Commentary: Terezin commemoration this year was a travesty, civil society group calls for director's dismissal
A delegation from the controversial "Freedom and Direct Democracy" (SPD) movement; the controversial chair of the Czech Freedom Fighters' Union, Jaroslav Vodička, again invited to speak; the homophobic Czech MP Jaroslav Foldyna seated on the main tribunal; no Jewish rabbis in attendance; no Romani flag flying - this was what the Terezín Commemoration looked like on Sunday. The Konexe organization considers this year's ceremony to have been a desecration of the site and will be demanding the dismissal of the director of the Terezín Memorial.
Czech media reported on the ceremony in a neutral manner, without contextualizing it at all, and a certain quote kept coming to my mind: "The truth taken out of context is the biggest lie." The Czech News Agency (ČTK) released a wire report that was reprinted by many media outlets and stated the following: "We must constantly remind ourselves of the horrors of Nazism and future generations must be told about them. That was the message of the main speech at this year's Terezín Commemoration given by the chair of the Chamber of Deputies, Czech MP Radek Vondráček (ANO). He also called antisemitism a contemporary evil."
Vondráček said he believes Nazism and the Second World War must be part of our memory. The younger generation, according to the head of the lower house, must be aware that the democracy we live in is not something to take for granted.
"The Second World War showed us that we will always be living with one foot over the edge of the cliff," Vondráček said. He also warned against antisemitism, which he called a manifestation of evil: "In different parts of the world, in various forms, in different veins, it continues to persist, especially in states and parts of the world where radical Islam has its influence."
Vodička railed against refugees two years ago, now claims to be against xenophobia
ČTK also reported on the speech made by the chair of the Czech Freedom Fighters' Union, Jaroslava Vodička, who emphasized that he believes democracy will continue to be a firm guarantee against the failures of politicians. "Moments of remembrance like this one today are a necessary look back at everything that both strengthened and weakened our homeland and other countries in the past, that harmed them on the one hand and on the other hand paid a deposit for the future. We must not allow the sowing of contempt, disrespect, evil, hatred, xenophobia," he said.
There is no point in critiquing the ČTK report, as it was just a classic wire service description of the event. Other media outlets, however, should actually have communicated the context of this year's ceremony to media consumers.
The media should have reminded readers of the speech made by Vodička at this same commemoration in 2016, because if they had it would have been nakedly revealed that he himself is in fact one of those who has been "sowing evil, hatred and xenophobia" in Czech society. "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 many of the heartrending photos of barges sinking into the sea have been taken by the criminal smugglers themselves," his speech in 2016 said.
It is a failure on the part of the organizers of this commemoration that they have given such a person even more room on this occasion as one of the main speakers at the commemoration. Jaroslav Vodička has no business speaking at this event ever again.
Memorial director happy that hatemonger is in the front row
I consider it absolutely scandalous that Czech MP Tomio Okamura was allowed to sit in the front row on the main podium during this year's commemoration. Okamura has not hesitated to deny, more than once, the suffering of Romani people in the concentration camp at Lety u Písku during the Second World War.
The current director of the Memorial, Jan Roubínek, even protested those remarks at the time. "The director of the Terezín Memorial, PhDr. Jan Roubínek, decidedly condemns the declarations made by the members of the SPD party in recent days in which they doubted historical facts connected with the so-called 'Gypsy Camp' at Lety u Písku and relativized its role in the genocide of the Roma during the years of the Nazi occupation, when almost all of the Romani population on the territory of the Czech lands was murdered," read the press release he issued in February of this year.
"The director stands with his colleagues at the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno and from the Jewish Community in Prague who have already clearly condemned these remarks," read the press release. "It is regrettable that the above-mentioned allegations were spoken exactly during the days when we have been commemorating the International Day of Memory for Victims of the Holocaust and the Prevention of Crimes against Humanity!"
That statement was made after Okamura, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, feverishly wandered his way into casting doubt on what happened at the camp in Lety. In a video interview at the election headquarters of the then newly-elected Czech President Miloš Zeman, the MP was asked by DVTV reporter Daniela Drtinová whether he doubted that Lety had been a concentration camp.
Okamura erroneously answered as follows: "Now I don't know what this is all about, but that camp at Lety, it's true that many Jewish victims have turned to me, I have many friends among the Jews, precisely people who were victims of Auschwitz, and they asked me why, in the Czech Republic, we are putting the camp at Lety on the same level as the extermination camp at Auschwitz. I looked at the quote of Czech President Klaus about this matter, and I looked at the book from the Academy of Sciences called 'The Lety Camp: Facts and Myths', which says, for example, the camp was not fenced and those people essentially could come and go there freely."
When the reporter then asked whether that means that people did not die at Lety as part of the genocide, Okamura did not answer her, instead beginning to vulgarly insult the media outlet for which she works. After all, it was not the first time he had cast doubt on the suffering of Romani people during the Second World War.
In the summer of 2014 Okamura metaphorically spat on the victims of the Lety camp when, in a statement for the political tabloid website ParlamentniListy.cz, he spoke of it as a "lie" and a "myth". He alleged that nobody had ever been killed at the camp and that the prisoners who died there did so as a consequence of old age and the diseases they allegedly brought with them to the camp because of their travelling lifestyle.
Crime reports were filed against Okamura over those words. The Czech Police then ascertained that the statements had been "populist", but did not rise to the level of a felony.
A lawyer from the IN Iustitia organization, Klára Kalibová, said at the time that the police work was a sad depiction of how the Czech justice system works in practice, since denial of the Holocaust when it comes to Romani victims is not perceived to be as serious as denial of the Holocaust when it comes to Jewish victims. Just like Vodička, Okamura, who belittles the suffering of the victims of the Second World War, has no business attending the Terezín Commemoration ever again and it is startling that the director of the Memorial welcomed the attendance of any of the hatemongering politicians from the SPD.
"If they were here then I'm terribly glad. They should come next year too," the director told the daily Litoměřický deník.
In his own speech this year, director Roubínek welcomed the official guests but did not name Okamura specifically - and when I saw that, I said to myself: "Well, at least he did that much." Unfortunately, my assumption was incorrect.
It was apparently never the director's intention not to welcome Okamura. As the Litoměřický deník has reported, the fact that the director never said the name of either Okamura or the SPD when announcing the important guests was not his intention, but a coincidence.
"I can't possibly read all of those names," the director told the daily. After the ceremony, Okamura happily took photos of himself at the cemetery with his fans and did not forget, on his official Facebook profile, to compare the religion of Islam to the Nazi ideology of Adolf Hitler.
Foldyna's homophobic remarks
Another controversial figure hanging around the VIP zone of the main tribunal during this year's ceremony was Czech MP Jaroslav Foldyna, who very frequently appears at various demonstrations with persons disseminating hatred in the Czech Republic or engaging with racist groups. On the Internet it is possible to find photos of him in the company of Jan Kopal, a member of the "old guard" of Czech extremists and neo-Nazis.
Kopal was, among other things, the chair of the "Patriotic Republican Party" at one time. In that position he made it possible for neo-Nazis from the "National Alliance" and "National Resistance" groups to join the party.
"Thanks" to Kopal, the neo-Nazi movement was able to appear under the rubric of a political party for the first time in the Czech Republic. Kopal also participated in the antisemitic lecture series held by the extremist "Patriotic Front" organization.
Kopal got himself into trouble with the Czech Police when he expressed approval for the Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center perpetrated on 11 September 2001. Today he appears at events organized by different anti-immigrant and anti-Islam groups such as "Hey, Citizens!" and very frequently plays a role as a supporter of Czech President Zeman in programs on the cable television channel TV Barrandov.
In that same photo of Foldyna and Kopal we can also see Jíří Černohorský. In last year's elections he ran as an SPD candidate and is one of the most interesting figures of the Czech anti-Islam demonstrations.
Černohorský attends many extremists' events and was arrested by police on 17 November 2015 for rioting in front of the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic. Videos of his speeches are available on YouTube.
During one peculiar speech Černohorský was arrested again at a demonstration by the so-called "National Democracy" group, headed by the antisemite Adam B. Bartoš. We are focused now on Foldyna, however, and here we should note that he is known to have a Serbian Chetnik slogan tattooed on his arms.
The Chetniks collaborated with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany during WWII and actively fought against the anti-Fascist resistance. It is also well-known that Foldyna is close to the Russian biker gang "The Night Wolves", who make no secret of their homophobic opinions.
Nobody gay is allowed to become a member of that club. When explaining the conflict he had with blogger Martin Uhlíř on the occasion of welcoming "The Night Wolves" to a cemetery in Prague where Russian soldiers who fell in Prague during WWII are buried, Foldyna used homophobic language himself.
"I wanted to give him some tongue because I believed he was gay," the MP - who is the vice-chair of the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) - told the tabloid Parlamentnílisty.cz. As political scientist Lukáš Jelínek told Czech Television, "That is a homophobic remark aimed at voters who dislike all that is different, anything unfamiliar."
Foldyna naturally sees nothing homophobic about his remark, which he says was just hyperbole. In summary: Foldyna associates with antisemites and homophobes and has a tattoo on his body of a Nazi collaborators' slogan.
In this context we must recall that between 1933 and 1945, 100 000 persons accused of "homosexuality" were arrested by the Nazis, 50 000 of whom were convicted and imprisoned, and anywhere between 5 000 and 15 000 of them were sent to Nazi concentration camps. Those accused of "homosexuality" were forced to wear a pink triangle.
The oppression and persecution of people by the Nazis because of their different sexual orientation has been described by an exhibition that was shown in 2011 - including at the Terezín Memorial. It is, therefore, more than a paradox that Foldyna was welcomed as a VIP guest to sit on the main tribunal this year.
Holiday prevents Jewish rabbis from attending
This year's commemoration featured one more peculiarity. Most Jewish rabbis who usually attend it did not do so this year.
The date of the commemoration fell on the holiday of Shavuot, during which Jewish people are not allowed to travel, among other things. "As far as know this is the first such situation to arise since the war," Petr Papoušek, chair of the Federation of Jewish Communities, told Czech Television.
Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon, for example, did not attend this year's commemoration. He was the only person to immediately respond during the 2016 Terezín Commemoration to Vodička's xenophobic speech.
"Jewish people have a somewhat different experience because they had a problem during the war. That problem was with states that would not facilitate their emigration from countries that were either already occupied by the Germans or about to be occupied by them. They all died not just because the Germans murdered them, but also because both the Jewish and the non-Jewish worlds closed off the paths to their rescue, and we should be aware of that at this time when there are human beings coming here and others alleging that they should stay where they are and fight for their freedom. We know very well that is almost impossible. My generation also experienced a time when most people here knew the Communist regime was criminal, but they had no choice but to survive it. They had the good fortune to survive, most of them," Sidon spontaneously said during the 2016 Terezín Commemoration.
Some rabbis this year are alleged to have said during personal discussions that they were glad they did not have to attend this year's commemoration because Okamura would be there. None of them has made such remarks publicly.
Romani flag not flown, director says protocol is sacred
The Romani flag still has yet to be flown at an official location during the Terezín Commemoration. The director of the Terezín Memorial is refusing to accede to the requests of Romani organizations in this regard.
"At Terezín, during the commemoration, the flags of states are presented whose citizens were imprisoned and persecuted at Terezín during the Second World War. This case is purely a matter of protocol that has applied at the Terezín Memorial for many decades. We don't have to agree with it, we can argue about whether the states that existed at the end of the war now belong to the past or whether they have continued to exist," the director of the Memorial told news server Romea.cz before this year's commemoration.
Konexe calls for dismissal of the Terezín Memorial director
The reaction to the excesses committed by the organizers of this year's commemoration at Terezín was almost immediate: "The flower of the Czech ultra-right, of Holocaust deniers and of the xenophobic scene were on the tribunal for guests of honor during the 2018 commemoration," the Konexe organization posted to social networks. "We consider the current way in which the official commemoration is being held to be scandalous, a desecration of the place where this ceremony is held, and immeasurably insulting to the memory of the Holocaust and its victims."
"We will be issuing an open letter soon demanding that the establisher of the Memorial dismiss its director and change the members of the commission organizing these annual May commemorations," Konexe announced. "If our letter goes unheard and positive changes do not happen, we will hold an alternative commemoration at Terezín in May next year, one without Fascists, Holocaust deniers or xenophobes, and it will be organized such that members of minorities and the relatives of victims and survivors feel welcome there."
The 72nd commemoration
This year saw the 72nd Terezín Commemoration. In addition to the politicians mentioned above, it was also attended by Czech Vice Prime Minister Richard Brabec, by several cabinet ministers, by representatives of both chambers of Parliament, by religious organizations, and by organizations preserving the legacy of the victims of the Second World War.
Representatives of the diplomatic corps and many municipalities also paid their respects at the ceremony to the memory of the victims of Terezín. Between 1941 and 1945 the Nazis forced as many as 155 000 Jewish people from all over Europe into the ghetto at Terezín.
As many as 117 000 of those prisoners did not live to see the liberation. The Gestapo's prison in the Small Fortress saw as many as 32 000 men and women pass through it.
At Terezín itself 2 600 prisoners died, while thousands more Terezín prisoners died later in other Nazi camps. Since 1947 their memory has been honored by the Memorial of National Suffering, which was later renamed the Terezín Memorial. The first exhibition about this history was displayed there in 1949.
In 1991 the Ghetto Museum was created at the Terezín Memorial to document the fates of the Jewish prisoners there. In 1997 an exhibition was added to the Memorial at the Magdeburg Barracks where it is possible, for example, to see a replica of the prisoners' quarters in the ghetto and exhibits about the art that was created by the prisoners there.
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