Czech Republic Intransigent on Honoring the Forgotten Holocaust

by Gwendolyn Albert, WW4 Report

PRAGUE — As has been amply documented over the 15 years of its existence, the Czech Republic has a poor record when it comes to protecting the rights of members of the Roma minority. Unfortunately, this does not apply only to present-day victims of rights abuses, but even to the memory of Roma who perished on Czech territory during the Nazi occupation.

Under the Nazi Protectorate, camps at Lety (in Bohemia) and Hodonin (in Moravia) were used to round up Roma families and force them to work before sending them to Auschwitz, part of the Nazi Holocaust machinery. The camp at Lety was particularly infamous, as the local commander, on his own initiative, stole the prisoners’ rations for sale on the black market and starved and tortured the camp occupants. When conditions deteriorated such that a typhus outbreak threatened the surrounding area, the Nazi Protectorate closed the camp. It is estimated that 95% of the indigenous Czech Roma perished in the Holocaust.

In the 1970s, the communist state of Czechoslovakia established a pig farm on the site of the former camp, which eventually grew to its present capacity of 15,000 animals. Local people set up their own private memorials to the victims of Lety near the mass gravesites in the forest, but no official recognition of the tragedy that had occurred there was ever made during communism.

After the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the Velvet Divorce from Slovakia in 1993, researchers found extensive documentation of the crimes committed at Lety in local archives. Books were published and survivors and their descendants were found and interviewed, despite official claims that no one was left alive who could remember the camp. War crimes charges were filed against one of the camp command, but the man died before justice could be served. A brief period of international press about the farm spurred the Czech government to make the first of what would become more than a decade of clumsy attempts at damage control around the pig farm.

While President Vaclav Havel’s office commissioned a memorial for Lety (without consulting survivors, unfortunately) and erected it in 1995, other parts of the Czech government had a different idea of how to deal with the fact of a pig farm on a Holocaust site. The farm, still in state hands, was quickly privatized, complicating what could have been a very simple process for its relocation. Visitors to the memorial site are greeted by the stench of animal excrement. The Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust (VPORH), the Lety survivors’ organization, holds a memorial ceremony there every May 13 (the day Havel first unveiled the monument in 1995); in recent years, the farm has turned off its ventilation system on that day in order to prevent the stench from being noticeable to the government dignitaries, diplomats and demonstrators who tramp down the unpaved path to the memorial site every year.

In the intervening decade, numerous governments have come and gone, each tiptoeing up to the problem and then shying away from resolving it, for various reasons. The biggest reason is general anti-Roma sentiment among a large part of the Czech electorate and the perception that moving the farm will somehow be providing the Roma with special treatment. This lack of leadership on the part of the Czech authorities has led to such a deterioration of the meaning of the site to Czech society that right-wing extremists have demonstrated at Lety against the farm being removed for the past two years.

The European Parliament called for the pig farm to be removed in 2005. Late last year, as part of a larger proclamation on the Roma in the EU, the EP singled out the Czech Republic in its resolution, reiterating its call for the government “to abolish the pig fattening industry on the former concentration camp in Lety.” The Czech Republic is under some pressure to resolve this and other issues before it takes up the Presidency of the EU Council in January 2009, and has therefore recently established a Working Committee on the Roma Holocaust, chaired by Human Rights and Minorities minister Dzamila Stehlikova.

This committee includes representatives of several ministries, the Czech human rights commissioner, the head of the Czech Government Council for Roma Community Affairs, the owners of the farm (a firm called AGPI), regional government officials from South Bohemia, members of the South Bohemian Roma community, and the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust (VPORH)—the Lety survivors’ organization that has been agitating for the removal of the farm for more than a decade now. Unfortunately, expropriation of the farm and its relocation have so far been off the table, and the proposals that are being made concern everything but this fundamental issue.

Over the public dissent of VPORH president ÄŚenÄ›k RĹŻĹľiÄŤka, whose family members lost their lives at Lety, some of the committee members recently announced a proposed “solution” for the Lety site that does not involve removing the farm at all. Designed by AGPI together with the South Bohemian regional government and involving an investment of CZK 50 million (US$3 million), the proposal is to develop yet another memorial adjacent to the farm—despite the fact that a memorial already exists at the site. Some members of the present-day South Bohemian Roma community on the committee—none of whom lost any relatives at Lety during the war, as their roots are in Slovakia (and none of whom were elected by their community to play this representative role)—were approached by the South Bohemian regional government to lend their support to this scheme. They have done so.

The creation of a difference in opinion between the South Bohemian Roma on the committee and VPORH has shifted the burden of “reaching consensus” on what to do about Lety to those with the least power to actually make a decision, and serves the purpose of creating a “dispute within the Roma community” for the press and others to lament. This tactic keeps the real issue—desecration of a Holocaust site and the Czech state’s responsibility for remedying it—from being discussed.

To observers of Roma-related matters in this country, this tactic comes as no surprise. As in many other matters, from segregation in education to access to “social housing,” the Czech government is following its longstanding practice of shifting to local and regional officials what should be a matter for resolution at the highest level—not the least, because it concerns the need for the country as such to manifest respect for human rights and recent European history.

In an interview on Czech radio Feburary 4, the performance of both Czech MEP Jan Brezina (Christian Democratic Union-Czech People’s Party) and South Bohemian regional governor Jan ZahradnĂ­k (Civic Democratic Party)—both part of the ruling coalition—was a classic example of how confused politicians’ reasoning can become when they try to defend the indefensible and are ignorant to boot. The Lety survivors would never and have never questioned the fact that Nazi Germany bears ultimate responsibility for the Holocaust—but MEP Brezina portrayed the group’s focus as an attempt to deny Nazi responsibility. This has been interpreted as an effort to make Lety a German problem, not a Czech one—so that the Germans can be asked to foot the bill for the pig farm’s removal. The pig farm, however, was placed in that location by the Czechoslovak state, and cannot be considered the responsibility of any state other than the Czech Republic.

Brezina spoke in this interview about the Czech camp staff at Lety as if their “plight” in running the camp for their Protectorate overlords was comparable to the suffering they inflicted on their victims. It has been well-documented that the cruelty, sadism and mismanagement that led to the death of hundreds at Lety, many of them children, was due to the initiative of the camp commander and his lackies, not to any orders from on high; one of the great ironies of the Lety story is that after conditions there deteriorated such that a typhus epidemic threatened the surrounding area, the Protectorate authorities actually shut the camp.

MEP Brezina’s expression of sympathy for the camp guards precisely echoes sentiments expressed by extreme right-wing parties such as the National Party (NS)—which demonstrated in memory of the Czech guards at Lety at last year’s commemorative service, and which has recently founded paramilitary units called the National Guard. The National Party chair, Petra Edelmannova, is infamous for using the term “final solution” in her propaganda regarding the Roma.

At a February 21 meeting of the Working Group on the Roma Holocaust, voices of reason were expressed from various ministerial officials in support of the survivor organization’s contention that the farm has no business on such a site. These voices also oppose the expensive plan for yet another memorial in sniffing range of the farm. After reaching consensus on recommendations to the government that it perform minor improvements to the existing memorial, however, the group did not set a date for discussing the pig farm’s removal. A real solution to this problem seems as out of reach as it ever has.


See also:

“Verging on Genocide” in the Czech Republic?
by Gwendolyn Albert, WW4 Report. August 2007

From our weblog:

Czech courts indemnify Romani woman for forced sterilization —at last
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Neo-Nazis kill Czech anti-fascist
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Special to World War 4 Report, March 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution