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Fighting to honor the Roma

Pig farm on site of concentration camp is called an affront to the Roma, who face systematic discrimination in the Czech Republic.

The ceremony, which began with a young Romani woman singing first the Romani national anthem and then the Czech national anthem, brought out several dignitaries, including Count Karel Schwarzenberg, who was foreign minister until a little more than a week ago, when an interim government took office to lead the country to early elections in October.

“Here perished a lot of Gypsies, an incredible number of children,” he said, explaining his presence at the ceremony. “And a lot of them who didn't die here were sent to Auschwitz. For me it is offensive this pig farm should stay here.”

But Schwarzenberg's voice is a minority among government officials past and present. At least four governments, led by both the left-of-center Social Democratic Party and the right-of-center Civic Democratic Party, have refused to address the situation.

Schwarzenberg says a proper memorial should be built on the site, “because it was one of the worst tragedies that happened in this country during the war. The lamentable thing is many Czechs were involved doing it. I'm a neighbor here. I grew up in the next village. I still remember.”

And therein lies the rub.

Most Czechs aren't sympathetic to the plight of the Roma who face systemic discrimination in an array of social areas including education, health care and employment. (Though Czechs did recoil at the recent fire-bombing of a Romani home that left its occupants — including a 2-year-old girl — severely burned.)

But more significantly, this is a country that has a long history of viewing itself as perpetual victims of greater military powers: The Soviets, Germans and Hapsburgs have all ruled over the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia going back centuries.

So the notion that Czechoslovaks — who were, in fact, in charge of the camp— could have been perpetrators of such heinous crimes is anathema to the country's historical self-image as a victim.

By some accounts, World War II began in March 1939 with Hitler's seizure of Czechoslovakia. It's a non-starter here to suggest guilt on the part of  a country that was occupied by the Nazis for more than six years, explains Gwendolyn Albert, who sits on the Committee for Redress of the Roma Holocaust.

“The camp was entirely staffed by Czechs and Slovaks who were collaborating with the Reich,” she said, adding, “There is no political support for acknowledging this history. It is not a vote-getter.”

More GlobalPost dispatches on the Roma:

Kosovo: Gypsies relocated by UN remain on toxic land

Turkey: Forced from their homes

More GlobalPost dispatches on the Czech Republic:

Interview: Czech leaders look to upcoming elections

Crisis puts migrant workers in a bind