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Chair of Czech Freedom Fighters' Union makes anti-refugee speech during Terezín commemoration, Chief Rabbi objects on the spot

17.5.2016 8:16
Jaroslav Vodička, chair of the Czech Freedom Fighters' Union (Český svaz bojovníků za svobodu - ČSBS), during the commemorative ceremony at Terezín on 15 May 2016. (PHOTO:  Czech Television)
Jaroslav Vodička, chair of the Czech Freedom Fighters' Union (Český svaz bojovníků za svobodu - ČSBS), during the commemorative ceremony at Terezín on 15 May 2016. (PHOTO: Czech Television)

On 15 May, participants in the Terezín Commemoration Ceremony remembered the victims of Nazi persecution at the National Cemetery in front of the Small Fortress at the Terezín Memorial. The chair of the Czech Freedom Fighters' Union (Český svaz bojovníků za svobodu - ČSBS), Jaroslav Vodička, gave an anti-refugee, xenophobic speech, to which Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon gave an emotional response.

Vodička calls current migration into Europe an "invasion"

In addition to attacking refugees in his remarks, Vodička also attacked the public broadcast media. "With concern we are asking what has led to the sometimes biased information reported primarily by the public broadcasting services - what about the millions of primarily economic migrants who are fleeing in search of a more comfortable life and have no desire to defend their own homelands? They are fleeing in order to benefit from the European economic and social system built by us over the years and through the work of the generations before us. They are not fleeing because they have no freedom at home - and even when that is the case, they don't want to fight for change to benefit their people. These are young, healthy men with brand-new mobile phones in their hands wearing leather jackets that cost thousands and heartrending photos of barges sinking into the sea, many of which were taken by the criminal smugglers themselves," Vodička said.

"Naturally, we must seriously reflect, and not just together with the high political representatives of our country, but also with the unstable EU, about how to defend the thousand-year-old values of our culture from this invasion by different cultures whose aims we can only imagine and whose interests we can only suspect," he said. The Chief Rabbi of the Czech Republic, Karol Sidon, emotionally and spontaneously reacted to those words as follows.

"Jewish people have a different experience, because they themselves lived this problem during the war, the problem of the states that would not make it possible for them to emigrate away from the countries occupied by or at risk of being occupied by the Germans. They all perished not just because the Germans murdered them, but also because the non-Jewish world - and ultimately even parts of the Jewish world as well - closed the doors that would have saved them, and we should be aware of that at this exact moment, when these people are coming here and others are saying they should stay and fight for their freedom instead. We know very well how all but impossible that fight is. My generation also experienced a time when most people knew the Communist regime was criminal but had no other choice but to outlive it. Most of them had the good fortune to survive that regime," Sidon said in his spontaneous address to those gathered. 


Czech Senator Štěch:  The crimes of Nazism and those committed during the expulsion from the Sudetenland cannot be compared

During the main speech of the commemorative assembly the chair of the Czech Senate, Milan Štěch, emphasized the differences between the wartime horrors perpetrated during the Second World War by the Nazis and the postwar expulsion of Germans from the reconstituted Czechoslovakia. The war and the subsequent expulsion of the Germans were, 

according to the Senator, different things that cannot be compared, and not just because the number of victims was different.

"The crimes committed during the expulsion were the work of specific individuals, while the Nazi crimes perpetrated during the occupation were a component of an official, planned political campaign of the German state," the Senator said. He went on to say that he believes history must be approached with self-reflection, but also objectively, as Germany itself did after the war.

"Let's not succumb to the geopolitical atmosphere of the moment - let's also look at our history with pride. We should be proud of those who gave their lives for our freedom, who fought, and we should respect all victims of Nazi terror," the Senator said.

Romani flag was flown above the heads of the audience

At the National Cemetery these speeches were listened to by hundreds who came to pay their respects to the victims of the Terezín ghetto and the prisoners of the Gestapo there. Among those in the audience were survivors of the Terezín ghetto as well as activists and Romani people from the Konexe organization who brought a Romani flag and banners calling for the removal of the industrial pig farm from the site of the former so-called "Gypsy camp" at Lety by Písek.

Prior to this year's ceremony, 14 organizations called on Jan Munk, the director of the Terezín Memorial, to officially fly the rainbow (LGBT) flag and the Romani flag during the ceremony next to the flags of nations whose members were victims of Nazi persecution. "At the national cemetery in Terezín where this commemoration takes place, the flags of all the nations whose members fell victim to Nazi persecution and who passed through the concentration camps are flown during the commemoration ceremony. For many of those people, their distressing journey began by being transported to Terezín. To our great surprise, there is no Romani flag flown at Terezín even though, together with Jewish people, it is the Roma as a group who were affected most by Nazi persecution in the Czech lands," the organizations said in an open letter sent to Munk before the ceremony.

Munk and the Commission for the Preparation of the Terezín Commemoration rejected the request that those flags be flown but, unlike in previous years, extended an invitation to the activists to bring their own flags with them when they attend the ceremony. "Should such persons come to the Terezín Commemoration with rainbow flags, Romani flags, or the flags of other movements and societies who want to commemorate this suffering and the victims from various groups of people during the time of the fight against the Nazis and their collaborators, it is decidedly the case that nobody will prevent them from doing so," the commission said in its response. 


Ceremony held for the 17th time

In addition to Senator Štěch, the ceremony was attended by Czech Vice Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, by several ministers, by representatives of both chambers of Parliament, by religions communities, and by organizations commemorating the legacy of the victims of the Second World War. The memory of the victims of Terezín was also honored by representatives of the diplomatic corps and many municipalities.

The Nazis forced as many as 155 000 Jewish people from all over Europe into the Terezín ghetto between 1941 and 1945. As many as 117 000 of them did not live to be liberated from the ghetto.

As many as 32 000 of those men and women passed through the Gestapo-run prison located in the Small Fortress alone. Of those, 2 600 people perished directly at Terezín, while thousands subsequently perished in different Nazi camps.

In 1947 a memorial to them was erected and called the "Memorial to National Suffering", later renamed the Terezín Memorial. Its first exhibition opened in 1949.

In 1991 the Ghetto Museum was created there, which documents the fates of the Jewish people imprisoned there. In 1997 an exhibition was added in the Magdeburg Barracks where it is possible to see a replica of the sleeping quarters in the Terezín ghetto or exhibitions of art created by the prisoners.  

ryz, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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