Jana Horváthová: Today Czech society perceives removing the pig farm from the Roma genocide site as necessary
On Thursday, 23 November a breakthrough moment happened with the signing of the contract to buy out the pig farm in Lety u Písku. The farm has been standing since the 1970s on the place where, during the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, a so-called "Gypsy camp" used to be, a place where Czech Roma and Sinti were forcibly interned in order to then be transported to Auschwitz.
Of the more than 1 000 people imprisoned at Lety, just a few returned home after the war. Politicians have shown almost no interest, for many years, in the fact that this place of Romani Holocaust remembrance is occupied by an industrial pig farm.
This year Government representatives finally resolved to buy out the farm and to make the entire site one of commemoration. Romano vod'i magazine has asked JANA HORVÁTHOVÁ, director of the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno, which will now administer the Lety site, for an interview about this subject.
PhDr. Jana Horváthová (born 1967) is from the Holomek family of Roma indigenous to Moravia. She was born in Brno and studied history and then museum sciences at Masaryk University there.
Horváthová and her husband, who is a heart surgeon, were briefly active with the Roma Civic Initiative in Prague, and she was a co-founder of the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno, where since 2003 she has been director. She has also worked for Czech Television as a dramaturg, editor, moderator and screenwriter.
Q: One memorial commemorating the Romani victims at Lety u Písku already exists at the site of the burial ground for those who died there. How did it come about that this memorial is located there, exactly, and not on the site of the former camp per se? At the time that memorial was built, did anybody object to the fact that the pig farm is where it is?
A: The subject of the camp at Lety is one we at the Museum began to involve ourselves with more intensively in 1995, when the Office of the President planned to build that memorial there. This was basically rather initiated by Paul Polansky, who opened up the entire subject - while experts here knew about Lety, he, as a journalist, got it into the awareness of the broader public. His reproaches were aimed at President Havel, who from my perspective actually took them head on, and whose office then, in good faith, organized the construction of the memorial. It is a fact that in 1995 the demand to close the farm was de facto an unrealistic one. Back then society did not at all comprehend what the Romani Holocaust had been. I lecture on this subject a great deal, so I know that people are, to this day, very often hostages to the idea that Romani people suffered back then because of their so-called "anti-social" behavior. Society is not aware that their annihilation was based on the same policy that also resulted in the Shoah, in the annihilation of the Jews, that the essence of these genocides was for racial reasons. In 1995, with respect to Romani people, that matter was unknown. The subject of the wartime genocide of Romani people was not accepted by the public such that people could perceive, with empathy, how injustices had been perpetrated against Romani people during the war - that was simply not happening here.
Q: When did the situation begin to change?
A: At the close of 1997 and start of 1998, the journalist Markus Pape, Polansky, and Čeněk Růžička began to take, I'd say, a striking form of action to inform the public about this, and they exerted great pressure for the pig farm at Lety to be closed. Naturally, those of us around the Museum were bothered by the farm also, but we drew attention to its inappropriateness using different forms of action, ones that were rather deferential. During the first half of the 1990s we had been making the comparison to people that it would never be acceptable to have a pig farm or something similar adjacent to the Terezín Memorial, for example. Our voice, however, was not much heard, historians customarily use different methods for expressing their opinions than activists do, they are not as pushy, and what they anticipate is more a discussion than a fight. The voice of Ctibor Nečas was raised similarly, but given the way he expressed himself, which was always based on facts and not on groundless sensation, he was, overall, incorrectly smeared by the activists, which caused this mild-mannered professor from the "old school of good behavior" to withdraw from public life forever.
Q: The chair of the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust (VPORH), one of the descendants of survivors of the Lety camp, Čeněk Růžička, is criticizing your actions back then, he has said that he disagrees with the Museum administering the future memorial at Lety.
A: In 1998 in the Czech media there was unleashed, I'd say, a big battle of opinions on this subject. Mr Růžička and others greatly pushed for the pig farm to be closed, and in the press the amount of money it would allegedly have cost to buy out the farm was reported as almost one billion crowns. All of that caused an escalation of public opinion, a hatred which threatened to burden Romani people, already so disliked here, even more. I and many other people - historians, political scientists - followed with concern what that pressure was doing to society. I had the feeling back then that the public was not at all ready, as I have already said, for the closing of the farm. I am not an advocate of violent methods, breaking things across your knee risks matters getting out of hand in an unpredictable way. In that situation, I once expressed my view of the subject using the somewhat awkward formulation that I was not striving to see the pig farm closed at any cost. What I advocate, rather, is the natural movement and progression of our thinking. I would like people to come to their own convictions about this, because if they arrive at such conclusions on their own, their involvement in such matters can be effective and genuine. Their actions will come from their own will, not be imposed on them from the outside. Back then, I believe that Čeněk Růžička did not comprehend my attitude, and to this day he holds that not very fortunate statement of mine from 1998 against me.
Q: Do you feel now that your approach back then was correct, when you look back on it?
A: My personal opinion has always been the same, and it is that the pig farm has no business being there and must be closed. However, I absolutely clearly perceive the fact that today, thank God, the situation is different than it was 20 years ago. It appears to me that during these 20 years society has matured somewhat, has moved up a level in the spiral, and at a minimum there is a part of society that perceives the necessity of removing the farm from those sites. I am terribly glad about that, now I have the feeling that it is actually the appropriate moment, which is probably why it is succeeding.
Q: Society, however, has matured thanks to the fact that there has been 20 years of constant information about what happened at Lety...
A: Certainly, here Čeněk Růžička, once again, deserves great credit for persisting in his unrelenting battle - even if, for example, from my perspective, he fought it using claims that are too strong as far as I am concerned. That is basically the advantage of those activists, they are a bit like partisans who aid us in many matters. I appreciate Mr Růžička for that, and I believe that basically there is no difference between us. I just do regret, a bit, that he does not see it that way. I feel that we are on the same side, so to speak, that our aims and wishes are the same, because my concern is commemoration and remembrance, just like his. We both want the dead to rest in peace and for the survivors to be able to commemorate them undisturbed. We both want there to finally be, at those places of suffering and wrongdoing, a just peace.
Q: What will happen now with the administration of the site of the former camp at Lety? The Museum has also long sought to administer the site of the former camp for Roma at Hodonín u Kunštátu…
A: The Government has just approved of Hodonín being administered as of the New Year by our Museum. For the time being, the Comenius National Pedagogical Museum and Library is meant to put the finishing touches on the exhibition there and should hand everything over in a state of preparedness, ready for opening to the public. Here, however, there has also been a certain shift compared to the original plan in the Government's resolution of 2011. Without the awareness of the Czech Government Council for Romani Community Affairs or of other entities, in 2016 there was a change in direction. The originally planned Romani Holocaust Memorial there has been built with the name "Hodonín Memorial". The Museum did not agree with that alteration, but as I said, our voices are never much heard. It was not until that change to that future facility began to be reviewed by the Foreign Ministry that its possible consequences, in terms of the Czech Republic's international reputation, began to be considered, and the subject was reopened this year. As far as the Lety Memorial goes, it is planned by the Museum's establisher, the Culture Ministry, that we should administer it as of January. Up to now site has been administered by a different Culture Ministry-funded organization, the Lidice Memorial.
Q: You say the Museum is faithfully executing the instructions of its establisher, the Culture Ministry, which has entrusted the Museum with administering the Lety Memorial. If you had to say your personal opinion, who should administer the future memorial at Lety?
A: Rationally speaking, it is apparent that our institution is the best choice - not only would we do it well, we would do it with sensitivity and with the appropriate interest in this matter. However, as I say, I am not used to breaking things over my knee to make my point.
Q: Do you see any opportunity for the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust (VPORH) to collaborate with you on this?
A: Well, it is no secret that I first clearly communicated to Mr Růžička more than a year ago that we are very open to cooperating with the VPORH, we welcome it, and it is my wish to do so. I will be happy if we can work with him in solidarity on this common matter.
Q: What will happen after the farm is bought out?
A: We are prepared to begin a society-wide debate on that during which, naturally, the survivors must be present, they will have a significant place in that debate. We do not want to do anything by ourselves alone - we already have the experience that when things are done here for Roma without their input, they do not end up optimally, so certainly we want to discuss these matters with others. According to the information from our establisher, we will not be getting money for any buildings, and Mr Růžička has agreed that the site should be cleaned up and should function as a memorial. He has said that if there is to be some kind of cultural center or exhibition about Lety, it should be in Prague. I think we are on the same page, we will see how it develops. On the question of remembrance, the Museum will not be blindly advocating for its own proposals, but we want to create a space there where the atmosphere will affect the visitors, and the new arrangements will support that purpose.
Q: What reactions are we likely to encounter if, after a cleanup that costs several million crowns, the site will remain empty? The public reactions to that may be varied, after all.
A: There are also different opinions about how the state-run museum at Auschwitz looks today, or how the grounds of the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwtiz I and of Auschwitz II - Birkenau, where there was also a so-called Gypsy Camp, among other things. look. Many Romani people do not like the fact that basically there is nothing there. I recently spoke with the descendant of a survivor who believes it is horrible, that there should be replicas of the prisoners' barracks exhibited there. Naturally we all can have a different opinion about such things, which is why debate is important. These opinions should all be discussed and there should be a chance, on that basis, to create a more sensitive design. One can't please everybody, but it is necessary to discuss these matters, to open the subject. That has not happened yet.
Q: What role, in creating the future form of the memorial, will the most recent archeological finds from that site play?
A: Certainly an important one. We are in contact with Mr Vařeka's team and we have concluded a contract on collaboration stating that the items discovered by that research, after being preliminarily selected and undergoing conservation, will be transferred to our collections. It will be important to survey the site once the farm is no longer there. That has never been possible before because the owner, the AGPI firm, did not want its ground surveyed. We are anticipating what might turn up there when they finally are.
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