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At remembrance event, chair of the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust says Okamura is one of the Czech politicians agitating against Romani people

2.8.2021 10:17
The commemorative ceremony at Lety u Písku, 1 August 2021 (PHOTO:  ROMEA TV)
The commemorative ceremony at Lety u Písku, 1 August 2021 (PHOTO: ROMEA TV)

Yesterday, at the site of the unmarked burial ground for some of the prisoners of the WWII-era concentration camp at Lety u Písku, the traditional commemorative ceremony dedicated to the Romani victims of Nazism was held. The event is usually held on 13 May, but this year, according to organizer Čeněk Růžička, it was held on the later date in August because the COVID-19 pandemic made it too difficult to hold in May, the second year in a row it has had to be postponed. 

ROMEA TV broadcast the ceremony live online. Růžička, who chairs the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust in the Czech Republic (VPORH), warned against populist parties in his opening remarks.

In his view, several politicians are resorting to casting aspersions against Romani people in the runup to the autumn elections to the Chamber of Deputies because they believe it will bring them success. He specifically criticized the "Freedom and Direct Democracy" (SPD) movement and its chair, Tomio Okamura, but also said candidates from other parties are resorting to the tactic as well.

"From this place, which is so sacred to us, those of us who lost our relatives to Nazism appeal to all voters in this country... Think before you vote, don't just fall for anybody's populist promises," Růžička said.  

The VPORH chair also criticized the Czech Police in association with the scandal around Stanislav Tomáš, who died shortly after police arrested him. He also reminded those assembled of how police officers in Sokolov are reported to have behaved when responding to an incident in which a group of football fans assaulted local Romani residents and their children. 

On the other hand, Růžička expressed appreciation for the recently adopted law on the compensation of those who have been illegally sterilized. Those attending the event laid wreaths at the memorial that was first unveiled at the site of the unmarked burial ground on 13 May 1995 by then-Czech President Václav Havel. 

Among those in attendance who laid wreaths were Czech Culture Minister Lubomír Zaorálek (Czech Social Democratic Party - ČSSD), vice-chair of the Chamber of Deputies - Czech MP Vojtěch Pikal (Pirates), and Czech Senator Pavel Fischer. A wreath was also sent by the Office of the President of the Czech Republic.  

Evangelical clergyman Mikuláš Vymětal was one of two religious figures to give a speech recalling the fate of the Romani children who died in the concentration camp at Lety u Písku. He echoed Růžička's remarks about the current situation of Romani people in the Czech Republic and the death of Stanislav Tomáš.     

Czech Culture Minister Lubomír Zaorálek (ČSSD) then addressed those gathered and recalled that several thousand Romani people had been murdered by the Nazis in the Auschwitz concentration camp during the night of 2 August and the early morning hours of 3 August 1944. "We cannot allow this place, associated with the tragedy of the murder of thousands of citizens of Czechoslovakia, to be forgotten or for us to consider it to have been a marginal event related to the Protectorate [of Bohemia and Moravia]," he said in an interview for ROMEA TV. 

The minister also said in his remarks that he dislikes the persistence of the differentiation among the Czech, Jewish and Romani victims of Nazism. "I guess we have to say what the numbers were, but it seems to me that to do so is also a betrayal of sorts. It seems to me that we are telling ourselves that some of the victims were fewer in number and therefore secondary, that they were not the main victims, and that paves the way for somebody to later build a pig farm over the place where they died," he said. 

The vice-chair of the lower house for the Pirates, Czech MP Vojtěch Pikal, was attending the commemorative ceremony at Lety for the first time. "Society has not been doing well recently. Many people are intimidated, they have the feeling that injustice is happening, they are looking for an enemy to blame, and some of those on the political scene tend to point the finger at those whom they imagine that enemy to be," he said in an interview for ROMEA TV.   

"For example, they allege that some here are receiving advantages to which they are not entitled and so forth. Frequently their statements are not true, it's a much more complicated picture than that, but when the Pirates in the lower house object, nobody listens to us," Pikal said, adding that the Pirates themselves are then accused of being the ones to lie or to manipulate information. 

"Dividing people up primarily according to their identity, whether it's an identity they themselves have chosen or one that is assigned to them by others, necessarily always leads to some kind of discrimination. It can even have much worse outcomes," Pikal told ROMEA TV.

The defunct pig farm, the buildings of which are still in place at the site of the former concentration camp, is meant to be demolished at the turn of the new year. A new memorial will then be installed at the site.

"The project documentation for the demolition of the farm had to be updated to match the winning architectural design," said the head of the Museum of Romani Culture's Public Relations Department, Bohdana Kuzmová Křepinská said. The museum administers the grounds at Lety and hopes to open the new memorial in May 2023.  

From the history of the concentration camp at Lety u Písku 

This part of Lety originally served in 1940 as a place to accommodate construction workers. It was then transformed into a labor and penal camp at the order of the Interior Minister of the Government of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Josef Ježek, dated 15 July 1940, which was issued on the basis of Czechoslovak Government Decree no. 72 on labor and penal camps dated 2 March 1939. 

Decree no. 72 had been issued prior to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. According to the announcement, those to be interned in the labor and penal camp were "able-bodied wandering gypsies and other vagabonds living in that same way, professional beggars and persons living from begging done by others (children, etc.), professional gamblers, notorious bums and parasites, and those making their living dishonorably (through prostitution etc.), either through their own labor or that of others."  

The first 12 prisoners arrived to the labor and penal camp on 17 July 1940. About 10 % of them were Romani.

On 1 August 1942 the camp was renamed a "Gypsy Camp" (Zigeunerlager) and entire Romani families were then forcibly sent there. The concentration camp began its activity on 1 August 1942 and was closed on 4 May 1943.

The capacity of the camp was increased to hold up to 600 prisoners, but that number was soon exceeded, as during August 1942 more than 1 100 children, men and women were imprisoned there. It was not equipped with the necessary hygiene facilities or other facilities to house such a big number of people, and prisoners frequently had to bathe in the nearby fishpond.

Prior to August 1942, only men had been imprisoned at the Lety camp. As of August 1942, children and women were also left there to rot in absolutely substandard conditions.

After the big influx of prisoners in August 1942, subsequent new arrivals to the camp were families or even just individuals who had been rounded up. A total of 326 people died in the camp at Lety after August 1942, 241 of them children.  

An emergency burial ground near the camp was used to bury 120 of its victims. Some survivors estimate the number of prisoners who died in the camp as having been much higher.

Another 540 of the Lety prisoners were then forcibly transported to Auschwitz, where they were designated to be murdered. There were a total of two such mass transports from Lety.

The first transport left on 3 December 1942 and was recorded as a transport of so-called "asocials" -  16 men and 78 women were sent to the Auschwitz I concentration camp. The second transport meant the de facto closure of the camp at Lety and sent 417 prisoners to the Auschwitz II-Birkenau concentration camp. 

While the first transport was undertaken on the basis of a decree on "crime prevention", the second was undertaken on the basis of Himmler's decree dated 16 December 1942 instructing that all Romani people be transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The remaining 198 Lety prisoners were then relocated to the parallel Gypsy Camp at Hodonín u Kunštátu in Moravia (colloquially referred to today as Žalov) or to collection camps in Pardubice and Prague.

On 13 May 1995, at the site of the unmarked mass burial ground near the Lety camp, a memorial was unveiled with the inscription "To the prisoners of the Gypsy Camp at Lety 1942-1943. Never forget. Ma bisteren.“ 

On 13 May 2010, the Lety Cultural Heritage Memorial was officially declared open and the Government decided it would be administered by the Lidice Memorial. In 2018, the pig farm that had been built over the site of the former concentration camp was bought out for CZK 450 million [EUR 17,657,980.71 ] from the AGPI firm by the Czech state.

In April 2018, the grounds at Lety began to be administered by the Museum of Romani Culture, which is preparing the demolition of the farm and the building of a memorial to the Romani victims of the Holocaust there. The musem hopes to open the new memorial to the public in 2023.

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th, ryz, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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