By Martin Šmok

In 2015, Czech President Milos Zeman went on record to tell the prospective refugees from Syria “Nobody invited you here”. The concerned Czech citizens who had never seen a refugee before discussed the issue with great fear: they saw refugees as people endangering their employment possibilities, safety and their whole culture and tradition.

The otherwise tolerant majority of Czech society was exposed to intense media messaging giving simplistic answers to a complex situation, creating fears often resembling those of the shameful Second Republic of 1938.

Thinking about a proper and responsible educator reaction to such a climate, the plan for the IWitness-based We Were Refugees activity was born:

  • An online activity for students from grade 8 to 12
  • Available in both English and Czech
  • It takes approximately 1.5 hours to complete

This activity is dedicated to the experiences of refugees from Nazi Germany, Austria and the Czechoslovak borderlands on the eve of the Second World War, during the Second Republic of Czechoslovakia (September 1938 – March 1939).

Through interpreting and reflecting on testimony and other primary sources, students will develop an understanding of the status of being a refugee in the past and present and explore the multiple responses to the refugee experience from the majority population:

  • Why did the prewar societies fear German Jewish refugees so much?
  • What caused such a fear?

Example testimony and questions from the activity

Students will also learn about Sir Nicholas Winton of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, and will reflect on his experiences:

  • Why was a foreigner needed to help the local refugee and social work activists (Hana Steinerová and Marie Šmolková) of the Refugee Relief Committee in Prague?
  • What exactly was his role?
  • Why were the adult Jewish refugees refused entry by most countries of the Free World?
This photograph shows Nicholas Winton at the Prague airport on January 12, 1939. On that day a group of Jewish refugee children, sponsored by the Barbican Mission, a messianic sect, departed for England. Desperate parents agreed that their children would be sent to England, baptized and raised in the Barbican Mission as Christians until 18 years of age. The name of the small boy was Hansi Beck. Source: We Were Refugees activity

Finally, the students will reflect on what they have learned, connecting the past with the present and the future.

We are curious for your feedback. What are your thoughts on this activity? Would you use it as an educator when talking about refugees today? You can share your thoughts by leaving a reply below.

The We Were Refugees activity was created by the educational department of the USC Shoah Foundation in cooperation with OpenEye and support from the Isabel & Alfred Bader Fund, Bader Philanthropies.

IWitness is an educational website developed by USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education that provides access to more than 1,500 full life histories, testimonies of survivors and witnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides for guided exploration. IWitness brings the human stories of the Institute’s Visual History Archive to secondary school teachers and their students via engaging multimedia-learning activities. It connects the students with the past, engages them in the present and motivates them to build a better future.