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Commentary: Is Czech society about to rid itself of anti-Gypsyist MEP Miloslav Ransdorf?

10.12.2015 4:32
Petr Uhl
Petr Uhl

I have known Miloslav Ransdorf since June 1990, when we were both elected as legislators in the Federal Assembly of Czechoslovakia - he for the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, I for Civic Forum (Občanské fórum). We did not see eye to eye there despite my cooperation with most of his comrades in that parliament.

What sticks in my memory is that we were once in the restroom together and I reproached him for his position on the draft amendment to the Labor Code under discussion concerning trade union rights, because he was defending and praising the pre-1989 trade unions during the parliamentary debate, which had actually not been unions at all. Instead they were just another tool of the Communist Party and focused mainly on distributing chocolates on International Women's Day and organizing recreation for the workers.

"Your uncritical attitude toward the former unions is harmful to today's trade union movement, sir," I said to him back then. I have been publicly criticizing him for 20 years now over his anti-Gypsyism as well.

In 2005 the European Parliament called on the Czech Republic to close the pig farm that now stands on the site of the Protectorate-era concentration camp at Lety by Písek. MEP MEP Milan Horáček of the Greens aided in pushing that proposal through there.

Ransdorf, who was already an MEP then, literally said the following in response:  "As an historian I know that with respect to Lety this is unchecked lying. No real concentration camp was ever there."

On this issue Ransdorf was in the same boat as former Czech President Václav Klaus, who also said at the time that the camp at Lety had not been established primarily for Roma, but for those who refused to work. I feared that Ransdorf might have committed the crime of denying genocide, which is why I filed a complaint about his remarks with the Supreme State Attorney, Marie Benešová, even though I knew he would not be prosecuted, because here it is unthinkable that Czechs could ever have participated in such murder.

Why? Because of their dovish natures, of course.

If only the prosecutor's office would have asked the European Parliament to release Ransdorf for criminal prosecution then. That didn't happen, though.

Why there is the stench of pigs instead of a reverent atmosphere at Lety

When I was Human Rights Commissioner in the Government of then-Czech Prime Minister Miloš Zeman, I lost my struggle against the Czech nationalists on this issue in 1999. An historian with a dubious past, Jaroslav Valenta, and the then-director of the State Archives Administration of the Czech Interior Ministry, Oldřich Sládek, misused the statements made at that time by the renowned historian Ctibor Nečas, who prior to 1990 had been the only Czech historian to research the genocide of the Roma in an intellectually honest, scholarly way, and slipped to the Government falsified data about Lety behind my back, including a counterfeit cartographic superimposition of the area of the former concentration camp over where the industrial pig farm is today.

With the aid of Agriculture Minister Jan Fencl and Regional Development Minister Jaromír Císař, who never fulfilled the task set them by the Government of providing a financial statement on paper about the relocation costs of the farm, but who instead verbally gave the Government the song and dance that relocating the farm would cost tens of millions of crowns including the building of a monument - and the Government then decided not to adopt a decision to remove the farm. Back then, in April 1999, the Government's only action on the issue was just to morally condemn racist repression against Romani people and even, with the aid of the otherwise correct expert Mr Nečas, to use the awkward term of "a camp for the forced concentration of Roma" so they could avoid, in a cowardly fashion, the use of the term "Gypsy concentration camp" (although in January, at my suggestion, they had used that very term in their resolution).

In 2005, Ransdorf and other nationalists objected to the Czech Government aiding the creation of a dignified memorial site at Lety on the site of the industrial pig farm because to do so would remind the world of the fact that both postwar Czechoslovakia and the post-1989 Czech Republic failed to recognize that Czechs, i.e., the predecessors of today's Czech citizens, participated in the genocide of the Roma in the Protectorate. The Czechoslovak and Czech authorities have always concealed that the entire operation of the local concentration camp established by the Protectorate Government, including the conditions leading to an epidemic of typhoid and the dispatching of transports to Auschwitz, was organized by the Protectorate government authorities which were almost exclusively staffed by ethnic Czechs, not by the authorities of the Reich who also acted in the Protectorate and organized the genocide of the Jews here, the response to the assassination of  Heydrich, reprisals against resistance fighters and their families, and other crimes.

The responsibility of Czechoslovak and Czech society, which no one can relieve the Government of, is evident due to the impunity for the crimes committed against Roma after World War II and the disgraceful privatization of local agricultural lands after 1989, which senselessly established a joint stock company out of the existing industrial pig farm and expanded to include the territory on which the concentration camp once stood. For the sake of completeness I would add that the current memorial, which was built during the mid-1990s in the nearby forest about 200 meters from the farm and is the site of all the annual commemorations of what transpired at Lety, is insufficient, although the joint stock company that operates the farm does everyone the kindness of turning off its ventilation system during the annual commemorations so the farm's stench cannot waft to the memorial on the usual breeze generated.

"The Czechs have a large memorial in Lidice for their war dead. This is because they want to have a memorial against the Germans, but we have no memorial because we were not killed by Germans. The Czechs killed us." That is a statement published by the author Paul Polansky and attributed to the descendant of a prisoner from a family of the few Czech Roma to survive Lety and the Nazi occupation.

I know many Romani people who echo those sentiments. In terms of historical truth and morality, however, recognizing the crimes against Roma and remedying a situation where the site of a former concentration camp is polluted by the smell of farmed pigs should be more of a concern for the descendants of those citizens of the First Republic and the Protectorate than for the descendants of the Roma today, most of whom came to the Czech lands from eastern Slovakia after the war and during the next few decades, and who account for more than 90 % of all Roma in the Czech Republic now.

Both of my Czech parents, born at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, voted during the elections of 1925 for the legislators in the Czechoslovak National Assembly who, in 1927, adopted the "Law on Wandering Gypsies" almost unanimously. The Second Czech-Slovak Republic, which lasted from 1938 to 1939, was not my parents' state, and I do not know whether they knew at all about the decision of its Government at the beginning of 1939 to establish the two labor camps, one at Lety near Písek in Bohemia and one at Hodonin u Kunštátu in Moravia.

They certainly did not know that the Government of the Protectorate transformed the labor camps (which were already housing some Roma, but mostly non-Roma) into "Gypsy collection" camps, where they shut up Roma families with children, and where persons who could manage to prove they were not Romani ("Gypsy") were actually released from the camp. This was reportedly assessed by a commission that investigated matters such as whether person stripped naked would then walk with the "typical gait" of a "Gypsy".

Both my parents died long before 1990, which is when I, too, first learned there once was a Protectorate-era concentration camp at Lety. I think even they did not know about the concentration camps either.

Now, many years later, I recall finding in the records of the parliamentary debate of 1927 the speech made by a single deputy, a Christian Democrat, who disliked the proposed "Law on Wandering Gypsies" so much that he warned Parliament not to pass it. He was evidently unable to suppress his Christian values.  

Of course, the extermination of human beings and other kinds of persecution based on the notion of race is rightly regarded everywhere in the world as a crime for which there are no statutes of limitation. The German legal order provides that the statutes of limitation cannot apply to any murder, which weakens the importance of this legal approach a bit.

Genocide is a crime against humanity - it is the denial of humanity itself. For today's Roma in the Czech Republic, the denial of the circumstances of that genocide is of considerable social importance, as it is part of today's general discrimination.

The matter of this industrial pig farm on a genocide site, therefore, is an affair that concerns all of us, non-Roma and Roma. It is a matter of importance to the Czech Republic and to Europe.

I do not want MEP Ransdorf prosecuted

I had to suppress the urge to gloat over the current prosecution of Miloslav Ransdorf - that sense of Schadenfreude that the proverb "The mills of God grind slowly but surely" is true. I felt this same way years ago when Major Peter Žák, an operative of the Czechoslovak State Security services, was sentenced to eight years' imprisonment for particularly serious financial crimes.

Žák had interrogated me several times in the 1980s, so I know that among the members of the State Security whose morale was progressively decaying, he was an exception - back then he was one of the few remaining operatives who still genuinely believed in the state socialist ideology. I was there when, in the reception room at Ruzyně Prison, he gave nonsensical commands to Catholic priest Václav Malý ("Face the wall!") and humiliated him in front of about ten other detained Chartists whose guards had tolerated letting them sit and speak together quietly.

That was the last time in my life that I encountered class hatred. However, after 1989 it was not possible to punish Petr Žák for such displays.

Schadenfreude is not a nice characteristic, so I was ashamed to feel it after the arrest of MEP Miloslav Ransdorf at the Zurich Cantonal Bank. I cannot wish illness, injury, or jail on anyone.

I hope that most of this society gradually overcomes its Czech nationalist anti-Gypsyism, that the pig-fattening will be moved a few kilometers away and that this society can build a memorial site at Lety where people will learn who else and what else, in addition to the underlying cause of German National Socialism (Nazism), contributed to the genocide of the Roma. My wish for Miloslav Ransdorf is that it is eventually shown that the financial transaction he attempted in Zurich was not a crime.

I also wish for him, for myself, and for European society - and ultimately even for the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia - that Ransdorf will remain publicly silent from now on when it comes to the genocide of the Roma. I also hope his time in office as an MEP will come to an end as soon as possible.  

Petr Uhl, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Lety u Písku, Lidská práva, Ministertsvo vnitra, Nacismus



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