The first official act undertaken by the new US Ambassador to the Czech Republic was to give the embassy’s human rights award to the chair of the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust. The civil society group, which represents Romani Holocaust survivors and their relatives, has convinced the Czech state to purchase the pig farm that occupies the site of a former concentration camp for Romani people and was in operation from 1942-43 at Lety. Many people died there due to the sadistic local management of the facility, few escaped, and most were sent from there to their deaths at Auschwitz.
Ever since a memorial to the camp’s victims was installed there by President Havel in 1995, the survivors, their relatives and their allies have been pressuring the Government to remove the foul-smelling farm from the site. The cause has overcome a major hurdle: Money has been allocated and a contract has been signed between the state-funded Museum of Romani Culture and the pig farm owner regarding transfer of the property. However, many observers remain wary of the potential for further obstacles to a future where a) the memorial to these crimes is genuinely dignified and b) the significance of Lety will not be constantly undermined by elected representatives of the Czech state.
Many politicians seek to capitalize on the general population’s all but complete ignorance of the events surrounding the creation of the camp. There is little awareness of the nature of the camp management by Czech personnel or the reason for its closure by the Nazis. Few are aware of the details of the postwar prosecution of those responsible for the camp or the private efforts by Romani people to memorialize the site during communism. Little research has been done into the decision by the communist authorities to allow the farm there, or the state’s post-1989 decision to privatize that business. The story of the camp’s memorialization beginning in 1995 is also not generally understood. The chairs of two undemocratic political forces, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (Vojtěch Filip) and the fascist “Freedom and Direct Democracy” party (Tomio Okamura), lost no time and immediately criticized the state’s purchase of the farm as a waste of money on the floor of the lower house during discussion of next year’s budget.
Both politicians have long engaged in well-worn Holocaust denial tactics, including claiming the site was “not a concentration camp”. The Czech President has also criticized the decision to invest taxpayer money into demolishing such a production facility and “replacing it with nothing”. This grandstanding aims to stoke the fires of antigypsyism in the Czech Republic and to all but completely deny Czech responsibility for this history. The implication of these remarks, to the vast majority of the population who are unaware of this history, is that investment into recognizing Lety is yet another way in which Roma are allegedly being “privileged” by the bleeding heart cosmopolitans in Prague.
Culture Minister Daniel Herman (Christian Democrats), who is largely responsible for the allocation of the funding and the signing of the contract (quite a feat during an election year), responded unequivocally to this latest wave of political exploitation by tweeting the following: “T. Okamura and V. Filip are doubting Lety. No surprise, since the Fascists established the Romani concentration camp and the Communists set up the pig farm at that same site.”
What the cause has lacked in domestic allies it has made up for with international ones. For more than two decades, the annual 13 May gatherings at Lety, organized by the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust, have attracted consistently strong attendance from many ambassadors to the Czech Republic. These have included not just ambassadors from Germany and other European countries, but from India, Israel, Russia and the United States of America. Similarly, Members of the European Parliament (EP), both non-Roma and Roma and from different Member States and political factions, have visited the camp and reiterated calls by the EP for the farm to be removed.
A significant ally in the battle to educate the Czech public about this history is the Terezín Initiative Institute. When Filip told fellow legislators that:
“The facility of the AGPI firm is not on any land where that labor camp originally was. If there has been a call here for us to somehow compensate what the Czechs have done to the Roma, then don't be angry with me, but that seems to me to be a call that is out of touch with reality.”
the director of the Institute wasted no time in responding with an open letter informing him that:
“Like other concentration camps throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, these camps were intentionally labeled ‘Labor Camps’ by the Nazis so as not to spark panic among people about their deportation to them - exactly so their actual situation would be deceptively hidden. By making remarks such as the ones you have recently made, you have used the terminology of the Nazis, and you are casting doubt on the significance of the Holocaust and belittling the memory of its victims.”
It is significant that Filip has raised the issue of “compensating what the Czechs have done to the Roma”, as an initiative of that sort was raised by former Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier (Czech Social Democratic Party) with respect to another issue, the forced sterilization of Romani women. These abuses began during communism at around the same time that the pig farm was installed at Lety, and they have persisted into the 21st century. Dienstbier’s 2015 request to the Government that it ask Parliament to set up an ex gratia compensation mechanism for all women sterilized without their informed consent was not approved (why remains a mystery). Research by the Public Defender of Rights 12 years ago reviewed the eugenic approach of the communist authorities and compared the situation here to similar endeavors in Sweden and Switzerland, both of which established compensation mechanisms for such victims.
What does the future hold for the Lety site? Even with a contract signed there are potential pitfalls. A minority shareholder has filed lawsuits against both of the general meetings where the owner voted to sell the farm and is hoping the courts will render the contract invalid. In his remarks to the lower house, Filip called upon the Finance Minister to contact the courts with a similar request. Lastly, the entity slated to assume ownership of the former site is the state-funded and established Museum of Romani Culture. How will its director withstand political pressure if the Culture Ministry ends up in the hands of somebody who agrees with Filip, Okamura and President Zeman that this purchase is against their ahistorical, antigypsyist, ethnocentric definition of the “national interest”?