Czech MP Okamura insults Romani victims of the Holocaust, media and politicians sharply criticize him
Czech MP Tomio Okamura, the chair of the "Dawn of Direct Democracy movement" (Úsvit) spit in the faces of the victims of the former concentration camp at Lety by Písek when he was quoted in the online political tabloid ParlamentniListy.cz as saying it was a lie and a myth to call Lety a Romani concentration camp. Okamura claimed no one was ever killed at Lety and that the people imprisoned there had died either as a result of old age or as a result of diseases they brought with them to the camp that they caught as a result of their previous travelling lifestyle.
Okamura and other politicians were responding to a question asked by the tabloid as to whether the pig farm that now stands on the site of the former concentration camp should be removed. Czech Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier has proposed that it should.
Okamura: People died at Lety from the diseases they brought with them
"When it comes to Lety, it would be good to clarify what we want to build there. According to the information available, this myth that it was a Romani concentration camp is a lie. There was a labor camp there for people who avoided proper work, including Czechs and Germans in the Protectorate. They were not interned on the basis of ethnicity, but on the basis of the gypsy way of life, which means that no working Roma were there. For most of the time before the camp closed the guards were not armed and the camp commander took his servant, who was evidently also his lover, to the cinema. No one was killed at the camp - people died there as a result of old age and the diseases they brought with them as a result of their previous travelling lifestyle. However, there was a basic problem with the camp commander, who on the one hand did really beat the prisoners and on the other hand covered up the poor state of the camp, but he was removed and medical aid was sent to the camp. The victims of the camp definitely were not victims of any kind of Holocaust. On the contrary, comparing them to Holocaust victims disrespects the actual victims of the Holocaust, whether they be Jews or Roma, who perished in the real concentration camps. Naturally I condemn and reject any kind of violence against people," Okamura told the tabloid.
Okamura was not the only politician contacted by journalist Lukáš Petřík to object to closing the pig farm and to use controversial arguments to support that opinion. The chair of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM), Vojtěch Filip, claimed that a pig farm on the site doesn't interfere with anyone.
"I can't support [removing the farm]. I consider it counterproductive. The memorial has been altered and maintained and the agricultural production outside the memorial doesn't interfere with anyone," said Filip, even as he also said he disagreed with Okamura's statement.
"Mr Okamura's statement does not correspond to the historical truth. The labor camp at Lety was established by Mr Schwarzenberg in order to clear his forests after a windstorm, and the people there did hard labor," the KSČM chair told news server Lidovky.cz.
Jaroslav Foldyna of the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) believes the proposals to remove the pig farm will spark xenophobic sentiment. "That will just spark xenophobic sentiment again. I consider it nonsense," he told the tabloid.
According to Czech MP Radka Maxová (ANO), the chair of the lower house's Permanent Commission on the Family, Equal Opportunities and National Minorities, while Romani people have the right to honor their dead, they should pay to remove the pig farm themselves. "Given that closing the pig farm is a very costly affair and also economically inefficient, I have advocated for the Romani community to donate the money itself or to raise financing from the appropriate foundations and to pay for this entire matter from their own resources as a demonstration of respect," she said.
Czech Senator Jaroslav Doubrava and Senator Miroslav Krejča are also both quoted in the article as belittling the conditions at the Lety concentration camp and the victims. Czech Senator Pavel Lebeda also claimed that Romani people are not interested in the camp at Lety by Písek.
Czech media: Okamura is a Holocaust denier
Okamura's statement, made on the eve of Roma Holocaust Memorial Day, prompted a reaction from several commentators over the weekend. For example, news server Echo24.cz wrote that: "MP Tomio Okamura has all but consigned himself to the category of Holocaust deniers through these statements."
Echo24.cz also said Okamura's words sharply contrasted with the view held of the concentration camp at Lety by historians. Political commentator Jakub Janda, writing for news server iHNed.cz, said Okamura was showing the public what the very rock bottom of hatred against Romani people looks like.
In his article, Janda charges Okamura with telling several lies right off the bat. "That camp was part of the extermination machinery, the people imprisoned there had to work and were subsequently scheduled for extermination, just like roughly 90 % of the Czech Roma. Saying there were no gas chambers at Lety and that only part of the camp population was sent to Auschwitz is a targeted insult to the Romani victims of the Holocaust," he writes.
"I don't want to call Tomio Okamura any vulgar names, even though it is damned hard not to after finding out about his attempts to manipulate this issue at such a distasteful level. I just want to say one thing: I will not be shaking hands with him in the future. I believe no democratic politician should shake hands with him either. To spit on the victims of the Holocaust in order to score political points is just about the lowest thing possible in politics," Janda writes.
Czech Defense Minister: Okamura's arguments aren't even worth refuting
News server Lidovky.cz asked several politicians to respond to Okamura's disgusting statements.
"This is far from being a question of Romani people only. Denying any genocide, or belittling or relativizing one, is the kind of moral turpitude that rises to the level of a felony, and it is exceedingly dangerous for democracy," Czech MP Miroslav Kalousek (TOP 09) told the news server.
"At the nearby cemetery there is a mass grave of the children who died at Lety. There are around 100 of them. Each of them has his or her name, date of birth and date of death listed there. The vast majority died during the winter months as a result of a typhus epidemic. That means they died of cold, hunger, and inhumane conditions. Mr Okamura should go take a look and pay his respects. There's nothing more to say," Czech Labor and Social Affairs Minister Michaela Marksová Tominová (ČSSD) told the news server.
"Tomio Okamura has taken his populism far beyond the edge of decency. He is apparently willing to do anything for votes, even deny historical facts. To belittle the perversion and violence done by Nazi forces to ethnic Roma throughout Europe, just as such violence was done to other population groups - anyone authoring such statements gets a red card," said Martin Kupka, vice-chair of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS).
"Lety is proof that we are not only unable in the Czech Republic to adequately resolve some rather serious matters, but that such matters even serve some politicians as a publicity tool. This is in very poor taste. The arguments made aren't even worth refuting. Many children lost their lives in that camp," Czech Defense Minister Martin Stropnický (ANO) told news server Lidovky.cz.
Czech President Miloš Zeman joined the critics of Okamura's statements today. "If it had been a labor camp its prisoners would not have ended up in Auschwitz," the President's spokesperson Jiří Ovčáček told iDNES.cz.
Similar insults have been made before
Okamura is not the first person to make such statements about the victims of the concentration camp at Lety by Písek. Petra Edelmannová, the former chair of the defunct xenophobic National Party, said in 2006 that the Germans had rounded up "asocials" and vagabonds for imprisonment there and that Romani people died in the camp of common illnesses.
In 2005, Czech MEP Miloslav Ransdorf (Communists) said: "As an historian, I know that unchecked lies have been told about Lety. No real concentration camp was ever there."
Former Czech Government Human Rights Commissioners Svatopluk Karásek and Petr Uhl filed a criminal complaint against Ransdorf over that statement. Police ultimately decided not to prosecute the MEP.
Former Czech President Václav Klaus agreed with Ransdorf's statement. In his response to it, he said Lety by Písek had not been "a concentration camp in the real sense of the word."
Klaus also claimed in 2005 that the camp had been originally intended "for those who refused to work" and alleged that its inmates had been far from all-Romani. "Naturally many tragic things took place there. However, my understanding is that the victims of the camp were primarily connected to the spotted typhus epidemic, not to what is traditionally understood as being the fate of a concentration camp victim," Klaus told Lidové noviny at the time.
The history of the concentration camp at Lety
The original space at Lety served in 1940 as an accommodation facility for construction workers. Subsequently, a disciplinary labor camp was created there on the orders of the Interior Minister of the Protectorate Government, Josef Ježek, on 15 July 1940, issued on the basis of Government Decree No. 72 on disciplinary labor camps dated 2 March 1939.
That particular decree had been issued prior to the country being occupied by the Nazis. According to the decree, "wandering gypsies and other vagrants living in the same way who are capable of work, beggars by trade and those who make a living from begging (children, etc.), gamblers by trade, inveterate idlers, loafers and persons making a living from dishonest earnings (prostitution, etc.), whether their own or those of others" were to be rounded up and concentrated in particular facilities.
The first 12 prisoners arrived at Lety on 17 July 1940. On 1 August 1942 the camp was changed into a "Gypsy camp" and subsequently entire Romani families were transported there.
The concentration camp began running on 1 August 1942 and was closed on 4 May 1943. Its capacity was increased to accommodate up to 600 prisoners, but that number was soon exceeded, as during the course of August 1942 more than 1 100 children, men and women were interned in the camp.
The camp was not equipped with the necessary hygienic or other facilities for such a large number of people. The prisoners often had to bathe in a nearby fishpond.
Until August 1942, only men were imprisoned at Lety. After that, children and women were also brought there to rot in completely unsatisfactory conditions.
After the big influx of August 1942, whole families were mostly brought to the camp as well as individuals. A total of 326 people died directly in the Lety camp, 241 of them children.
A temporary burial ground near the camp was used to inter 120 victims. Another 540 prisoners from Lety perished while being transported to Auschwitz.
A total of two mass transports were undertaken. The first one departed on 3 December 1942 as a transport of so-called asocials, 16 men and 78 women, to the Auschwitz I concentration camp.
The second transport practically meant the liquidation of the Lety camp, as it included 417 prisoners who went to the Auschwitz II-Birkenau concentration camp. While the first transport took place on the basis of a decree about crime prevention, the second took place on the basis of Himmler's decree of 16 December 1942, which ordered the transport of all Romani people to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The remaining 198 prisoners were then relocated to the "gypsy camp" at Hodonín near Kunštát (the so-called Žalov camp) or were interned in camps in Pardubice and Prague. On 13 May 1995, at the site of the mass grave next to the former camp, a memorial was unveiled with the inscription "To the victims of the gypsy camp at Lety 1942-1943. Never forget. Ma bisteren."
On 13 May 2010 the Lety Memorial was officially opened there. A government decision has entrusted the Lidice Memorial with its management.
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