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Roma Holocaust exhibit in Prague
31-05-2006 - Linda Mastalir

An exhibit devoted to the history of the Roma and Sinti Holocaust has opened in Prague's National Gallery. Entitled "The Roma Holocaust: the genocide of Roma and Sinti and racism in today's Europe," the exhibit is meant to bring to light aspects of WWII history not often mentioned.

Jana Vrbova It is only during the past decade or so that historians of WWII and the Holocaust have begun to write seriously about the fate of Europe's Roma during that horrible period. Hitler's racial ideology targeted European Roma for liquidation, and half a million Roma and Sinti were dead by the war's end in 1945. Now, an exhibit devoted to the history of the Roma Holocaust has been prepared by the Documentation Centre of German Sinti and Roma based in Heidelberg, Germany, and its display in Prague was organized by the Committee for the Compensation of the Romani Holocaust.

At the exhibit opening, Jana Vrbova, whose grandparents were interned and whose father was born in the Lety camp in the south of the Czech Republic, spoke about her hopes for the exhibit's success:

"As the granddaughter of people who lived through the Lety camp, I hope that many people will visit this exhibition, and that they will no longer say that Roma died in the camps because they were dirty and didn't uphold adequate hygiene standards. I hope that these photographs will prove that Roma in Lety lived in horrible conditions, and that people will no longer make light of the topic. Above all, I hope that what happened in Lety will never be forgotten, and that everyone will know about this piece of history—not just those few among us who recall the events regularly, but everyone. I think that I can also speak for my grandfather, and I hope that he's not angry with me in heaven when I say that the events of Lety and the other camps should never be repeated."

Cenek Ruzicka The head of the Committee for the Compensation of the Romani Holocaust in the Czech Republic, Cenek Ruzicka, has this to say about the exhibit's aims:

"Of course nothing fundamental will change. But the exhibit should serve at least to start a change where the perception of Roma is concerned. When you look at these photographs, you see that these Roma were intelligent people. But today you hear the Fascist groups saying that they were dirty, that they stole, etc. Yet here you see that they were intelligent people who had values, were educated in traditional trades and made a regular living. This exhibit shows all of this clearly."

Over eighty large display panels with many black and white photographs illustrate the fate of Roma and Sinti in various European states, both those that were occupied, like the Czech Republic, and those that collaborated with Nazi Germany. One of the most engaging aspects of the exhibit is the fact that individual people and their families are profiled, so visitors have a sense of who these Roma and Sinti were, what they looked like, and the histories of their families.

Part of the exhibit's aim is also to draw attention to racism against Roma today, and Gwendolyn Albert, the Director of the League of Human Rights, comments on the degree of awareness about the Roma Holocaust in the Czech Republic, and the attention the subject is given:

"Even in Holocaust scholarship, the Roma have been completely neglected until really the last decade actually, when people have slowly begun to realize that there was a gap in what they were recording, and transmitting, and saying had happened to these people. I think that the entire history of the Czech government's response to Lety is just incredible, you know. It's been more than ten years now that the relatives of the survivors and the survivors themselves have been asking—in the most civilized way possible—for this fifteen thousand pig industrial farm to be removed from the place where their people died, against their will."

The exhibit is on display at the National Gallery until July 16th.

Photo: Jana Sustova

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