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The Romani Holocaust: remembrance and recognition (OP-ED)

A group of children imprisoned at the concentration camp of Lety by Písek, where they died primarily of cold and hunger. Source: Akademie věd ČR

The anniversary of the Romani Holocaust should be impetus for the government to finally remove the pig farm on the site of the Lety concentration camp in the Czech Republic.

By BERNARD RORKE
IN many cities across Europe citizens gathered Monday 2 August to commemorate the more than half million victims of the Romani Holocaust (the Porrajmos). The death toll included almost 3,000 Roma men, women, and children who were put to death on the night of August 2-3, 1944, when the Germans liquidated the Zigeunerlager (“Gypsy camp”) at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Ðorđe Jovanović, President of ERRC, recalled his own family’s tragedy where his great-grandfather and his firstborn son were seized by the Nazis and put into two different trucks: “My great-grandfather was taken to Germany and kept in a forced labor concentration camp. He survived the war and returned home only to learn that his eldest son was murdered in another concentration camp in Croatia.”

Speaking about the rise of anti-Roma politics in 21st Century Europe, he said, “We at the ERRC are fighting every day for the rights of Roma. We are litigating and advocating against forced evictions, sterilization, school segregation, violence and discrimination against Roma right across the continent, so that the darkest moments of European history never, ever, happen again.”

Former Romani camp. Photo: Supplied
Former Romani camp. Photo: Supplied

To learn from history European citizens would first need to know their history. For far too long the fate of the Roma who perished at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators has been neglected, and relegated to the footnotes. To this day, far too many Europeans remain ignorant of this particular aspect of Nazi bestiality. However, recent years have witnessed a growing public recognition of the Porrajmos, and a deeper understanding of the racist character of the genocide.

In April 2015, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on all Member States to officially recognize this genocide and other forms of persecution of Roma such as deportation and internment that took place during World War II; and called for an official dedicated European Roma Holocaust Memorial Day.

Though recognition of the Romani Holocaust has begun to take hold, Holocaust denial has not gone away and some elected politicians in the European Union still indulge in either the hard-core form or the more slippery kinds of ‘soft-core denial’.

Last year Czech MP Tomio Okamura, chair of the Dawn of Direct Democracy Movement (Úsvit) in response to a tabloid survey as to whether a pig farm should be removed from the site of the former concentration camp at Lety stated:

“According to the information available, this myth that it was a Romani concentration camp is a lie. There was a labor camp there for people who avoided proper work, including Czechs and Germans in the Protectorate. They were not interned on the basis of ethnicity, but on the basis of the gypsy way of life, which means that no working Roma were there … No one was killed at the camp – people died there as a result of old age and the diseases they brought with them as a result of their previous travelling lifestyle.”

What was encouraging was the damning and widely publicized responses from political opponents and civil society.

Okamura’s comments were described as “the kind of moral turpitude that rises to the level of a felony”, and drew direct condemnation from the Prime Minister, other prominent politicians, as well as Romani intellectuals and activists.

File photograph of persecution of Romani in the former Yugoslavia during WWII. Source: Wikicommons
File photograph of persecution of Romani in the former Yugoslavia during WWII. Source: Wikicommons

Petra Gelbart, in a moving rebuttal of Okamura’s lies, said that he was also propagating the mistaken notion that all Romani victims of the Holocaust were so-called ‘asocials’:

“In reality, both in the Protectorate and in other countries, highly integrated Romani and Sinti people were also included in the transports to the concentration camps,” Gelbart said.

“I happen to know what I am talking about in this regard not just thanks to historical sources, but because the Holocaust affected my relatives, of whom only a tiny fraction survived. As for the fairytale that ‘the Germans were responsible for everything’, my great-great-grandmother was killed directly by a Czech camp guard. Unlike Mr. Okamura, however, I reject the notion of collective blame.”

Okamura was not alone among the deniers, former Czech President Václav Klaus once said Lety had not been “a concentration camp in the real sense of the word”.  For all those who would relativize or trivialize the suffering of the victims of fascist crimes, this testimony of a girl imprisoned in Lety at the age of ten stands as a damning indictment:

“What was it like when they sent them away to Auschwitz? Well that was horrible, people howled and wept, I always said, “Mom do you hear that? Mom, please, make them stop crying” – it was horrible. “What are they doing to them, what are they doing to them?” That’s what I was thinking. They rounded them up and they couldn’t go out anymore, not anywhere, and at night the police vans came, and then the crying, the screaming of those people as they begged for mercy, that was horrible. Then we never saw any of those people ever again….”

The news that the Czech government intends to buy out the pig farm on the site of the Lety Camp is welcome but so long overdue. The pig farm stands as an insult to both the living and the dead.

As Romani activist Josef Miker remarked this week: “It’s sad the communists built a pig farm on a Roma Holocaust site, but the worst thing is that even after 27 years of so-called democracy, it’s still there.”

What was also welcome was the respectful tone in which this message was conveyed by Culture Minister Daniel Herman (Christian Democrats). In an interview for Czech Radio, he said.

“I myself lost many close relatives, including my grandfather, at Mauthausen, and if I were to imagine there were pigs wallowing at the place where my grandfather died, I wouldn’t like it either.”

Herman spoke of other atrocities committed at Lety, including the murders of newborns and the mass graves in the nearby forests, and said that the Czech Republic must learn how to face up to its past. A proper reckoning with the past might go some way to undoing the anti-Roma racism and discrimination that scars the present.

Bernard Rorke is an Advocacy Officer at the European Roma Rights Center.

See more on the Romani Holocaust here.

This Op-Ed was edited by bohemist staff for style and consistency.

 

Bohemist

Bohemist is an upstart news outlet serving the Czech Republic. Feel free to write us at editor@bohemist.cz.

About Bohemist

Bohemist is an upstart news outlet serving the Czech Republic. Feel free to write us at editor@bohemist.cz.

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