History tells us that 6 million people died. But that was a long time ago, and very far away.
- IMAGE COURTESY NEIGHBORS WHO DISAPPEARED
- WHAT IS IN A NAME? : "I do not have any ancestors of Jewish origin. But my grandmother told me she had a Jewish girlfriend. Her name was Eva. They attended the same class and were inseparable friends. When according to the law Eva had to leave school, my grandmother risked her life and visited her secretly. She taught her what Eva missed at school, and at night they used to go for walks. Then Eva was transported to Terezin and was killed together with her mother. When my grandmother had a baby girl, she did not think twice about naming her child after her friend ... Eva. What is more, most of my grandmothers classmates have daughters of the same name." Zuzana Krizova, high school student, Stribro, Czech Republic
# Do we remember that those 6 million were put to death in a campaign of planned genocide and their deaths often followed intense suffering?
But that was such a long time ago and in another part of the world.
We've seen the proof in images of mass graves and emaciated bodies standing in long lines for an uncertain destiny that we dare not imagine. They are faceless, and any connection to community has been eliminated. Were these friends or family to anyone we know?
For some, the memory remains all too clear. But for many, it's practically ancient history.
It was the Holocaust, and it happened barely more than 60 years ago, and not all that far from home. The victims were someone's neighbors who disappeared.
Neighbors Who Disappeared was a massive project undertaken by students primarily Christian youths from throughout the Czech Republic to find out who vanished. They were asked to put faces, names, and personal histories with neighbors who were taken from their hometowns during the Nazi Holocaust.
The resulting tribute to the young victims of Hitler's planned annihilation of a race of people is a series of panels, each about 6 feet tall by 3 feet wide, that's currently touring the world. Temple Beth El in Santa Maria is the only stop in California for this full-size exhibit. And this state is one of only 15 appearances in the United States.
Neighbors Who Disappeared is comprised of more than a dozen panels from 12 Czech towns chronicling the lives and doom of the Czech Jews affected by the Holocaust. The students conducted painstaking research, collected photos and documents, interviewed those with memories of the events, and traced their fates to produce the 19 panels.
Public relations consultant Frank Gardner, who's been assisting with the local exhibition, hopes the community will embrace this and understand the significance of this enormous display.
"I know that with the Torah on display, and some of the other things that are planned, it's going to be a very impactful experience.
"I think it really brings home, more than films of the camps or any of that stuff, the idea that these were your neighbors, these were your friends, they lived among you, they were part of your society, and all of the sudden they are taken away or disappear," Gardner said. "When you see this information that's on these panels, you'll really realize that these were human beings.
- IMAGE COURTESY NEIGHBORS WHO DISAPPEARED
- HITTING CLOSE TO HOME : "I have never been interested in the Jews before. The project Neighbors Who Disappeared came at the time when I, within the framework of a school film screening, had to see Steven Spielbergs film "Schindlers List." After the film sequence when human ashes are falling onto a small town, I was overcome with terror and hate of human cruelty that caused the death of many people. Maybe that is why my friend and I set out to search for the fate of the Jewish families in Sumperk." Martina Polisenska, Vera Skubalova, high school students from Zabreh na Morave, Czech Republic
# "It gives them a dimension I haven't really seen," he continued.
Gardner also thinks the panels are important to young people who have little suspicion that any of this happened, and he feels that in general, Americans think of it as old news. The intent is to ensure that people won't forget that this happened because the issue, Gardner said, is still relevant today.
"We tend to think we're not capable of this kind of thing. We think that we'd never let something like that happen," he continued. "Every generation has had its own sort of discrimination. I think we need to realize that we are capable, and something like this could happen again."
This exhibit came to the Central Coast because a very old religious relic happens to reside here. Santa Maria is a repository for a holy Torah that came from the former Czechoslovakia more specifically, from the town of Holesov.
"The Torah is the Old Testament, the five books of Moses," explained Lia Chait, who's volunteering for the project. "They were hand written by scribes. It is a treasure."
Chait said it was a matter of chance that the Torah was saved from the Nazis and that it wound up in Santa Maria. And only because of the connection of the Torah from the Czech Republic and the Czech Neighbors Who Disappeared project was Santa Maria even considered as a possible stop for the exhibit.
"They got the idea that the students should do some research and compile material. And what's happened is there is a combination of artistic material and documentary material that the students put together," Chait said. "They used mixed media, drawings, paintings, collage, documents it was up to them.
"They were done in different towns, each [panel is] from one town," she continued. "The first 12 were made between 1999 and 2002. And then there were another seven, specifically in honor of the children lost from those towns in the Holocaust. And those were done in 2005."
The panels are personal accounts of researchers, many of whom previously gave the Holocaust little thought. The resulting body of research unveils a once-flourishing Jewish community throughout the former Czechoslovakia.
- IMAGE COURTESY NEIGHBORS WHO DISAPPEARED
- LIFTING THE VEIL OF THE PAST : "The subject [of the] Jewish settlement within the Sokolov region had never been specifically examined. Therefore I was able to try to fill in a blank space in the history of our region. One could say that the project Neighbors Who Disappeared became a part of my life for one year. For the whole period I tried anywhere it was possible to collect data, documents, photographs, and, in fact, anything somehow connected with this subject. But all the time I met a total lack of any data available. The documents of highest value, that is the records of Jewish communities within the Sokolov area, have been irretrievably damaged. I have made my own photographs of Jewish sites of our region and recorded the epitaphs on the tombstones if legible." Michal Vessel, high school student from Sokolov, Czech Republic
# Gardner said tracking down documentation was left solely to the school children.
"Kids did the research and interviewed any survivors that were in their town, which were few," Gardener said. "But they also interviewed non-Jewish contemporaries of those people who remembered those families. Sometimes it was their grandparents."
Chait said she was surprised to learn the religious background of the kids involved in the project.
"One interesting fact is that most of the students who worked on this are not Jewish, they are Christian," she said.
For her, the exhibit is a chance to remember and honor those who've disappeared.
"Many non-Jewish people and some Jewish people think that when we bring up the Holocaust or anything related to it, we're doing it to show how victimized we were," Chait said.
The project volunteer said that she has a hard time looking at the panels because she lost half of her family in the Holocaust. Only her father survived because he was able to emigrate from Europe when he was 19. Chait said that she thinks that not only non-Jewish people, but Jews too, know very little about the subject and wants this to be a learning experience.
Above all, she wants people to not forget that this could happen again.
"There is no depth enough to man's ability to do harm. And I think no one is exempt. That's what I want them to learn," she said. "I would like for people to remember and not to forget. Not to forget that this may happen again. This is what the students did. They want us to remember."
According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, nearly 90 percent of the Jewish population in Czechoslovakia were victims of the Holocaust.
They were real people, who lived in real towns and villages, and were very real neighbors before they disappeared.
INFOBOX: Find out who they were
An exhibition on the Holocaust created by students from the Czech Republic is now on display through Oct. 31 at Temple Beth El in Santa Maria, 1501 E. Alvin.
It's staffed by a committee of local volunteers and chaired by Kenneth L. Wolf of Temple Beth El. It's supported also by Pastor Paul Berry and several members representing the congregation of Calvary Chapel, which has an ongoing ministry in the Czech Republic. The exhibition is funded locally through donations. Admission is free.
The Neighbors Who Dis-appeared panels have been translated in English for the U.S. portion of the tour.
For more information on the interfaith project, contact Ken Wolf of Temple Beth El at 260-3113, or Pastor Paul Berry of Calvary Chapel at 922-1822.
Groups of 20 or more are requested to call 614-4053 for advance reservations.
Displays prepared by local residents will include the 36 most-asked questions about the Holocaust, maps, definitions of relevant terms, and Temple Beth El's Czech Holocaust Torah. On two Saturdays, Oct. 21 and 28, at 7 p.m., well-known local writer Steve Schwartz will do a reading of his poetry and show the film "Paperclips." Seating is limited. To RSVP, call 260-3113.
INFOBOX: Sacred Torah on display
As part of the Neighbors Who Disappeared exhibit, Temple Beth El will display the Torah from Holesov. The Holocaust Torah consists of the five books of Moses and is sacred in Judaism.
At one time, 328 Jews lived in Holesov, a small community in present-day Czech Republic. All were wiped out of existence during the Holocaust, and today there are no Jews living in the town.
The sacred document is opened to the section of the Ten Commandments.
Arts Editor Craig Shafer works for New Times' sister paper, the Sun. He can be reached at email@example.com.