Counter-protesters in Prague shout down a neo-Nazi rally

'I was alive in 1937, I saw what the Nazis did, and it is my obligation to come here and say it.'

Holidays in the Czech Republic are a time for getting away to the country with the family. But 150 Prague residents, including many well-known Czech personalities, sacrificed last Friday, Czechoslovak Independence Day, to rally against a neo-Nazi demonstration. Some 60 neo-Nazis gathered in front of the German Embassy to protest the incarceration in Germany of Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, deported from Canada to his native Germany in March and charged with inciting hatred by sending materials over the Internet. Before they assembled, a crowd, barricaded by police for their own protection, had already assembled to prevent the neo-Nazis from being heard. "I was alive in 1937, I saw what the Nazis did, and it is my obligation to come here and say it and to support the action by the German government," said Senator Karel Schwarzenberg, descendent of a long line of Bohemian aristocrats. Ivona Novomestska, a 22-year-old student at Charles University, said she felt obligated to protest against the neo-Nazi demonstration because "although their numbers are very small, if we all ignore them, they could get a lot bigger." The counterprotesters carried banners with slogans such as "he who hasn't learned from history is forced to repeat it." Ludmila Hellerova, 77, a Holocaust survivor who was carrying an Israeli flag, walked into the neo-Nazi throng, saying neo-Nazism leads to Nazism and Nazism leads to the Holocaust. The young people turned their backs to Hellerova and shouted at her to shut up. Leo Pavlat, director of the Jewish Museum in Prague, said during the event that he felt encouraged that so many prominent personalities and journalists showed up for the counter-protest. "It shows that Czechs don't think of this as a Jewish question anymore," he said. There was unprecedented media coverage discussing the planned neo-Nazi demonstration on all three national television stations and in the leading daily newspapers, which carried editorials denouncing what they called the misuse of freedom-of-speech advocacy. The neo-Nazis have gatherings on Czech national holidays at least twice a year, but only once before have they tried to express a specific political message. In 2003 they sought to march through Prague's Jewish Quarter to protest what they called the Israeli Holocaust against the Palestinians, but Prague authorities steered them into a another part of town. Johana Lomova, spokesman for the League Against Anti-Semitism in Prague, says the counter-protest was "the first time that the public, the common people said, openly without any problem, that they disagree" with neo-Nazis. "It is something very new. Also the police showed they can be proactive," she added. Following a dramatic increase in the number of neo-Nazi concerts in the Czech Republic this year, the police have faced harsh criticism from politicians and even the foreign minister for failing to prevent the gatherings or make arrests. The rally was led by the National Resistance, the country's most visible neo-Nazi organization. In response to a letter by the Federation of Jewish Communities stating that the neo-Nazis should not be allowed to demonstrate, Prague city officials said they could not prevent the neo-Nazis from gathering, but the police, who were out in force, did make two arrests. Holocaust denial is illegal in the Czech Republic, as it is in Germany, and the mostly young and male protesters were careful to emphasize that they were demonstrating "solely in the name of freedom of speech, a freedom Zundel has been denied," said a neo-Nazi supporter. He refused to give his name but said he was a 22-year-old university student from Prague. Asked repeatedly by JTA if he thought the Holocaust had not occurred, he refused to answer. Meanwhile, there was some debate among counter-protesters who were concerned about free speech and asked whether it was wise for the counter-protesters to continually shout down the neo-Nazis, who unsuccessfully tried to make their speeches heard through the din of whistling and shouting. Their pamphlet argued that Zundel's incarceration without trial was counter to Europe's commitment to human rights. "Listen, I know what the neo-Nazis are all about and I don't want them gathering about anything," said one protester against the neo-Nazis who asked to remain anonymous. "But the truth is I think the treatment of Zundel has not been fair." In contrast, an Auschwitz survivor, 84-year-old Jan Fischer, told JTA during the counter-protest that no one has the right to promulgate a lie. "How did these kids become such idiots?" he said, rolling up his sleeve to show his concentration camp tattoo.