A Battle for Roma History in the Czech Republic

There can be no more appropriate metaphor for Europe’s collective amnesia about the plight of Roma during the Holocaust than the Czech government’s inability to remove a pig farm situated on the site of a former concentration camp for Roma.

Visitors to the sleepy village of Lety in Southern Bohemia, upon seeing the industrial farm behind rusty barbed wire, often remark how sinister it looks. Between 1942–43, around 1,500 Roma were taken to Lety and, of those not deported, at least 300 were murdered, most of them children.

The total number of victims is disputed, but we would have a much clearer picture if historians and archeologists were allowed access to this private land to investigate and preserve the honor of the fallen. On the ground of such a historically and emotionally significant site, we would expect nothing less elsewhere in Europe. Instead, at Lety, the foul-smelling pig farm continues its business, unperturbed by the ghosts that haunt it. 

It would be slightly more understandable if the authorities had only been made aware of this uncomfortable truth recently, but whispers have circulated around the village for decades. In fact this is how, 20 years ago, Roma historian and activist Paul Polansky began his work there. Polansky discovered documents revealing that there was indeed a “Gypsy” concentration camp at the Lety site—established and run not by the Nazis but by the Czech Criminal Police.

Polansky spent years documenting the stories of Czech Roma survivors of Lety. This research forced the Czech government to recognize Lety as a Holocaust site, albeit without removing the pig farm.

Not only does the country need to reexamine its treatment of Roma people, both then and now, but also its role in WWII, which was a more active role than some narratives suggest. Most Roma in the Czech Republic were killed or deported.

Many international and human rights institutions have pressured the Czech government to buy the pig farm, clean up the site, and convert it to a dignified memorial. The government claims that the owners are charging too much money to sell the site. Pleading poverty after pleading ignorance for so long is still unacceptable.

Many people ask, “Why do you dredge up history?” and “What does it change?” But I am certain that anyone with ancestors who perished in one of the many concentration camps around Europe would understand the need for justice and closure. Recently, a group of activists blockaded the road outside the farm and prevented vehicles from entering. A senior police officer from the village told me that his grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, and that he sympathized with our cause.

It remains a huge undertaking to campaign for heightened awareness of the Roma Holocaust and for giving it equal weight in the history books. Czech schoolbooks dedicate no more than one sentence to the Roma Genocide. There is already such a scarcity of national monuments that speak of the horrors of the Porajmos, and this attempt to close the book on a part of history that has not even been closely studied is worrying.

At the same time, the far right is exploiting a depressed economy and deep-seated tensions between communities as an opportunity to reassert themselves and create fear and division. Far-right demonstrations have been occurring across the Czech Republic for a number of years but there are two particularly concerning factors.

Some of the demonstrators come from German neo-fascist groups who are unable to assemble over the border in Dresden and Saxony due to a much more emboldened civil society. Yet only a small minority of neo-Nazi sympathizers attend or organize these events. The majority of participants are simply bored, restless young men and women with few opportunities and lack of anything else to do other than brawl with the riot police and join in the witch hunt of Roma.

Concerned citizens, along with members of my organization Konnexe, have set up a warning system to inform Roma communities whenever a far-right march is planned. We visit the affected communities ahead of the march and work with them, through psychosocial and other means, to prepare for the protest. These marches near socially excluded Roma communities—more than 50 took place in 2013—serve little purpose other than to intimidate and harass the inhabitants.

In 2005, then-president Vaclav Klaus remarked that Lety in fact was not a concentration camp, but rather a camp for Roma who “refused to work.” It was precisely this language that the Nazis used to use to discuss the Roma “problem” along with theories that they were not “compatible” with wider society and did not “want to integrate.” If we look across Central and Eastern Europe, we can find the same discourse being used today.

It is true that to dwell on the past can be at times unconstructive, but if we cannot at least recognize that a site that hosted genocide against the Roma should be respected and honored, then we risk making the same mistakes that allowed an atmosphere of violence to take hold in the first place.

16 Comments

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Effacer le passé est un deuxième crime qui s'ajoute au premier. Et un élevage de cochons, c'est une monstrueuse provocation raciste.

To built out future, it helps to understand and learn from the past. The government should offer a clear and transparent picture about the costs and benefits of a decent memorial site. Moreover, it does not matter if pigs are moved to another site...

As the saying goes 'if you can't remember, please don't ever forget' meaning there is always a larger, progressive reason for advancing the things that hopefully humans have learned from the atrocities created by misguided,evil ideologies. Keep up the work!

We are, indeed, making the same mistakes over and over again. No-one is asking who armed the military bombing and shelling the tiny Gaza strip. Nobody wants to know about the Roma. Nobody, therefore, is respecting their dead anymore than the so-called "rebels in Easter Ukraine have respected the dead from the Malaysian airlines downing. It is as if the whole world were out of control. I ask why? My answer to myself again and again is that we have no good leaders. It is the poor who speak out. It is the NGOs and Amnesty and Médecins sans Frontière who speak out. The Secretary General of the UN speaks out. But it seems that nobody is listening because nobody seems to care. Thank heaven Soros speaks out and you all speak out. Perhaps one day someone will listen and learn.

Thank you for sending this newsletter, and for your work on behalf of Roma, and on behalf of all human beings, that we are accountable for our humanity, the reality of history, and our need to work together for a different future.

If we do not acknowledge the past then there can be no future.My father, a Jewish Hungarian Holocaust survivor well remembers the Roma in Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Buchenwald in the Little Camp and as slave labourers in the tunnels in Dora- Mittlebau.They stood and laid side by side in the horror that was their lot. We must remember and honour the memory of all people who were targeted for genocide because they were simply Jews or Roma. We stand together now, along with all good people who want peace.

It's an issue of dignity. Thanks for raising the issue.

There are no plausible excuses for continuing to allow the pig farm to operate. The place should be turned into a museum, and an educational site, to inform people about what it was used for.

I firmly believe that while mankind has advanced with technology etc over the last 40-50 years, it is loosing it's humanity and is becoming more barbaric and wicked. As the Scottish poet Robert Burns said "Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn". This appears to be the case of the Roma and other poor ethnic groups throughout the world.

The Roma are peace loving people and they should be given support to continue with their life style.

Without acknowledging wrongdoings of the past , there cannot be any healing or meaningful closure. Thus, it is important that the experience of the Roma is acknowledged and the government makes the necessary amends for the sake of the Roma and humanity. Thanks Soros for your courage to stand up and inform the rest of the world!

Great information to awaken our human dignity. Thank you.

Nazi genocide against the Roma and Jews is about the lowest level of barbaric and beastial behaviour that human beings can sink to. The Czech republic is keeping itself at this uncivilised level by refusing the dignity of a proper memorial to the victims of Lety. This information should be sent to all the Heads of governments in Europe and must be included in all Holocaust education programmes.

Respect for the dead and the living. That is the primary
demand of all of us. Here, in the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron has refused to appoint Roma representatives to "his" Holocaust Commission, despite
the presence of 200,000 migrant Roma in Britain, many
of whom lost family members to the Nazi killing squads.

Thank you Miroslav for this powerful piece. So important that you reminded us of the comments made by the then President about Lety in 2005. Why has nothing changed? Dawn of Direct Democracy leader Tomio Okamura has repeated the lie, saying that Lety was a 'labour camp for persons who did not want to work', and that those who died there died of 'old age and diseases they brought with them as a result of their previous travelling lifestyle'. It's so shameful.

I visited Roma families in Czechoslovakia with Dr.Milena
in 1974,and recorded discussion.Now I have painted and published cards to make people aware about Roma.I wish that these cards may reach to large population. Need grant.

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