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June 18, 2019
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Interview: Patriotism is not the same as hating those who are different

31.5.2019 12:07
Jiří Padevět (PHOTO: Karolina Telváková)
Jiří Padevět (PHOTO: Karolina Telváková)

"It's no wonder Romani people do not identify themselves as Romani during the census, because everything begins with compiling lists," says the author and researcher Jiří Padevět, who focuses on one of the cruellest, most painful periods of Czechoslovak history, 1938 to 1956, in his books and television programs. Born in 1966, Padevět is from Prague, and after studying geodesy and working as a surveyor and as a teacher, he worked as a buyer for a bookstore.

Since 2006 Padevět has been the director of the Academia publishing house. As an author of nonfiction and a researcher he focuses on mapping little-known sites of wartime history and communist persecution.

His works include the Guide to Prague during the Protectorate (which won the Magnesia Litera award in 2014 in the category of nonfiction, as well as Book of the Year in 2013); Bloody Finale: Spring 1945 in the Czech Lands; Bloody Finale 1945: Post-war Violence in the Czech Lands; Guide to Prague during Stalinism 1948-56; Behind Barbed Wire; Three Kings; Notes on History; Anthropoid (co-authored with Pavel Šmejkal), Touch of Anthropoid, Barbed Wire and Nooses, Travels with Karel Hynek Mácha, etc. He is a recipient of the commemorative Operation Anthropoid medal.

Padevět has produced the program "Bloodsoaked Years" for the Internet television channel, in which he familiarizes viewers with places associated with Nazi and communist tyranny. Romano vod'i magazine interviewed him about this history.

Q: Last year the state bought out the pig farm at Lety u Písku that stands on the site of the former concentration camp there and opened up the opportunity for dignified remembrance at that site of Romani suffering during the Second World War. Why does the buyout still bother some people?

A: Those who dislike it are just the envious, the racists, the xenophobes and similar pests. Regular society is taking that decision absolutely normally, I think. However, I must say that the only legitimate reproach I sometimes hear from people who study the Second World War, the Resistance, the Holocaust, the occupation or genocide is that the state should take similar care of other remembrance sites. Lety was created during the Nazi occupation, but the Protectorate authorities were also part of creating it. The communist regime is also to blame for the lack of reverence for that site, because despite all their proclamations about the war, they pretended the genocide of the Roma never happened. Today many populists are appearing here as well, and there is one very simple explanation for this:  Once the issue of refugee reception stops being an attractive subject for politicians of that type, the Czech Roma will always become their target. The statement made by MP Rozner that Lety was a "pseudo-concentration camp" is something I consider absolutely shameless. Despite his making such a remark, the lower house did not strip him of immunity, and I am of the opinion that if something like that were to be said by such a politician in a normal country, the pressure of public opinion would force him to resign from any elected office. I believe a democratic, normal politician has just one option when it comes to Lety and similar places, and that is to go there and bow his head.

Q: In your book Behind Barbed Wire you include many references to the imprisonment of Romani people in other camps. Where did the Roma, in your view, die most frequently and how many of them overall may have died during the war?

A: Most of them died at Auschwitz during the liquidation of the so-called "gypsy family camp" there, which was part of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. I do not believe there are any exact statistics for Protectorate territory, but certainly it would have been hundreds who died. We naturally have the lists of those who died both at Hodonín and Lety, but how many Romani people were killed randomly by Nazi units, or how many died as partisans or resistance fighters, we basically do not know. In Lety alone it was more than 400 people, most of whom were young children, which is far more horrible than when adults perish.

Q: To this day the historians and the public are disputing how many victims there were overall in Lety, or the existence of mass graves there, or whether the children born there were drowned in the fishpond. After the archaeological survey there we will all be wiser, but did you ever discover information during your research about such deaths?

A: I never discovered any documentation. The postwar testimonies of the guards at the camp contradict each other. While we do have a list of those who died during the [typhoid] epidemic, the victims were children and elderly people above all. We can base our further research on that, but if children were born and their births were never registered, then their fates will be very difficult to find in archival documentation. If children were born at Lety, they most probably did not survive, and if they did survive Lety, then they most probably did not survive Auschwitz. I don't want to speculate, but I think that if a child were to have died at Lety before the epidemic, then the body would have been cremated nearby.

Q: Why, in your view, is there still a discussion in Czech society over whether the camp at Lety was a concentration camp, an internment camp, a labor camp, a prison camp, a "Gypsy Camp" or some other kind of camp?

A: Those conjectures are absolutely irrelevant because if there exists a place where people are forced together against their will, whether on the basis of a court order or even without one - which is exactly the case of Lety - and if they are being forced together because they have different political convictions than those in power want them to have, or worship a different religion, or are of a different skin color, or ethnicity, or sexual orientation, and they are forced to work, to do something they normally would not, then that place is simply a concentration camp. The public is probably used to envisioning a concentration camp as a place that must have a triple barbed wire fence, a guard tower on each corner, etc. All of the people who argue over whether Lety was a labor camp or a so-called "Gypsy Camp" or an internment camp should take a very careful look at the branches of the big Nazi concentration camps of Flossenbürg or Gross-Rosen that were created gradually in the annexed border areas after 1938, where people were imprisoned in various cabins and factory halls - in other words, the place did not look like a "concentration camp" from the outside, but people died there nevertheless.

Q: Isn't there also an intention, in such a discussion, to belittle the suffering of Romani people and to cast doubt on the share of blame that the Czechs have for that violence?

A: The people who actually take an interest in that time period know without a doubt how many Romani people perished there, that there was another camp at Hodonín u Kunštátu, and that there were other internment locations from which there were very frequent transports straight to Auschwitz. They also know that there were Czech gendarmes in those places - or rather, that those who had once been gendarmes were reactivated for service at those places. It is also known that in all concentration camps - although in the case of Lety it may have been more drastic - some of those who performed the work of the guards did their best to behave at least relatively decently toward the prisoners, while others basically behaved sadistically. That happened at all the internment locations. Anybody who doubts that is demonstrating their ignorance of the human suffering to which, unfortunately, some of us did contribute. That applies both to the genocide of the Roma and to the Third Resistance. We don't much like taking to heart the lessons of modern history for today, because basically it's not a pretty picture. The fact that Lety, during a certain phase of its existence, actually was officially called a "labor camp" does not mean that the suffering of the people there at that time was any less than during its other phases. What is interesting is that basically that exact system of the labor re-education camps was taken up very quickly after February 1948 by the communist regime, which created a network of forced labor camps functioning according to a very similar principle, to which people were also sent not as a result of being convicted and sentenced by any court, but just by a three-member commission, and only for what the authorities suspected they might do in the future. In the interests of "prevention" they sent such people to places that also meet the definition of concentration camps, and many Romani people, among others, also ended up in those camps.

Q: The ostracization of Romani people, the limitations of their civil rights and freedoms, began with the creation of the law "about wandering gypsies" in 1927, which instructed Romani people to obtain so-called "gypsy identification cards". That registry of persons living in the "gypsy way of life" made the Nazis' job much easier during the Second Republic ...

A: That was not just a problem of Czechoslovakia, but essentially a Europe-wide one. In many European states, for example, in Belgium, France, etc., it was a terrible advantage to some of the forces, the Fascist parties, that the Nazis appeared on the scene. During the 1920s and 1930s, Europe changed. If you look at the map of Central Europe, you will see that Czechoslovakia was basically the only democratic state there, but ostracization of Romani people happened there nevertheless, that certain group of people was labelled as different irrespective of democracy. Any marking and sorting of any social group, whether they are Jewish people, LGBT, Romani people, anybody else, eventually can lead to their abuse, imprisonment, concentration and murder. It is, therefore, not surprising that Romani people do not espouse their Romani nationality during the census here. If I were to learn that somebody was making a list of all the people with my surname, I'd change my name, because it all begins with compiling such lists.

Q: Many points in the history of Romani people are not yet sufficiently mapped because entire generations have preferred to stay quiet about their experiences, which disappear irretrievably once they pass away - the history disappears. Have you ever found during your research any traces of those Romani civilians who were in the resistance, Romani partisans, Romani soldiers who fought against Nazism?

A: The legacy of the historian Ctibor Nečas is just such an enormous piece of work. I'd say that it's a foundation work. The genocide of the Roma should be studied by other historians and it seems that Lety is also becoming a more and more attractive subject for them. The brilliant historian Jan Tesař prepared a three-volume edition of the memoirs of the partisan Josef Serinek, who escaped Lety and during the Protectorate gradually made his way on foot to the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands. A partisan group formed around him that joined the Czechoslovak Council of Three, which was a big resistance organization. Serinek has been condemned by some for his participation in the attack on the gendarmes station in Přibyslav, where local gendarmes were murdered in a cellar as revenge for the death of General Luža, who had been shot dead by Czech gendarmes several days prior. Once again, this is something we can call murder, but it happened during the war, under absolutely different conditions than the ones we live under today, and it's difficult to criticize it from today's perspective.

Purveyors of fear

Q: The persecution of the Roma also happened during communism. Why, then, do Czechs continue to assume the role of the victims, why don't they want to acknowledge that they are to blame?

A: Romani women were sterilized, there was the absolutely intentional destruction of the vehicles the Roma used for living itinerantly, but there was never any systematic imprisonment of the Roma, the communist regime was too careful for that. However, what was similar to what had happened before, where the systems align, was the anti-Jewish and anti-Romani sentiment supported by the state, although the support was basically covert. When we speak of the victims of Hodonín and Lety, or similarly of the Jewish victims who came from Bohemia and Moravia and perished during the Holocaust, then we speak of Jewish people and Romani people, but if everybody here were to realize that our fellow citizens and neighbors also perished at that time - Czechs, Moravians, Silesians - the debate might head in an absolutely different direction. The majority society, of which I am a part, still feels the need to define itself in opposition to somebody else, whether in a good way, perhaps a protective way, or in a bad way, which is what spread here mainly during the Second Republic and the Protectorate. In order for the majority to keep up its self-image, it first needs to either protect somebody - if only verbally - or to consider itself superior to others, to say "We're here, we're the beautiful, fabulous, strong, intelligent majority, and everybody else is over there." In the Czech lands the role of the inferiors has quite frequently been assigned exactly to the Jews and the Roma.

Q: Why does a significant part of the public refuse to call Romani people "Roma", why don't they respect the fact that it is inappropriate to use the word "Gypsy"?

A: I don't want to defend the people who use the term "Gypsy" in the least, but I believe it's a consequence of the 40 year period of communism, during which the word "gypsy" was absolutely common usage in the public arena. This is a marathon we're running. I believe you won't hear today's younger generation use the word "gypsy" because if they don't know it from their parents, then they simply don't know it. The word "gypsy" is already an antiquated expression today that should not be turning up in the public sphere. Anybody who uses it intentionally is expressing their disgust for others, their racism, and their xenophobia.

Q: The problem of excluded localities, i.e., the exclusion of Romani people, is deeply rooted in the past. Do Romani people have any chance at all of joining Czech society if it is persistently rejecting them with all the instruments at its disposal?

A: I don't believe all of this society is persistently rejecting them. Excluded localities, however, are something that many municipalities themselves absolutely cannot cope with, and installing Mr Čunek's "container housing" or evicting the residents of such localities elsewhere is no solution to the problem. The state should address this, not municipalities or towns, and the state should address it across the board, systematically. One day there is no doubt that this will have to be addressed, but a politician who will be brave enough to do this has to be found for the job, because such engagement will not score political points with the majority. One problem that is shared by some members of the majority society with Romani people is that of collections and the debt trap. In that case as well, the state is failing systemically.

Q: You said segregation leads eventually, most of the time, to murder. Do you consider the concerns of Romani people today justified, people for whom the racist violence committed against them here after 1990, and the anti-Romani demonstrations of 2013 here still strongly resonate? Any kind of shock to this society, such as high unemployment, could lead to an escalation of tensions...

A: Maybe I'm being an optimist, but I don't believe that there would be any chance or room here at this moment for massive violence against Romani people or any other marginalized group. Today's Fascists, or rather pseudo-Fascists, who unfortunately are even seated in Parliament, are rather like some sort of business party purveying fear. Their rhetoric, naturally, can inspire others to violent acts, such as Mr Balda's attempted terrorist attack. It is necessary to count on the fact that political extremism has been and will always be here, and at the same time we must pressure democratic politicians to publicly condemn extremism every step of the way. Democratic society has to protect its weaker members, not point the finger at them. The voices calling for any kind of ostracism or segregation should be labeled extremist by democratic society, which at this moment is not happening consistently. When I saw the campaign slogans of some of the local groups in the last elections, above all those in the Ústecký Region, I felt like vomiting. The rhetoric was from the Second Republic, basically even from the Protectorate era, and that's something, again, that all democratic politicians should immediately publicly condemn. This is something that, in a normal country, the President of the Republic and Prime Minister would immediately condemn.

Q: Judging by the chants and the slogans it might seem that the greatest concentration of "patriots" can be found at assemblies of parties like the SPD...

A: There is a nice word in Czech for this, národovectví [Translator's Note - something like "nationalistness"], which in my opinion beautifully includes all the repulsive manifestations of this overstretched chauvinism, nationalism, and xenophobia. Never before have I experienced the kind of time we are living through now, by which I mean a time when so many kinds of Fascists, pseudo-Fascists and xenophobes are calling themselves nationalists or patriots, using a term ("vlastenec") that was of enormous importance exactly during the Protectorate. During communism it wasn't as important, we were all the "international proletariat" then... Today, quite frequently, that word is coming out of the mouths of people who are not patriots and never will be. I believe those who actually do something for their country will never call themselves patriots. On the contrary, they will wait for others to use that term about them. Patriotism is not hatred of others.

On coming to terms with the past

Q: How is it possible that today, when we have so much information available at our fingertips, these deniers of the Holocaust keep appearing?

A: One of the best-known deniers of the Holocaust in the world is David Irving, who has written many thick books about almost every high representative of the Third Reich. He is also famous for suing the historian Deborah E. Lipstadt over her history of the Holocaust and losing, fortunately. Those who create this industry do it for money. It is still the case that it is easier to believe a conspiracy theory than to verify the relevant information for yourself in the archives, or from the eyewitnesses, or from the literature. It is still easier to believe some of the hysterics on social media than it is to read a book.

Q: How else could education about history happen?

A: If we want to familiarize somebody with history, we should use the story of an ordinary person who could, theoretically, be our neighbor today, whether we use a fictional story set against a real backdrop, or a true story - and there are thousands of actual stories that could be told in novel form, or as a feature film. Who is amused just by the numbers of military operations, of political conferences, or the names of generals and politicians? Very few people, I have a feeling. The story of an ordinary Josef, or an ordinary Franz, who could have been born in the cottage next door is able to captivate far more people.

Q: You said on the GEN television program ["Gallery of the Elite of the Nation"] that Czechs should take the long view. I understood that to mean that Czechs should realize that people are living elsewhere in much more difficult conditions and also that, for example, German society has managed to face up to its past and today is one of the most open societies, while Czechs still refuse the idea of cleaning these wounds and taking responsibility for their past...

A: We believe we are living the only correct way there is to live here, but all one has to do is cross the border into Austria or Germany to discover that people have the same problems and worries everywhere. Basically, you said it, in Germany they are further along as far as coming to terms with the past goes. Certainly I would not say compensating for the past, because it is never absolutely possible to tally up and balance out the past - what happened, happened. The accounting of the balance has now begun in our country as well, whether it has to do with the genocide of the Romani people, or with the Holocaust of the Czech and Moravian Jews, or the postwar expulsion of the Czech and Moravian Germans. The situation is significantly better than it was before '89 or the 1990s. However, balancing out something that happened 70 years ago and then was not spoken of for 40 of those years - or about which lies have been told - is not a question of one generation, but of two, three, maybe four generations. \

Q: What is your position on the question of the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans? In one interview you said that victors should be generous, but the Czechs after the war were not abounding in generosity, they actually revenged themselves bestially, and not just against those who had been to blame. Can any behavior of that kind be excused by the prior suffering of the Czechs? Do you believe that the main motivation for the expulsions was to make an example of the Germans by punishing them for their betrayal, or was it rather an attempt to create an ethnically homogeneous state?

A: I think there is more than one level to this. On the one hand I prefer using the terms "Czech Germans" or "Moravian Germans", not "Sudeten Germans". What happened here in the summer of 1945 naturally happened in other countries also, so the Czechs are not specific in this - they were not the only ones to abuse "their" Germans. Nevertheless, I believe that in the atmosphere immediately after the war, given the international situation (the expulsion had been discussed in London since 1941), the expulsion was politically and socially unavoidable; whether it was correct or not can be seen when you go to Ústí nad Labem or other towns in the so-called Sudetenland on the Czech border. The German element is simply lacking there. It's true that back then we finally had a chance to create a state for just Czechs, Moravians, Silesians and Slovaks. The expulsion had two phases. There was the "wild expulsion", which happened from May to August 1945 and was very violent. At that time there were many massacres, and the biggest one was Postoloprty, where, according to Czech sources, more than 700 people were murdered, and it was even investigated by a special parliamentary commission. It's necessary to know that most of the big excesses, especially the massacres and murders, were investigated by the Czechoslovak authorities and some perpetrators were even imprisoned. Unfortunately, the fact that the communist regime later gave them amnesty, or released them, is another chapter. If you look at those massacres, unfortunately you discover that they were not some kind of people's uprising - guys who'd suffered during the Protectorate, and who were justifiably angry, and who grabbed their rifles after the war and went after the Germans - but rather that all of it was organized and performed by units of the Czechoslovak Army or by armed men who, at that moment, were under the Army's command, so somebody had to have been in command issuing orders. Basically, I understand anybody who picked up a cobblestone on 9 May [1945] and then hit the first German they could find over the head with it - that's illegal and immoral, but it's comprehensible from a human point of view. However, I will never understand organizing a massacre of 700 elderly men, elderly women, and minors. Collective punishment is always wrong.

Q: Is it possible to intercede against such basically primitive instincts using reason?

A: I'm afraid it's not. No rational argument will aid us in combating primitivism - that's why it's called "primitive", because it's immune to reason, absolutely. The most you can do is throw the primitives a different bone so they'll chase after a different victim and leave you alone, but that's no solution either.

No discussion with extremists

Q: How, in your view, has the position of Romani people in Czech democratic society changed during the last 30 years? Many of them, despite the slights they endured back then, still look back to the time of communism...

A: During the last 30 years a Romani elite has grown up here, I don't know how numerous they are, but the stronger they will become, the better-off the other Roma will be. I very much hope that the Roma will be seen in the public arena. It is important that the Romani elite address the problems of Romani people.

Q: Persistent segregation in education, which has its roots in communism, is how Czech society is maintaining its cheap labor force...

A: I'm trying to figure out whether the education system per se is to blame for that, or whether it is the fault of specific educators and principals - I believe the two are interrelated. My concern is that the journey toward addressing the problem will take a terribly long time yet, and it will be a journey during which we all will have to constantly educate ourselves more and more.

Q:  Why does Czech society, which de facto came about historically by many nationalities coming together, continue to define Romani people as a foreign element, why doesn't society want to see that as laborers, Romani people built this republic, to a great extent?

A: That's exactly it - if we don't realize that the Jews and the Roma are also citizens of the country where we were born, just as we are, that these people are our fellow citizens and neighbors, then nothing will ever change. Difference does not mean inferiority. The notion remains anchored in society - not just Czech society, but also Euro-American society -  that the "others" are dangerous. Once upon a time that was probably the case, the enemy looked different and was dangerous. Aggression is frequently a demonstration of fear. It will be difficult for us to make our way out of this until we realize that for quite some time now in Europe, all nationalities have become so intermixed that we are all neighbors.

Q: Nationalist tendencies are growing here, and it seems there is a desire for strongman rule, as represented by Jobbik in Hungary, by Salvini in Italy, etc. Is this a consequence of some sort of democratic fatigue, are we tiring of the opportunity to make these choices?

A: I'm not an expert on western society, but similar parties have always been here, just as the extremist ones also will be. It is above all the task of democratic politicians to take a clear stand against them. If they consider such parties partners for discussion, if democratic politicians believe they can negotiate with extremists as if they were any other democratic party, then things will end up like they did in February '48. Back then the Czechoslovak democrats believed the communists were a bit odd, maybe a little bit radical, but that they were basically a normal political party with whom they could negotiate. Quite quickly they understood the party was a bunch of political gangsters with whom it was impossible to negotiate and who used any means possible to take power. That means all these extremists and proto-Fascists must be immediately nipped in the bud, designated as extremists. Maybe over time even the Czech democratic politicians will learn how to do this.

Q: Why did people leave their homes and allow themselves to be transported to the concentration camps if they had already been suspecting for some time what awaited them there?

A: They did not suspect - and if they did, they didn't believe it. Most people do what they are told and keep hoping things will be better next time. The first reports about what was happening in Auschwitz came out in 1944 at the earliest. The report by Vrba and Wetzler, which was the first to reach the rest of the world by coming through the Catholics in Slovakia and then through Switzerland to the United States, described that Auschwitz was actually a death factory. To this day you can hear allegations that the Jews and the Roma walked into the concentration camps like sheep, but they went there under the notion that they would be working and that it would be almost like being at home - where they were ostracized all the same, allowed to buy food just at certain times of day, not allowed to own bicycles or dogs. Who has what it takes to stand up to evil in an open fight? Just a handful of people in any population. That's how it has always been. We have cases of rebellion here, or attempts at uprisings in the most appalling extermination camps like Sobibor and Treblinka. There were enormous acts of heroism that stood no chance, and many people paid for them with their lives - but not until the moment when they already saw with their own eyes, a couple of meters away, what basically awaited them. People have a tendency to hope tomorrow will be better, and that may deter them from resisting. We tell ourselves: "They won't kill me - maybe they'll kill everybody else around me, but not me."

Rena Horvátová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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