History of EGAM and Konexe's efforts to see the pig farm removed from the Roma genocide site at Lety
Several days ago the contract was signed to buy out the pig farm that has been running since 1973 at the Romani genocide site in Lety u Písku. According to the contract, the raising of pigs will close there by March 2018, after which time the farm should be demolished, the genocide site should be cleaned of pig waste, and a dignified memorial should then be built on the site.
We in the Konexe organization believe that the signing of this contract to buy the farm is a direct consequence of our activities and that a great deal of the credit for this outcome belongs to us and to our partners who have aided us. The aim of this piece is to summarize our activities against the pig farm in recent years.
The Konexe organization was founded during this year at a time when the Czech Republic experienced a wave of anti-Romani demonstrations and violence during which mobs of racists did their best to fight their way through police cordons and to attack the homes of Romani families in several towns. Our activists did their best to face down these attempted pogroms.
From the beginning we attempted to non-violently blockade the mobs (in Krupka and in Nový Bydžov) and we subsequently created a team to provide direct support to the victims targeted by these violent demonstrations directly in the places where the marches happened (Nový Bor, Rotava, Varnsdorf). During 2011, activists with Konexe also began to take a deeper interest in the scandal of the pig farm on the Roma genocide site at Lety and to map the development of that scandal to date.
Those developments can be summarized as follows: After the rediscovery of the story of the concentration camp at Lety at the beginning of the 1990s by the American author Paul Polansky, discussion began of the need to remove the farm in order to honor the dignity of the victims, their relatives, Romani people in general, and all of us. Those discussions were attended by Mr Čeněk Růžička, who is the only known representative of the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust (VPORH), and by representatives of the Czech Government.
Those meetings were closed, not public, had reached a dead end, and were having no effect. Despite all of our respect and sympathy for Mr Čeněk Růžička, we assessed his tactics of peaceful negotiations with political representatives as absolutely ineffective, as they were not yielding results.
We ascertained that the vast majority of Romani people living in conditions of social exclusion had no awareness or knowledge of the Romani Holocaust or of the history of Lety. We attended the VPORH remembrance assembly at Lety in mid-May along with several dozen people, mostly Roma and ambassadors.
Unfortunately, that commemoration was not held at the location of the former concentration camp, but about a kilometer east from the actual location, in the place where a small memorial has been built to the victims of the camp. At that time we still did not comprehend the controversy over that small memorial, which was built at a site from which the pig farm is not visible, although it could sometimes be smelled from there, and we did not grasp that people who visit just that location in relation to the genocide site receive the false impression that the Romani genocide site at Lety has been dealt with in a dignified way already.
That year was the first time we brought impoverished Romani people to Lety from the Ústecký Region and familiarized them with the history of the place and the Romani Holocaust. All of the Romani men and women who visited the location with us had an extremely strong experience and discussed it after returning home.
The story of Lety began to be disseminated in the Romani ghettos. That year was the first time that we visited not just the memorial, but also the site of the former camp, i.e., the pig farm entrance.
The year 2012 was significant to Konexe's fight for dignity for Lety for several reasons - again we attended the VPORH May assembly together with young, impoverished Romani men and women. That summer we thoroughly mapped what information is available about the genocide at Lety.
Konexe activists found a small map online where the actual location of the camp had been drawn. During 2012 we visited to see what that place is like today.
We were seeking a location where we might be able to concentrate our own remembrance activities. That year was the first time we laid flowers not at the official memorial, but directly at the farm entrance and northwest corner, because a small part of what was once the area of the camp was publicly accessible from those places and not enclosed behind the fence of the farm.
In the summer of 2012 Konexe was contacted by the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM), which brings together more than 50 non-Romani and Romani anti-racist organizations from Europe and other parts of the world, asking us to join the movement and to organize a Roma Pride parade in the Czech Republic, which the member organizations of EGAM undertake in many European countries. In October 2012 the first Roma Pride parade in the Czech Republic was organized under Konexe's direction.
We chose the scandal of the pig farm at Lety as our national subject and managed to get it into the statewide media and to raise awareness of the scandal in Romani communities. We invited Mr Růžička of the VPORH to participate in Roma Pride and created an opportunity for him to reach out to the public on the subject of Lety.
In November the activists of Konexe attended the meeting of the EGAM member organizations in Athens, Greece. The activists ascertained on that occasion that the scandal of Lety was an unknown story to the international anti-racist community and organized a presentation on the scandal for the representatives of the European anti-racist movement in attendance.
In the year 2013 Konexe again attended the May remembrance assembly at Lety and the author of this piece was given an opportunity to speak during the gathering, and during the rest of the summer the activists of Konexe again spent their free time at Lety, surveying the territory of the genocide site, and slept outdoors there for the first time. That same year we held a fundraising drive among impoverished Romani people in the localities where Konexe works and used the proceeds to produce two big banners reading "Demolish the pig farm at Lety u Písku" in Czech and English with a small image of the child victims of the Lety camp.
We have used those banners ever since, anywhere and everywhere possible. In the autumn Konexe again organized a Romani Pride Parade.
The subject of Lety and the need to immediately remove the farm from the Romani genocide site was once again the national theme of that event. During 2013 our fight for dignity for the Romani victims of the Holocaust achieved significant international outreach.
Together with other organizations in the EGAM network we traveled to Istanbul, where we established contact with Armenian organizations and, together with them, attended demonstrations and meetings for acknowledgment of the genocide of the Armenians in Turkey during 1915. We also established the closest possible collaboration with human rights activists from Saxony, Germany, and in addition to cooperating with them on activist topics we became close friends and began to plan common activities.
That connection to German anti-racists would prove very important in the future. The Romani rap group De La Negra, whose members are also members of Konexe, composed the rap song "They Soiled Our Memory" ("Pošpinili naši památku") after returning from a visit to Lety and performed it during their concerts, significantly contributing to disseminating information about the Romani Holocaust and the scandal of Lety among young Romani men and women.
At the beginning of 2014 our German friends in Dresden organized a concert opportunity for De La Negra and a public lecture where Konexe activists informed a full audience of the German public for the first time about the scandal of Lety, and our German friends established a "Solidarity Group against Antigypsyism" which began to immediately support our activities. In February 2014 we supported the residents of impoverished residential hotels in the Central Bohemian town of Příbram during an anti-Romani demonstration against those facilities.
We were surprised to learn that some of the tenants of the residential hotels are from the Serinek family, indigenous Czech Roma whose forebears were imprisoned at Lety and died there. We established a friendship with this family.
In May Konexe decided to organize a direct action against the pig farm at Lety. We decided to undertake a non-violent blockade of the entrance to the pig farm.
We did our best to reach out to Czech human rights organizations and Romani organizations ahead of time, asking them to join us and to directly support our blockade in person at Lety. We did not succeed in that endeavor.
Nobody demonstrated any interest, with some organizations justifying their inaction and passivity by saying they do not have grants to finance combating the pig farm, etc. Konexe had its own (first and last) small financial budget from the Open Society Institute in Budapest during that year which facilitated our being able to cover the costs of traveling to Lety for the first time without drawing on our personal resources.
We began the blockade with eight people - two Czechs, four Germans, and two Romani people. Our German friends eventually returned home, but they were replaced by several individuals from the Czech Republic, by Romani people from nearby Písek, and by a citizen of the USA.
We pitched tents at the entrance to the farm and lay down in the road in front of the supply trucks that wanted to drive in. Some activists used their own chains and padlocks to lock the entrance shut.
Police intervened against us several times and were unprepared for this kind of action. The weather did not favor our blockade - despite the fact that it was mid-May, the weather was very cool, with temperatures around 10 °C and constant rain.
The activists were soaked through shortly after the blockade began and had to make it through the entire week in the cold in their wet clothing. Water got into the tents and the activists were sleeping in the mud, surrounded by the stench of pig manure.
The blockade became a test of our determination and will. We blockaded the entrance for five days and nights.
On the final day, we attempted to block traffic on the main road that passes near the pig farm. That did not succeed.
After we explained to the drivers who were waiting on the road that we had organized the blockade to call attention to the dignity of the victims of the Romani genocide and to the survivors' demands that the pig farm on the genocide site be demolished, the drivers began accelerating their vehicles at the blockaders and literally "drove apart" the blockade. Also on that final day the blockaders met with representatives of the shareholders of the pig farm and received shocking information from them - despite the fact that Government representatives had alleged to the media more than once that negotiations about buying the farm had been underway, the shareholders said that no specific meetings had ever been held and that they were not in contact with the Government.
For us, the blockade was a demanding, difficult experience, and we were unable to appreciate its significance at the time. We were disappointed that while the photos and video we shared from the blockade through our newly-established Facebook page "No to the Lety Pig Farm" (Ne prasečí farmě v Letech) managed to cause a stir in the media and online social networking sites by collecting "likes", almost nobody from among those who followed us set aside their own comfort and traveled to the scene to support us in person.
Honor goes to the exceptions - for example, we will never forget when, in the middle of the night, people appeared by our tents from the Cross Club in Prague bringing us food, dry sleeping bags and a small financial donation. A documentary film about the blockade at Lety, "Several Years" ("Několik let"), was made, and at the end of the year it won a special prize from the jury at the International Festival of Documentary Films in Jihlava, Czech Republic.
At the close of the blockade, Konexe came up with a new tactic for disseminating information about the Lety scandal, deciding to attend the regular commemorative ceremony at Lety with our banners demanding the farm be removed from the Romani genocide site, and two days after the blockade ended, two activists traveled to the commemoration at the National Cemetery in Terezín, where they stood for several hours with the banners in the rain by the entrance to the remembrance site there and discussed the Lety scandal with those attending that event. In June Konexe organized, together with EGAM, its first international commemorative assembly at Lety.
Dozens of Romani people and human rights activists from 14 European countries attended. We decided to ignore the memorial located east of the site of the former concentration camp and instead held our commemorative assembly directly on the territory of the former camp at the northwest corner of the pig farm.
That day established our tradition of sticking flowers into the fence of the farm. Most of the internationals in attendance were shocked by the state of affairs in which the site of the Romani genocide was covered with hills (literally) of pig manure and, after returning home, began to actively work against the farm at Lety.
A demonstration by Hungarian Roma in front of the Czech Embassy in Budapest and the regular demonstrations for the removal of the farm by Irish Travellers are worth mentioning here. At the end of July and beginning of August a group of activists from Konexe attended a big assembly and conference convened by the Romani organization TernYpe in Krakow, Poland, on the occasion of the International Day of the Romani Holocaust.
The event was attended by more than 1 000 young Roma from all over the world. The author of this piece gave a lecture there about the scandal of Lety and an abstract of the lecture was published as a chapter in the collected proceedings of the conference.
The final day of the meeting involved a mass visit to the concentration camp at Auschwitz II - Birkenau. The activists from Konexe did not join that visit, but left Krakow to travel directly to Lety, where they commemorated International Romani Holocaust Day at the northwest corner of the pig farm.
We visited Birkenau on the way back to the Czech Republic. In the autumn, in many European cities, EGAM organized its Roma Pride Parades again.
This time Lety was a pan-European subject and banners demanding the removal of the farm from the Romani genocide sites appeared in probably all of those countries, from Turkey to Ireland and from Lithuania to Italy. Konexe continued to focus more on working with media abroad, because we saw international pressure on Czech institutions as an effective way to achieve the removal of the farm.
At our invitation, film crews and journalists from many countries headed to Lety. During 2014 and the years to follow we managed to initiate many foreign media pieces about the Lety scandal.
Lety began to become an international symbol. We did our best to travel to Lety more frequently during 2014.
We held commemorative assemblies there on the 13th day of each month that year. Irrespective of the weather and other circumstances, we were there. Several times we had the "good fortune" to see supply trucks at the entrance just at the time we were there and we always blocked them, so our commemorative assembly sometimes turned into an afternoon-long blockade.
At the end of 2014, our German friends brought a big wooden cross to Lety with a sign reading "In memory of the child victims of the Lety camp" and placed it on the shore of the fishpond where, according to the testimonies of several survivors, the camp guards drowned Romani children.
At the beginning of the year our German friends created the website FreeLety.org to provide information about the Lety scandal in German. In March 2015, activists from Konexe travelled to Germany for an "information tour" that lasted almost three weeks.
We travelled by van from town to town and in each place, in collaboration with a local human rights organization or a local Romani organization, we gave a lecture about Lety at venues ranging from prestigious universities to squats. We spent International Romani Day (8 April) in Berlin, attending a demonstration against the deportations of Romani foreign nationals and for equal treatment, and we mobilized local activists to attend the blockade of the pig farm we planned for May.
The vast majority of those blockading Lety in 2015 were from Germany. During the blockade we were supported by a group called "Jews against the Pig Farm at Lety".
Police were present in enormous numbers at the scene, actively preventing those participating from accessing the main entrance to the farm and blocking it. The activists decided, in that situation, to change their aims, since the site we wanted to blockade was so inaccessible and strictly guarded, and we traveled to nearby Písek, where we protested in front of the building of the directorate of the AGPI company, which owned the farm.
Police intervened against us in the parking lot in front of that building. The final day of the 2015 blockade fell on a weekend, which meant even more people were free to travel to the scene, many Romani men and women who joined a march that began at the entrance to the pig farm, passed through the village of Lety, and ended at the cemetery in Mirovice, several kilometers away, where some of the child victims of the Lety camp are buried.
During the spring of 2015, Konexe activists once again attended the commemoration at Terezín as well as the remembrance events at Lidice with their banners demanding the pig farm be removed. In October 2015 EGAM launched its international campaign, together with Konexe, called "Dignity for Lety", the introductory manifesto of which demanded the removal of the farm and was signed by 83 MEPs from 20 EU countries, by hundreds of artists, human rights activists, intellectuals, and by non-Roma and Roma from all over the world.
The manifesto was printed by the biggest, most prestigious European media outlets and was a key document which put the Czech Government under increased pressure abroad. During Roma Pride 2015 the activists from Konexe installed (without the necessary permissions) a memorial plaque to the Romani victims of the Holocaust on the building of the police station in Bartolomějská Street in Prague because that is the building from which the operations of the Lety camp were administered.
In May 2016 we organized just a "symbolic blockade" of the pig farm at Lety due to a massive deployment of police that made it unrealistic for us to blockade the farm itself, and we also gave a guided tour of the publicly accessible parts of the genocide site. We held a demonstration on International Romani Resistance Day (16 May) in front of the headquarters of the EU Representation in Prague, delivering their representatives a challenge demanding the ending of EU agriculture subsidies for the Lety farm.
At the beginning of autumn 2016, together with EGAM, we prepared a letter to the President of the European Commission demanding that steps be taken to remove the farm which was signed by 19 MEPs and 61 national level MPs. The letter was published by leading European dailies.
In October 2016 we initiated the production of Lety-themed postcards that we then distributed to our partners abroad asking them to send them to Czech Government institutions and politicians. Lety u Písku and the existence of the pig farm on the Romani genocide sites were again an international subject during the Roma Pride marches all over Europe.
In June 2017, together with organizations in the EGAM network, we held the biggest commemoration assembly that has ever happened at Lety. Hundreds of Romani people participated from all over Europe.
Leading Czech politicians such as Czech Justice Minister Robert Pelikán and most of the big Czech political parties sent representatives there, who pledged to those attending, in their speeches, that if their parties would enjoy success in the upcoming elections, they would remove the farm from the Roma genocide site as quickly as possible. In October 2017, in collaboration with the Terezín Initiative Institute, we co-organized the first public presentation of the archeological research at Lety and its findings as part of the Roma Pride 2017 program.
How will our work on Lety continue now?
Currently it appears that all is on the right path and that the cultivation of pigs on this genocide site should be closed within a few months. We see it as crucial that the demolition of the farm begin on the very day the last pig is removed from the grounds.
We are concerned that there not be a long pause, a dead period during which, for example, the demolition work will undergo a tender and subsequently there will be a waiting period before the demolition begins. It is not acceptable that there be delays, we do not have that much time, there are only a few surviving prisoners of Lety still alive who are of a very advanced age and they might not live to see the farm demolished.
We are racing against time, we must give the survivors the satisfaction of the farm disappearing from the site of their suffering while they are still alive. Another very important matter is that the archeological survey be performed at the site of the farm, which until now has just been performed on a fraction of the territory of the former camp located on the publicly accessible side of the farm's fence, where the archeologists could work.
It is crucial that the public discussion begin during which the opinions of the prisoners' families and various groups will be considered key when it comes to what the memorial should look like that will be built on the site of the former camp. Involving the most diverse possible spectrum of survivors into the discussion about the future form of the memorial will be a big challenge for the state-funded Museum of Romani Culture, wich will administer it.
What have we learned from the Lety scandal?
For years we have actively done our best to find a partner in the Czech Republic to join our fight against the farm. With exceptions (who are mentioned in this piece) we failed to find one.
For Czech human rights organizations and Romani organizations it has been unimaginable that they would fight for the removal of the pig farm at Lety without having budgets and grants, and for their staffers it would be unimaginable that they would pay for such activities from their own pockets, or suffer discomfort, or put up with being outdoors in the cold, or investing their free time, or sacrificing their vacations, or putting themselves in danger or at risk, etc. Fortunately, in many other countries, civil society is at a higher level than it is in the Czech Republic, and the international activists in human rights and Roman organizations have fought the fight to see the farm demolished alongside Konexe, instead of Czech ones.
Without their aid and support, we would never have managed to do what we have done. In the future, Konexe, in addition to its customary agenda, wants to dedicate itself to the scandal of the sterilization program that has impacted Romani people and to achieve financial compensation for its victims.
The author thanks all the activists of Konexe and all the groups and organizations who in the fight against the farm have aided however possible. The author also thanks the Romani news server Romea.cz for informing its readers over the years about the scandal of Lety and its development.
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