Čeněk Růžička: Czech schools must teach more about the harm of Nazi ideology
Last week a public hearing was held in the upper chamber of the Czech Parliament on the topic “Protecting Society from Neo-Nazism”. One of those who participated in the discussion was the chair of the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust, Čeněk Růžička, one of the country’s leading Roma personalities. We spoke with him about neo-Nazism and racism, the position of Roma in society, the approach of the majority society toward the Roma, and what the Roma themselves need to improve. Růžička is most bothered by two things: The large number of Romani children in “special” education and the lack of instruction at elementary schools about the harmfulness of Nazi ideology and the methods used by the Nazis to put that ideology into practice. He is also bothered by the continually deteriorating social situation of the Roma.
What should society as a whole be doing against neo-Nazism and racism? What can be done better, what is missing?
I spoke about this during the Senate hearing. I am an indigenous Czech Rom, I have my roots here, my ancestors lived here for centuries before me, so I am mainly bothered by the shortcomings of Czech education and the poor awareness of history in this country. Nothing is taught at schools about the harmfulness of the Nazi ideology and the ways the Nazis put it into practice. Children, including Romani children, and youth know almost nothing about the Roma victims of the Holocaust, because they are not taught about them in school. What is missing here is at least some sort of learning from one’s own history, primarily from what happened on Czech territory.
The campaigns against racism need to be better done. Very recently, comparatively more effort and resources have been put into the fight against neo-Nazism and racism, but the question is whether these resources are sufficient given the rising number of those sympathizing with the neo-Nazi scene, and whether the instruments selected are always effective. In my view, the way to fight the neo-Nazis that might bring about immediate results in the short term, the way that would be simplest and most effective, is to ridicule them, mock them, caricature them. This whole time there has only been one such campaign, and it did not last long – even though such campaigns are not expensive and PR agencies are good at creating them. There should be television ads, print ads, spots on the radio. The result would be that the neo-Nazis would be scorned for their efforts. Of course, I’m not talking about a brief campaign. It should last much longer than the previous ones, so that it becomes “in” not to sympathize with racists and neo-Nazis. Today, unfortunately, the opposite is very much the case.
Or take the so-called “specialized schools” (“specialní školy”) – these used to be called “special schools” (“zvláštní školy”) and before that they were called “remedial” (“pomocné školy”). This spring research was published saying that 72 % of Romani children study at regular schools and 28 % in special education. I hope whoever did the research did not reverse those numbers without realizing it. In my opinion, the number of Romani children in compulsory education being taught in “special” education is a higher percentage than that research presents. It would be good to know how the research was performed, how many Romani pupils there are as a whole, who determined, and how, that this or that pupil has Romani parents. It is also a shame that the research did not involve a serious investigation of how many Romani pupils in “special education” have been transferred back into normal elementary school and in which years. Healthy children do not belong in special education, even if they are Roma. If they are being given such education, the state should correct that – even if it goes against the parents’ wishes. Moving a child from special education back to mainstream education should just be a technical matter. Before Romani children can get to the same starting point as the others, teachers must do more work with them, and sometimes with their parents too. Even though that costs money, the state should know it will pay off in the end.
Should statistics be gathered that include data on ethnicity?
Yes, with a certain measure of caution. The creation and use of statistics must take place under strict supervision. The state needs to know how many Roma there are in the regions, in terms of numbers and in terms of social status. However, I would hope the results of such statistics would not just lead to an increase in the number of police stations inside Roma ghettos.
In the eyes of at least some of the public, the neo-Nazis have succeeded in drawing a link between the Roma and their extremism. The fact that the Roma are socially excluded is spoken of by only a few people from NGOs. Shouldn’t we try to change the majority perception?
The social exclusion of the Roma is first and foremost the result of centuries of feeding the phenomenon called prejudice. We would like to get rid of this once and for all, but the society in which we live must give us a chance to get rid of it. Our organization is succeeding in wrestling with this prejudice through our traveling exhibition, entitled “A Vanished World” (“Zaniklý svět”), and we are noticing an unexpectedly friendly reaction from those who visit it - all you have to do is look at what people write in the visitors’ book. Unless these neo-Nazi groups, these individuals, these politicians are held responsible for their hateful, public, racist statements about the Roma, the perception of the Roma will deteriorate even further and the hatred felt by some in the majority society will increase. The traditional Czech Roma and Sinti know very well how such a scenario might develop. Recently I have also been disturbed by the activities of President Klaus, who negotiated an exception at EU level for our country with respect to its obligation to follow the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is part of the Lisbon Treaty. That charter is mainly intended to guarantee the poor a decent life. The life now being lived by retirees and families forced to live on welfare is not decent at all.
The Senate hearing was on the topic of protecting society from neo-Nazism, but the moderator prevented discussion of the victims of neo-Nazism. One person touched on the fact that discussion of the results of neo-Nazism was being avoided and suggested that a hearing needs to be held on protecting minorities from the rest of society. Do you share that view?
Here is my considered response: The essential blame for the fact that the Roma are where they are lies with society per se, with the majority – we are only partially responsible for these problems. These anti-Roma marches have their roots in Czech history. The Roma have been living in Europe for 600 years and their life has not been a walk through a rose garden in any of them. The worst was what the Nazis and their minions did to my people during the Second World War, for example, in the Protectorate. The police of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia organized an unimaginable round-up of the Roma and Sinti and imprisoned them in concentration camps in Hodonín and Lety, where they died in the hundreds under the supervision of Czech guards. Go take a look at those sites today. These places, which should commemorate the monstrosity of racial hatred, are desecrated by a pig farm and a recreation center. What does that tell you?
It is true that from time to time something comes to light to confirm that part of this society still takes this approach. Most recently we learned that two Czech military commanders serving in Logar, Afghanistan have been wearing SS symbols on their helmets. Of course, the Defense Minister immediately discharged them from the Army and has suspended their superiors from service.
I am surprised that this society is surprised by such events. Quite a few people join the military who think they are “Rambo”, who have the need to be in command. It could be expected that the minister would handle it this way. It will be much more serious should it be eventually proven that the superior officers of those commanders knew about this phenomenon in the Army and covered it up. I am partially reassured by the fact that ordinary soldiers serving under those commanders brought this case to light. That is definitely positive. I think experts should develop better psychological tests and the Army should make more thorough use of them when enlisting new recruits, but they should also follow the maturity and psychological resilience of the soldiers and their commanders over time. I have also encountered people who worship this cult of power who work for the police – and I am not the only one. The same applies to them.
Are the Roma themselves doing something wrong? What should they do to improve co-existence with the majority society?
The Roma would like to have a more dignified position in the eyes of the Czech public. We should just be ourselves, defend our pride, we should not be ashamed of the fact that we are Roma. That is the basis for progress. I’m not going to say how we should behave, what we should do. We must establish order ourselves within our own community.
The author Janko Horváth has a similar opinion and says there should be joint, united action.
Exactly - until the 1989 revolution the Roma had a kind of reputation in Czechoslovakia, we created things of value, we worked. Today the situation is that the vast majority of Roma, through no fault of their own, often contribute nothing to society. Estimates are that 80 – 90 % of the Roma live on welfare, which irritates Czech society greatly. They are mostly irritated because these people are Roma, and they are also irritated because it’s expensive. The majority is not bothered by the fact that Czechs also live on welfare. Here I must repeat a generally known fact, which is that it is comparatively much more difficult for the Roma to find work.
There is a lot of discussion about how the Roma themselves can improve their position in society, but we don’t hear this discussed in detail. Do you have some ideas about this?
Raising the Roma community up to an acceptable level can only be done through natural approaches that respect the Roma mindset and their cultural values. Here is one option: Every larger community in the Roma ghettos includes a certain number of men who enjoy a sort of natural authority among the Roma. Usually these are older Roma – they are less educated from the point of view of the majority society, but they are rich in life experience. Almost every day we see television reports about the disorder around Roma residences, and this significantly damages our reputation. I am certain we can get rid of such disruption with the help of such natural authorities. They could keep an eye on people who make noise at night, on school attendance, on the exploitation of poor Roma by loan sharks, etc. Municipalities or local Roma organizations – ideally working together – could provide these natural authorities with the backup they need and remunerate them financially.
The Senate hearing was attended by a wide variety of people: Politicians, police officers, state attorneys, bureaucrats, people from civic associations, Roma, Jewish people. Do such meetings make you hopeful?
Every such meeting has its purpose - I just ask how much it really means. Imagine if everyone at the hearing had gone into the streets to protest the neo-Nazis and their sympathizers. A joint, well-prepared, public demonstration against extremist groups, making fun of them – and then, naturally, proper instruction at schools – all of this together, I believe, could help.
Of course, the politicians would first have to want to support the Roma. For the time being they are more likely to be a vehicle for anti-Roma, populist slogans.
Such slogans have been repeated in the past, are being repeated now, and will be repeated in the future because in the first place they are political gold, and in the second place we allow them to be repeated. We must pay careful attention to the political party affiliation of these “stars” and remember who is who when it’s time to vote. Only a few people in this country – and our numbers are not growing – are taking action against this discord in society. Among most Roma I observe apathy, and it does not surprise me. The Roma have been pushed into the very worst poverty that they have ever experienced during the postwar period. We can achieve some partial successes on our own, but not fundamental ones. We need the support of everyone to implement essential change, and for that we still have a long way to go here.
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