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Czech Republic: Project commemorates postwar Romani labor

Brno/Ostrava, 6.10.2012 9:56, (ROMEA)

A project in the schools called "The Memory of Romani Workers - O Leperiben (Romani Memory)" will commemorate the stories of Romani people from Slovakia who came to towns in the Czech Republic after 1945 to work on construction sites and in heavy industry. The Sociology Department of the Faculty of Social Studies at Masaryk University in Brno is focusing on gathering oral histories from Romani workers in the Cejl neighborhood of Brno and the Vítkovice neighborhood of Ostrava. Audio recordings of their memories and portrait photographs of the workers will be storied in the collections of the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno.

The project also focuses on strengthening inter-generational ties in families and their relationships toward the places where they live, which is why those who designed it intend to have the stories collected primarily by the Romani workers' granddaughters and grandsons, assisted by community workers and educators. Collaboration on the project with primary and secondary schools in Brno and Ostrava has now begun more intensively with the start of the new school year.

The stories of the postwar arrival of Romani people from Slovakia to towns in the Czech Republic are not well-known to the public, which mostly hears about Romani people in the context of problems in socially excluded localities. Many of those localities bear important traces of the Czech Republic's postwar industrial development.

The project hopes to involve between 10 and 20 families whose memories will be recorded in-depth and placed in context. "On the other hand, we are also thinking about involving interested persons from all over the Czech Republic so that people can contribute their stories from elsewhere," says Kateřina Sidiropulu Janků, the main organizer of the project.

The academic dimension of the project consists of investigating whether current theories on the nature of social marginalization, our relationship to memory, our sense of belonging to a certain place, inter-generational solidarity, and workers' identity are valid. The applied part of the project will concentrate on formulating possibilities for intercultural cooperation.

The project includes audiovisual workshops where people can learn to use cameras and dictaphones in order to record their interviews. The audiovisual workshops are being led by professional photographer Petr Kiška; two of them took place in August. The next round of workshops will take place on Tuesday, 9 October, at 15:00 in Brno, in the Brána club room at the DROM Romani Center, (Bratislavská 41) and one day later, on Wednesday 10 October at 15:00 in Ostrava, at the drop-in facility for children and youth run by o. s. Společně-Jekhetane (Dělnická 20). Anyone interested in multicultural cooperation and modern Romani history can participate.

"When designing the workshops we were greatly assisted by the Vítkovice branch of the Ostrava Municipal Library, which has an extensive collection of photographic publications and Romani music. We are also doing our best to involve the primary and secondary schools, but we often run up against the fact that their staffs are too busy to work with us. Despite this, we have slowly succeeded in bringing the project to life. The project would be unthinkable without the cooperation of local community centers, where we have fortunately found the doors are open to us. The ambition of this project is to attract young Romani people who are not experiencing existential difficulties to cooperate with us, but it is not easy to reach out to the Romani middle class," Janků says.

The most visible parts of the project will involve three outdoor exhibitions in 2014 planned for Brno, Ostrava and Prague. "The exhibitions will be presented with an accompanying program, which in Brno and Ostrava will have a community character and focus on relations with neighbors. In Prague the program will be of an academic, expert nature," Janků said.

The project is being supported from 2012-2015 by the Program for Applied Research and the Development of National and Cultural Identity (NAKI) of the Czech Culture Ministry. More information can be found on the project's website, www.leperiben.cz.

Gwendolyn Albert, Blanka Marková, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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