FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
4 September 2007
Czech President opens "A Vanished World" exhibit organized by the
Committee for the Redress of the Romani Holocaust (VPORH)
On Wednesday, 5 September 2007, Czech President Václav Klaus will open an exhibit entitled "A Vanished World" at the National Gallery's Veletrní palác in Prague.
VPORH president Cenek Ruzic(ka says: "Today the history of the Roma and Sinti is still either unknown or grossly misrepresented. Our people are subjected to stigmatization, which means the rest of the population and its governing bodies determine what is thought of the Roma and Sinti. This exhibition, however, is unique in that it shows how we view ourselves."
The exhibit was created by the Committee for the Redress of the Romani Holocaust (VPORH) in collaboration with the National Gallery in Prague, the Czech Ministry of Culture, the Czech German Fund for the Future, the City of Prague and other partners. It will take place under the auspices of the President of the Czech Republic and the Mayor of Prague. National Gallery Director Milan Kniák, representatives of Roma and Sinti from abroad, and many others have promised to attend.
This unique photographic exhibit represents the centuries of history of the indigenous Roma and Sinti in the Czech lands, the Holocaust, and their fate. A significant part of the exhibit is comprised of unique pre-war photographs from family archives, which represent the real lives of these people to the public for the first time. The exhibit also covers events in the Nazi concentration camp of Lety u Písku.
This exhibit will be the first time the public will have the opportunity to see a drawing made by a Czech Sinto directly in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp which he managed to smuggle back home despite harsh censorship. The drawing is an encoded depiction of the genocide of the Roma and Sinti and is the only one in the world to have been preserved. It will be introduced at the exhibit by Anita Francková of the Jewish Museum in Prague, who was herself formerly imprisoned at Auschwitz.
VPORH president Cenek Ruzicka
Contact: Markus Pape, 724 288 076, firstname.lastname@example.org
On Friday, May 13, 2005, there will be the annual memorial activities at site of the former concentration camp near Lety (see below). On Saturday, May 14, there will be a full day seminar at Prague's Goethe Institute on EU policies regarding Roma and Sinti. Basic info on getting to Friday's event is below, and full details about both days can be seen in this PDF document>>> Lety Event and Seminar Info
A bus to Friday's memorial service at the site of the Lety former concentration camp for Roma will be departing from Florence bus station this at 9:30 am (Friday May 13th). The meeting place for the bus at Florenc in under the highway bridge by the #133 bus stop.
The Lety event starts at noon and includes speakers from the Roma, Jewish and Christian communities, a Holy Mass and a reading by a Roma poet.
The bus returns to Prague at 2 pm.
Interested parties can just show up at the meeting place after calling Markus Pape of the Committee for the Compensation of the Romani Holocaust at 257 327 871 or 724 288 076
The Problem of the Former Roma Concentration Camps on the Territory of the Czech Republic
Committee for the Redress of the Romany Holocaust (CRRH), February 2004
If we want to understand the rise of concentration camps for Roma on the territory of what was at the time the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, it is necessary to clarify the historical context of their development.
Under Austria-Hungary, even though our Roma ancestors lived in poverty, they were able to move freely and without restrictions in the traditional way.
Things took a turn for the worse prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Czech historian Ctibor Neèas writes that “on 15 July 1927 (…) the National Assembly of the Czechoslovak Republic resolved and subsequently announced the so-called “Law on Migrating Gypsies.” The individual provisions of this first, exceptional law were in contravention of the guarantee of equality of all citizens of the Republic given by the Constitution. Special police rosters of Gypsy identity cards, migration papers and other administrative-formal means were used primarily to discriminate against tribal, nomadic Roma, but in some cases they could be applied to the Roma population as a whole.” The basis of this law was what was termed “societal demand.”
By taking this step, Czechoslovakia became the first state in Europe whose government initiated a “solution” to the Roma question - and the solution was de facto persecution.
“After accepting the anti-Roma law, application-of-law instructions were issued and after these came the decrees of the individual ministries through which the legislative amendment on the Roma question in the Czechoslovak Republic took its definitive form.”
In the following years this policy led to the constant intensification of the anti-Roma mood. The statistics on all Roma which resulted were later to present the police agencies with a strong weapon for a far harsher approach to the Roma.
In neighboring Germany, Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS under the Reich and head of the German police, ordered his forces on 8 December 1938 “to fight the Gypsy plague from the racial standpoint,” and the “Reich Headquarters for Fighting the Gypsies” at the Reichsbureau of the Criminal Police had the responsibility of maintaining statistics and subjecting all “Gypsies and Gypsy half-breeds” to identification processing.
In Czechoslovakia such statistics and identification processing of the Roma had already been long underway.
On 17 December 1938 the pro-government daily Venkov (“The Countryside”) wrote: “Something must be done, and very soon. Elsewhere they have concentration camps for political transgressors. We will not take such measures. But it would be good to build concentration camps for Roma, bums, and professional beggars who are young and healthy. Humanitarian concerns do not apply here, because that would be too one-sided…. Should the government intervene quickly, it will make a great contribution to civic and public morality.”
Expert Czech historians have stated that by the end of 1938 the Czechoslovak government had already sent a special delegation to Germany to inform themselves as to the methods used there when running labor camps.
On 2 March 1939 - on the model of Nazi Germany - “the Czechoslovak government issued a provision on disciplinary labor camps for men older than 18 years of age who were avoiding work and could not demonstrated that they were arranging for their own maintenance in a proper way. The provision on disciplinary labor camps in which the Roma were also to be concentrated along with others, was taken over by the Protectorate government through a decree of amendment on 28.4.1939.”
The Protectorate government designated the places for these labor camps as Lety near Písek in Bohemia and Hodonín near Kunštát in Moravia. According to the law mentioned above, selected Roma were arrested and, without a court verdict, “sentenced” to forced labor int eh camps, which were opened 10 August 1940.
On 30 November 1939 “the Protectorate Interior Ministry issued a prescription according to which all Roma had two months to permanently settle and abandon their nomadic way of life.” Those who did not obey these directions were to be transported to the disciplinary labor camps. On the basis of a further roster, the police ascertained in the year 1940 that “in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia there live 36,696 Roma, for whom there are fingerprint cards in the Headquarters for the Roster of Nomadic Gypsies, and a further 36,313 Roma, who hold Gypsy identification cards.”
On 9 March 1942 “the Protectorate government issued directions on the “preventive fight against crime.” Per its regulations the Criminal Police could inflict “protective” custody on criminal and asocial elements and place them in “collection camps.” Both the disciplinary labor camps at Lety and Hodonin and the former forced labor sites at Prague-Ruzyne, Pardubice and Brno were changed into these collection camps effective 1.1.1942.”
On July 10, 1942 the general commander of the non-uniformed Protectorate police, Horst Böhme, “issued an order on the fight against the so-called Gypsy Plague,” on the basis of which the Protectorate police prepared a further roster of the entire Roma population. On August 2, 1942 this roster was used to apprehend approximately 6,500 “Gypsies, Gypsy half-breeds and persons living in the Gypsy way of life, and Gypsy camps were set up at the sites of the former discipline camps” at Lety and Hodonín.
It is necessary to draw attention to the fact that during two years more than 30,000 Roma had gone missing from the police rosters. This fact has never yet been satisfactorily explained.
The main difference between the labor camps and the newly established “Gypsy” camps consisted of the fact that the labor camps interned “persons avoiding work,” while people were interned in the Gypsy camps people exclusively on the basis of their membership in a certain race. Here were interned not only men above 18 years of age, as in the labor camps, but entire Roma families including newborns. The living conditions in these so-called Gypsy camps were the same as in the Nazi concentration camps, which is proved by the authentic testimony of former prisoners of these camps who survived and were interviewed shortly before their deaths, by the camp regulations drawn up by the first commander of the camp at Lety, and by the mortality rate of the prisoners.
The former prisoners all testify as to the cruel treatment they received, including physical and psychological torture, the rape of women, and the intentional establishment of a regime which included substandard nutrition, no heat, and insufficient medical care.
Per the camp regulations issued by the commander of the Lety camp on 27 August 1942, the prisoners were deprived of all of their property and under the threat of cruel punishment they all, including the children, had to do hard labor, all correspondence was strictly forbidden, and when burying the dead in mass graves their relatives were not allowed to be present. At the order of the commander the guards were to shoot the prisoners “in case of resistance, refusal to obey orders, attempted escape or while escaping. (…) Whoever is found outside the residence hall after dinner and does not return after the first bell will be shot.” The camp was filled to more than four times its intended capacity for the duration of its operation. Even in the winter the prisoners were forced to suffer in wooden barracks 3 x 4 meters in area for 10 to 15 persons, where after 8 PM and lockdown of the barracks they had to relieve themselves in buckets.
The high mortality rate of the camps is best documented by the preserved historical materials in which we can find that at the camp at Lety, out of 1,309 interned prisoners, 326 died, and of these 241 were children - which of course does not rule out that the mortality rate was even higher. The camp also registered 36 births. Not one survived.
The depravity of these events at the camp were multiplied by the fact that the groceries intended for the prisoners at the camp were systematically stolen and sold in large quantities.
Some of the victims of the Lety camp were buried at the parish cemetery in neighboring Mirovice by Písek, and after a typhus outbreak in the camp others were buried at the temporary cemetery 150 meters as the crow flies in the woods next to the camp.
Per the assertions of Czech historians, the high mortality rate of the Lety prisoners was caused mainly by the outbreak of the typhus epidemic. But these assertions do not correspond to the fact that, per the preserved archival materials, 186 persons, 156 of whom were children, had already died prior to the start of the epidemic.
The surviving prisoners of the camps at Lety and Hodonín were gradually deported at the end of 1942 and in 1943 to the Auschwitz-Birkeanu concentration camp. The camp at Lety was raised to the group in the summer of 1943 and the Hodonin camp was cleared as well.
Out of all of the original Czech Roma living on the territory of the Protectorate only 500 persons survived these concentration camps.
During the postwar years, no one was ever sentenced for the crimes committed at these camps. There was one court case, with the former camp commander of Lety, Josef Janovský. In 1948 the court absolved him of all guilt. Not one of the other persons responsible for the criminal death of hundreds of people was ever brought before a court.
The surviving former prisoners traveled to the place of the former camp at Lety to remember their dead until the year 1974, when the Regional Administration began to build, directly on the spot where the camp had been, a high-capacity pig farm, despite the fact that several former prisoners drew attention to the fact that the pig farm was being built on a place where victims of Nazism had suffered. Since that time, the surviving prisoners have stopped traveling to that place. Their horror at the behavior of their government lives on in them to this day.
The entire history of both camps was suppressed during the postwar period. It wasn't until the year 1973 that the study by historian Ctibor Neèas was published on the events in the camps, but these were known only to a narrow circle of specialists.
On the site of the former Hodonin camp a recreation center was built, which despite the protests of both surviving prisoners and the bereaved of the camp victims serves this purpose to this very day.
Under pressure from an American genealogist, Paul Polansky, and the Congress of the United States of America, Czech President Václav Havel had a monument erected in the year 1995 at the temporary graveyard of the Lety camp next to the pig farm. The appropriate commission for selecting the monument design, however, did not contact any of the still-living former prisoners to consult with them about the monument. The existing monument is not in accordance with their concept of what should be located there.
In the year 1998 a monument was erected next to the Hodonin camp at the mass temporary gravesite there, and this monument is in accordance with the wishes of the former prisoners. Memorial tablets have also been erected at the cemetery in Èernovice, where some of the victims of the Hodonin camp were laid to rest.
Until recently, I lived my entire life convinced that concentration and extermination camps existed during the war only on the territory of Poland, Germany and Austria. My parents, who were imprisoned at Lety kept this fact from me until the year 1997. They did this because they were afraid that those former guards who were still alive might unexpectedly do something to them if their existence was known. On the basis of a publication by Markus Pape on the history of the Lety camp, on 4 April 1997 a group of 20 intellectuals filed suit against both unknown perpetrators and the most brutal former guard of the camp, Josef Hejduk, who was still alive at the time. Investigation of the case - started by the Interior Minister of the Czech Republic - was taken over by the Office for the Investigation of the Crimes of Communism. The entire matter was set aside after the above-mentioned former camp guard, the only surviving member of the staff, died in January 1999.
In the year 1997 I found out about the existence of the camps and the desecration of these sites. This was the impulse for us to found the Committee for the Compensation of the Romany Holocaust (Výboru pro odškodnìní romského holocaustu -VPORH) in 1998, which since that time has intensively done its best to remove both of these flagrant constructions from the places where the Roma have suffered.
That same year we organized in Prague, with the support of the Czech government and the Výbor dobré vùle (the Olga Havlova Foundation) a meeting of all those who were children of Lety survivors.
In cooperation with the government of the Czech Republic, the EU, the German Foreign Ministry and other organizations, we have successfully realized various projects over the course of the past few years. These are primarily educational projects which support the preservation of the historical memory of Czech Roma, for example, an annual seminar concerning the very thorny subject of the life of the Roma minority in the Czech Republic (organized in cooperation with the Jewish Community and supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation), which is connected with the annual memorial service at the place of the former concentration camp at Lety near Písek. At these memorial services we use the media coverage to call on the government of the Czech Republic to remove the complexes about which there are disputes and renew respect for the memory of both of these former camp locations.
At the start of 1999 we held a public hearing in Parliament on the past and present of the sites of these former camps at Lety by Písek and Hodonín by Kunštát, which was attended by more than 400 persons (among them Parliamentarians from across the entire Czech political spectrum, various public personalities, and former prisoners).
Subsequently, representatives of VPORH became members of a Czech government historical/social commission which prepared materials for the government on the camps. These were the starting point for a government resolution to take further measures concerning the sites of the former camps. The government met and passed a resolution in which it stated that it was aware of the historical debt which Czech society has against the Roma since the time of Nazism. However, at the same time it declared that due to lack of funds for relocating the disputed complexes away from both sites of the former camps to more appropriate locations, it was setting the matter aside, but not ruling out the possibility that one day it would return to the matter. The government has not concerned itself with the problem since.
In the year 2001 VPORH, with the financial support of the Czech government, realized the project of installing commemorative plaques with the names of 180 of the victims of racial violence at the concentration camp Lety near Písek. The plaques were installed on the walls of the cemetery in Mirovice by Písek, where half of the camp victims were laid to rest.
In the year 2002 VPORH, with the financial support of the German Foreign Ministry and per the concept of the Roma victims of Nazism created the very first Roma memorial in Bohemia. The sculpture was erected at the cemetery in Mirovice near Písek.
At first glance, in comparison with the extermination camps (like Auschwitz) or concentration camps (like Ravensbrück) the Lety and Hodonin camps, as camps per se, seem insignificant. But they have enormous significance for the history of the very small number of original Czech Roma and Sinti who are left in this part of the world today. Men, women and children died under terrible conditions in both places. Those who survived were marked for life by the torture they had suffered. Many of them suffer physical and psychological results to this day. The originally ethnically Czech Roma have disappeared from public awareness.
Cenìk Rùzicka, President, VPORH
Pres. Klaus's abdominable remarks about Lety:
PRAGUE 14 May 2005
Lidové noviny: When MEPs informed the
Czech Republic that it should resolve the problem of the industrial pig farm on
the site of the concentration camp for Roma at Lety by Písek, you reacted by
saying that the MEPs don't even know where Písek or Lety are
and that we should resolve these problems here at home. Of course, this problem
has been before us for 10 years, and no one has resolved it. In such cases isn't it therefore
correct that the EP can substitute for a national parliament when such a
serious matter remains unresolved?
Václav Klaus: I think that the actual problem is really much more complicated than the trivialising of it shows, it's much more complicated with that camp. It was originally a labor camp for those who refused to work, and not only for Roma people. It is really not a concentration camp in the sense in which we all subconsciously understand the words "concentration camp" and envision Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and all that went with them.
Of course many tragic
things happened there. However, we understand that the victims of this camp
primarily succumbed to an epidemic of spotted typhus, not due to what is traditionally understood as
the fate of a concentration camp victim - at least according to what every
child learns in school. Of course it is necessary to appropriately commemorate
this place. As far as I understand, a certain form of remembrance was chosen by
the government 10 years ago, and then Miloš Zeman's government chose to supplement that decision as well.
(Internet transcription translated from the Czech by Gwendolyn Albert)