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The Roma Holocaust
02-06-2003 - Dita Asiedu

When we hear the term holocaust, we immediately think of the plight of the Jews during WWII. However, many of us forget - or are unaware - that hundreds of thousands of members of a different community also fell victim to the persecutions during the Second World War. Today, we'll visit a conference, which took place under the Khamoro World Roma Festival and discover the unknown holocaust of the Roma.

The conference, named the Genocide of the Roma during WWII, was held at the headquarters of the Jewish community in Prague. Tomas Jelinek is the community's chairman:

"For us it's quite important that the organisers of this festival asked that we host today's seminar, which is dealing with the issue of Roma history during the Second World War. I am not a historian, so there are definitely some historians who can discuss the issue, what was the difference of the Jewish holocaust and the history of the Roma in the different regions. What's important for me is that we as the Czech-Jewish community live in the country which had a Czech-Roma community, which perished almost in the same percentage as the Jewish community. So for us, it's more that our grandparents were the neighbours of the Czech-Roma at Auschwitz. So for us, it's more an emotional issue and not an issue of historical analysis. So, we took it from this side."

Jana Horvathova, is the deputy director of the Museum of Roma Culture in Brno:

"Under the Protectorate, there were about seven thousand Roma. Out of these only some five hundred and eighty-three survived - the large majority died. They mainly were able to survive by hiding, not getting on the transports, or fleeing abroad. The Czech people saved only a very small number; several tens of Roma. In the camps in Lety and Hodonin, there must have been over three thousand Roma. In each camp about three hundred died. They were mainly women and children, for whom the conditions were too harsh. As far as the total number of Roma victims during WWII is concerned, it is still being discussed because there is little documentation. The numbers vary between 350,000 and two million. I personally think that there were about half a million victims."

The Roma Holocaust was a dark period in the history of the Roma that should never be forgotten. However, it took five years before it became a topic of discussion at the World Roma Festival. So why did it take so long? Tomas Jelinek:

Camp in Lety "It's much more difficult to study the Roma holocaust because of so few records. Also, the numbers of the Roma in Bohemia and Moravia were smaller than of Jews. So, there is definitely an issue, which is the issue of archives and resources. On the other side, during the Communist regime there was a policy that the Roma community should assimilate and there was never any international initiative, which would try to open the issue of the Roma holocaust like it was on the Jewish side. There were Jewish institutions in the USA, in Europe, and in Israel and they were taking care of the research of what happened with the Jews from Central Europe. It was also neglected by the Communist regime. But because of this difference, this disparity, their history [of the Roma] has been studied with few exceptions only during the last decade."

And with most witnesses already deceased it has not been an easy task. Furthermore, there never really was an interest among the non-Roma Czech population to look into the Roma Holocaust with more detail. Jana Horvathova, Museum of Roma Culture:

"Unfortunately, the topic is taboo here in the Czech Republic and I'm afraid it has something to do with this aversion against the Roma that a large part of the public has. It is therefore very difficult for society to understand what caused the genocide of the Roma during the Second World War. People are unconsciously and latently convinced that what happened with the Roma in WWII was in reaction to their anti-social behaviour. In some speeches today you still hear this point. But the reality is different and society finds it difficult to accept and understand this fact."

"I have a feeling that generally, the whole approach of the people in Europe towards the Roma community is quite complicated. It's not only the story of Czechs but also the issue of people from Britain, France, Hungary, Poland. I know that the better story you may find in schools were people that get information about the history of the Roma community, they learn about the rich past and about the horrible part of their history during the Second World War and the people can relate much better. There are big problems in the society, there are prejudices - between the Roma and the Jewish community on both sides - but the hope is that the young generation can learn more in schools and they can overcome these prejudices."

A point made by Tomas Jelinek that Lidija Grebo, the chief organiser of the conference agrees with:

Osvetim "I think that Mr Stankiewicz [seminar participant, editor-in-chief of Rrom po drom magazine in Poland] said a really great sentence. It doesn't depend on numbers. Genocide is the general thing, the holocaust. So, in that frame, I think that all young people should learn about what happened during the Second World War because they have to learn how important that issue is because it simply is our history and we have to learn something from our history."

And another sad fact in the history of the Czech people is that the idea of creating work camps did not come from Nazi Germany but had been existing in the Czech lands much earlier. The work camps in Lety and Hodonin that were meant for the unemployed were already managed by Czechs before the Nazis occupied the entire country on March 15th 1933. Jana Horvathova:

"That is linked to this taboo that I mentioned earlier. Already during the First Republic proposals to manage the unemployed, and create concentration camps for the Roma, appeared although, of course, there was no way they could have been realized at the time. But it is true that under the Second Republic there were government proposals to create work camps."

But despite there being a lack of documentation, a lack of witnesses, and most importantly a lack of interest and tolerance for the Roma minority, Lidija Grebo believes that the Czech Republic is beginning to move in the right direction and the Roma Holocaust will soon be in most text books:

"All countries will benefit in all issues when they enter the European Union. Then a lot of things will not depend on particular politicians or particular governments. The law should be put in accordance with European standards and then a lot of things will be changed without the will of anyone. It is just the rule. So, first of all, if the law will be in accordance with European standards, a lot of problems that the Roma have here will be solved. I do believe that Czechs will vote for EU membership, I think a lot of things will be changed and will be better not only for the Roma. I think there are two very important things. First of all, I think that the Roma should be educated, should start to speak openly about their problems and should fight for their rights. On the other hand. Czech people who don't like the Roma should also learn that there are only good and wrong [bad] individuals. Wrong [bad] people do not exist and good people do not exist."

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