/Oded Gafni

Thus the government resolution included the demand for, “necessary security measures”, especially for the reason of, “protecting the Republic from undesirable elements”.[1]

The proposal for opening a refugee reception center in the Ostrava region was opposed with the argument that the, “execution of the two-year plan requires calm in the region, the workers should not be agitated by such a chance for spreading dangerous illnesses”. Proposals were made to intern the Jews in camps set up for the deportation of ethnic Germans, because these, “are isolated from populated areas and in case of a disease outbreak they can be sealed off”.[2]

The motives for escape from Poland were also questioned; Czech officials often doubted that the civil war in Poland, violence against the Jews and fear for one’s life were enough of a reason: “Who will guarantee that this is not only an excuse so that they could scatter themselves here in Czechoslovakia and remain a nuisance?” worried administrators wrote to superiors.[3]

Jewish refugees from Poland in front of the train station in the city of Náchod, 1946 – donated to OpenEye by Elchanan Gafni/Oded Gafni

The Czechoslovak government ordered the Minister of the Interior to make sure that, “all these refugees will remain, for the duration of their temporary stay in Czechoslovakia, concentrated in dedicated processing centers so that they could not disperse among the population and attempt to settle down here”.[4]

The fear that Polish Jews could try to establish their new home in Czechoslovakia was also behind the demand to regulate the intake of refugees so that, “only as many would enter each day as we could deport the same day”.[5]

The food, lodging and medical care in the transit camps as well as the compulsory armed guard preventing any attempted escapes during the train journey through Czechoslovakia interior were funded by American philanthropy, mostly by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Jewish refugees from Poland in front of the train station in the city of Náchod, 1946 – donated to OpenEye by Elchanan Gafni/Oded Gafni

The refugees were also feared to be terrorists attempting to reach Palestine to commit heinous deeds. Jewish youth talking in Hebrew or Yiddish was considered part of a nationalist terrorist network. One official document notes that in the transit camps in Nachod and Broumov it was observed that young refugees hold military exercises, “have some kind of uniforms and even some flag in their block, and also a Jewish poster without a proper Czech translation of the text”, taking the fear to a whole new level by reporting that, “they wore high leather shoes similar to those worn by the German Nazi NSDAP members”.[6]

Similar to other stereotypes and prejudice, the fear of the officials became greater the lesser their direct personal experience with anything Jewish was. The fear of refugees today, the inability to see them as individual human beings who are all different from one another, is very similar to these fears of the past.

We believe that the main goal of Holocaust and Tolerance education is the removal of similar stereotypical group notions, and deconstruction of the vision of the world as a place filled with abstract groups of people, often defined by an enemy construct, that all act in a way ascribed to them by the prevalent stereotype.

We are talking about individual people, and we listen to their individual voices. Our fear of the unknown or our personal experience with individuals should not allow us to libel a an entire group of people who often do not have much in common in reality. Each human is unique and should be judged as such. There is no reason to hate – or love – all refugees, or all Muslims, or all Jews.

The Visual History Archive of the USC Shoah Foundation offers thousands of personal stories of refugees, migrants, emigrants and immigrants. Listening to and interpreting the voices of the refugees of the past describing illegal border crossings and unexpected help from compassionate people could help us understand what the refugees of today may be going through. Below you find two stories: from Louise Hermanova and Norma Dimitry.

Louise Hermanová was born in 1916 in Svitavy/Zwittau. She studied and worked in Prague. She is a survivor of ghetto Terezín and the camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Christianstadt, Flossenbürg and Bergen-Belsen. The interview was recorded on 8/10/1996 in České Budějovice.

Norma Dimitry was born in 1923 in Vilna, and grew up in Poland. She survived the ghetto there, escaped from a concentration camp and went into hiding. The interview was recorded on 27/9/1996 in Toronto, Canada.

The Czech version of the above text can be found here.

We would like to hear from you! Do you believe this story is useful for you as an educator? How do you deal with the current refugee situation in class? Do you use historical examples? Would you use the materials in this blog post? Share your experiences by leaving a reply.