Printed 31.03.2023 18:35
21-05-2009 Gwendolyn Albert
On Wednesday, 13 May, for the twelfth year in a row, the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust organized its annual commemoration at the site of the mass graves for the victims of the Nazi concentration camp for Roma at Lety. Unlike commemorations in past years, this particular gathering was not disturbed by any neo-Nazi demonstrators, but the extremist violence of the past eight months and the political rise of the extreme right wing in the Czech Republic were most definitely on the minds of all those who attended. In the Moravian town of Vítkov, hundreds of kilometers away, a two-year-old Roma girl has been fighting for her life ever since an arson attack on her home on 19 April left her with burns over 80 % of her body. The thoughts of those gathered were definitely with her and with all of the Roma communities that have been facing the recent unprecedented public manifestations of hatred.
The ceremony opened beautifully with a young Roma woman singing first the Czech and then the Roma national anthems. Czech state representatives including President Klaus’s spokesperson, Czech Human Rights and Minorities Minister Michael Kocáb, former Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and Czech MP Kateřina Jacques laid wreaths at the monument, as did representatives of more than a dozen embassies, including Germany, Canada and the US. As is customary on 13 May, the operators of the industrial pig farm that continues to desecrate the concentration camp site made sure to turn off its ventilation so those in attendance would not be able to smell the pig manure that is so evident there during the other 364 days of the year.
Committee chair Čeněk Růžička, who has been fighting to remove the farm for more than 10 years, made it clear in his opening remarks that the ongoing lack of political will for moving the farm is a direct reflection of the actual attitude of most Czechs toward the Roma, which is no mystery to anyone who follows opinion polls on the issue or current events in the country. Anti-Gypsyism has been a hallmark of Czech democracy since 1989, and Růžička expressed his appreciation for both former Czech Human Rights and Minorities Minister Džamila Stehlíková, who kick-started the most recent efforts to deal with the pig farm, and the current Minister Kocáb, who recently saw through an agreement to put the memorial site under the same management as the monument at Lidice. Růžička also congratulated Kocáb on having been reappointed to his ministerial post in the new cabinet of Czech PM Fischer.
In his own remarks, Kocáb said he wants to create a foundation for buying out the pig farm so that the site can finally become a truly dignified memorial to those who perished there. When the issue of the farm’s location was first raised years ago, it was still in state hands; its subsequent rapid privatization has created a stumbling block that seems to grow larger every year, as the estimated costs of relocating the farm continue to rise. The current estimate is CZK 500 million (USD 25 million).
Official records of the camp, which are regarded as incomplete, show that 1 327 Romani prisoners passed through Lety from August 1942 – May 1943. Markus Pape’s 1997 definitive book on Lety,
Despite the fact that the Committee’s annual commemorations generate a small rush of media attention every May, there is a general lack of awareness about Lety’s place in the machinery of the Holocaust, if not a tendency among the general public to belittle or deny its significance entirely. In a recent online “chat” with Lucie Horváthová, a Roma candidate in the European Parliamentary elections, one questioner asked whether it would be correct to tear down the pig farm at Lety given that the prisoners “were able to leave the camp and work, but they preferred to stay there, where they died due to their own poor hygiene habits”. Such ignorant remarks and “blaming the victim” would be considered shocking (if not actionable) in Western Europe, but in the Czech Republic they are unfortunately the norm.
Czech society as a whole clearly has a great deal of work ahead of it in terms of negotiating the meaning of what took place at Lety. Hopefully it will not take another 10 years for the pig farm to go – and for the would-be revivers of the “Final Solution” to go with it.
Photo: Jana Šustová
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