Fighting to honor the Roma

LETY, Czech Republic — In a small grassy clearing marked with boulders, dozens gathered last week to pay homage to the hundreds of Roma who perished in a concentration camp that is now home to a pig farm.

For more than a decade, the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust has been calling on successive Czech governments to either close down or relocate the pig farm, which they say is an affront to the Romani — or Gypsy — victims of the Holocaust.

The official records, generally regarded as incomplete, show 1,327 prisoners passed through the Lety Camp in the 10 months it operated as a concentration camp, from August 1942 until it was closed on May 13, 1943, with one final transport train to Auschwitz-Birkenau, according to Markus Pape, who wrote a book about the Lety Camp in 1997, titled, “And No One Will Believe You.”

Pape said more than 1,200 prisoners were packed into a camp with 332 beds. Living conditions became so atrocious that hundreds died in the camp, including 241 children. It was eventually closed for fear of a typhus outbreak that would have threatened the community at-large.

The Czech Republic's current human rights minister, Michal Kocab, wants the state to properly honor the Roma who suffered and died at Lety. He put the cost of relocating the pig farm at 500 million koruna, or $25 million, though his plans will almost surely exceed his time in office.

“We're going to collect money to create a fund that will put together the financial resources for moving the pig farm which is here,” he said in an interview with GlobalPost. “It might be five years, it might be longer.

“It will secure the memory of the Roma,” he added.

Cenek Ruzicka's mother was imprisoned at the Lety Camp. She survived but many in her family perished, including a 6-month-old son. Ruzicka told attendees at the memorial that the rise in racially motivated attacks against the Roma during the past year were reminiscent of another era.

A far-right political party has been agitating against the Roma, trying to stir up local resentment. At one point the tensions grew so great that 1,000 police were deployed — one of the largest deployments ever in the post-communist era — to protect the Roma.

“I indirectly compared the situation that led to the establishment of the interment camp at Lety with the current situation in Czech society with the rise in extremism,” he said. “The fact that the pig farm remains on this site is an encapsulation of the position that the Roma have today in Czech society. If our position were stronger, this would not be tolerated.”

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