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Popular Czech children’s book under fiver over racist undertones
20-04-2010  Jan Richter

A racist passage from a popular Czech children’s book recently sparked a heated debate in the Czech media after a Romany activist asked for it to be withdrawn from the school curriculum. Thousands of Czechs publicly opposed the request, which was also dismissed as unjustified by some Romany organizations. But others believe the issue of racist undertones in some Czech literary works should be taken seriously.

Several generations of Czech children grew up reading about Mikeš the Cat, Pašík the Pig, Bobeš the Goat and their human friends. Set in a small Bohemian village, these stories were written and illustrated by the famous Czech writer and painter Josef Lada in the 1930s.

Mikeš the Cat But recently, a Romany activist caused an uproar when he petitioned the Czech Education Ministry to remove the popular book from the curriculum. Václav Miko, from the NGO Roma Realia, pointed to a passage in the book that describes Mikeš’ kidnapping by a group of rough travelling folks, and ends with a clear message to the reader: “These people, dear children, were Gipsies.”

The request sparked a wave of protests. Some 80,000 people joined a Facebook group in Mikeš’ defence; major Romany organizations distanced themselves from the request and blamed the media for fuelling the controversy, and an aspiring politician even tried to use the issue in the election campaign. But political analyst and literary historian Bohumil Doležal says that while the request might have been over the top, Václav Miko has a point.

“It would be extremely unfortunate if this should overshadow the fact that there is a real problem. The passage from Mikeš the Cat is indeed problematic because it says all Romanies steal, which is unacceptable. And from this point of view, I also believe that some Czechs overreacted to it.”

Bohumil Doležal There has been at least one case of a Czech children’s book being rewritten to rid it of dubious content. The book Honzíkova cesta, or Honzík’s Journey, which was put out in the 1950s, describes the adventures of a small boy from the city visiting his grandparents in a village. Its post 1989-editions omitted all period vocabulary, including words such as comrade and cooperative. Czech-based German Romany activist Markus Pape believes that in such cases, the Education Ministry should assist teachers in coping with these sensitive issues.

“These kinds of issues never led and should not lead to the ban of books. But the Education Ministry should draw teachers’ attention to such controversial and problematic parts of literature and ask them to explain this to the children – how racism occurs, how it is promoted by literature and how to deal with such statements that can be found in many books, and about other minorities as well.”

The debate whether or not Mikeš the Cat should be removed from the curriculum took an interesting turn when Prague-based Brazilian journalist Fabiano Golgo decided to test Czechs’ ability to see things from the Romany point of view. In an article for the online magazine Britské listy, he wrote that in Brazil, the phrase “banho tcheco”, or Czech bath, is used to suggest lack of hygiene.

Mikeš the Cat “What’s interesting about the reaction from Czech readers – and we are talking about high-end readers; Britské listy is read by university students and by people from the political and intellectual elite – even a well-known former priest reacted – they argued that the description is not fair, according to them, meaning that Czechs do not stink. But the point of the article was, how do you feel, or how would you feel if you found out that in a far-away country, your nation is a synonym for lack of hygiene?”

The NGO Roma Realia eventually withdrew its petition, while the Czech Education Ministry has appealed to Czech teachers to present such sensitive works into a contemporary context.

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