An annual fund-raising run for the Memory of the Nation institute kicks off on Thursday. In years past, the event has raised close to a million crowns towards recording interviews with eye-witnesses to major events in modern Czech history, including those who fought against Nazism and Communism, or fell victim to those regimes.
To date, the Memory of the Nation institute (Paměť národa, in Czech) has collected testimony from 12,262 witnesses to contemporary history, more than half of which have been published online, along with 93,244 photo and some 41,486 video clips.
Among the oral histories are those of war veterans, members of the Czechoslovak resistance, survivors of Nazi concentration camps and Communist-era labour camps, former dissidents and political prisoners under both regimes, as well as ordinary people bearing witness to the impact of extraordinary events.
Then there are people like Jarmila Halbrštátová, whose life story reads like an encyclopaedia of contemporary history.
Born in Ústí nad Orlicí, a mostly German town near the Polish border, she spent her teens in the Soviet Union, was interned in a Gulag there after Nazi Germany invaded as a suspect “citizen of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia”, and upon her release joined the Czechoslovak army as a medic, and took part in battles across Ukraine.
“I learned that a Czechoslovak army was being formed in Buzuluk. The Russians told me about it when they released me from the Gulag. My town, Shakhty, was under German occupation, and I couldn’t go home.
“So, I enlisted... When I arrived in Buzuluk, they hung a metal plate around my neck. Every soldier got this in case he or she was killed or wounded in action.”
Jarmila Halbrštátová passed away in December at the age of 96. The annual “Run for the Memory of the Nation”, which begins on Thursday, helps fund the collection and preservation of such stories – before they are forever lost.
Among the hundreds of students taking part – along with their teachers, who have used such oral histories to help bring the past to life – is Simona Dubová, along with several high school classmates from Jihlava, one many towns with designated “Memory of the Nation” courses this year.
“I first read about saw it on social media. My dad has run a marathon, and I said I wanted to get on my feet just like him. And my friend thought it was a good idea, too, and the boys joined us.”
Simona and her friends plan to run 42 kilometres, as a relay team. For each kilometre they run, sponsors have pledged to donate 1 crown to Post Bellum, which administers the Memory of the Nation collection, in partnership with Czech Radio and Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ÚSTR). Last year, some 3,000 volunteers took part, raising nearly 900,000 crowns.