Karel Holomek on the Roma Holocaust, education of the Roma, and the Workers’ Party
Karel Holomek, the founder of the Museum of Roma Culture, has been striving for rapprochement between the majority society and the Roma for 20 years. On the rising displays of intolerance toward this minority, various regional editions of Denik quote him as saying: “Even though hundreds of Roma suffered and died during the Second World War at the ‘Gypsy Camp’ in Hodonin by Kunstat, as of last year tourists were still using the recreation center, swimming pool and tennis courts that are located on that same site.”
However, thanks to a decision by the Czech Government last year, the camp became state property by year-end and a memorial to the victims of the Roma Holocaust will be erected there. “The ‘Final Solution to the Roma question’ introduced by the Nazis remains an unknown topic to most of Czech society. This is why we must speak out about it,” Holomek said in an extensive interview for Denik. Holomek, who is also the chair of the Society of Roma in Moravia, has been striving to establish a memorial at both Hodonin by Kunstat and Lety by Pisek since 1990.
“From August 1942 until the end of 1943, an internment camp for Roma from Moravia was in operation on the site which the Roma call Hodoninek. Romani families from Bohemia were driven into a similar camp in Lety by Pisek. Even though no single location was established for the purpose of exterminating the Roma, as a result of the dire living conditions in these camps, many people lost their lives there. Most survivors were then transported to the extermination camps at Auschwitz. Only about 10 % of the Roma living in Bohemia and Moravia survived the war,” Denik quotes Holomek as saying.
Holomek believes that since the government has taken the first step of acquiring the Hodonin site, it will complete the next step of establishing a memorial to the victims of the Roma Holocaust. The site will be managed by the Museum of Roma Culture in Brno, which wants to reconstruct the preserved building and create an exhibition there commemorating what happened in Hodoninek. “In addition, an extensive new international education center will be developed there where children and adults can learn more about the culture and history of the Roma and about the ‘Final Solution to the Roma question’,” Holomek says in the interview. He says the government has allocated CZK 70 million for the creation of the memorial and work should begin in Hodoninek this year.
“Every August the Museum of Roma Culture organizes a mass on the green in Hodoninfor the Roma who perished there. However, the mayor is usually the only person from the town to attend; during the service, local people usually people drive their tractors through the green as if nothing were going on. Such a sight bothers no one there. Maybe they are not aware how deeply we are hurt by such behavior. This is a testament to the fact that respect for the Romani victims is not yet part of the legacy,” Holomek says.
Commenting on the other “Gypsy Camp” at Lety by Pisek, Holomek says: “The agreement now is that Lety will be taken care of by the Lidice Memorial and the state will build a memorial site near the former camp, an information center, and a more comfortable access road. This small memorial will be separated from the pig farm that remains on the site by a barrier of bushes and trees.” Holomek says a fund should also be established to eventually move the pig farm a few kilometers away from the site.
Holomek compared the Holocaust of the Jews to that of the Roma, saying Jewish people once enjoyed and continue to enjoy a completely different position in society than the Roma. “The Roma were always on the outskirts of society. The ‘Final Solution to the Roma question’ ordered by the Nazis was easily accepted by many of the Czechoslovak insitutions of the time, which were more or less indifferent to the fate of the Roma,” Holomek says. “My family is from Svatoboric by Kyjov, where before the war there was a large Roma settlement, Hranicky. When the order came for the local Roma to go to the concentration camps, the town councillors accepted it without a word. They could have stood up for the Roma living there,” Holomek says, pointing out that the prison officers at both Hodonin and Lety were exclusively Czech.
Even though Holomek takes exception to the plans of some officials today, he says the government and state institutions are now showing their apologetic stance toward the Roma through their behavior. “They perceive it as important to settle this part of the past. The European Union is also pressuring them to do so. Of course, on the other hand most of society has not taken this on board. I hope this will finally change with the younger generation,” he says.
In Holomek’s view, the situation in the school system has become unbearable. “For example, in Brno more than 90 % of the Roma in the city attend just three schools. That is simply a catastrophe, because if the majority and minority do not learn to live together and to get along starting in their youth, it is very difficult to correct this once they are older,” Holomek says. “My granddaughter, on the other hand, attends school with many white children, and when I ask her whether any of her schoolmates are Roma, she says she doesn’t even know. That’s super! If we learn to get along as children, it will be of benefit to everyone. The barriers and differences between us as adults will be erased.”
Holomek believes it is very difficult to work out a solution to this problem when parents and teachers prevent the “mixing” of children at school. “White parents do not want to send their children to school with Roma, because they view it as a sort of handicap. They are partially correct, because for a certain amount of time the level of instruction will actually be reduced as a result of including the Roma. However, on the other hand, the social maturity of both groups will increase through contact. The question is from what grade level should we prioritize contact between the majority and the minority, and from what age is it good to place the main emphasis strictly on education,” Holomek says. In his view, Romani parents are also to blame, as the often prefer to enrol their children into the schools they themselves attended, which have predominantly Roma populations.
“If a school director makes up some excuse for sending a Romani child who lives in his district to a predominantly Roma school, I consider that without exaggeration to be a crime. He may be doing that because Romani children often really do have problems in first grade, but a proper director must solve this problem, not sweep it under the carpet. When Romani children do end up in the first grade of regular school, directors for the most part have not the slightest problem with immediately sending such children to ‘special school’. Even though they are calling these schools ‘practical’ today, they are essentially the same as the ‘special schools’, because the level of education there is simply lower,” Holomek explains.
Holomek says the claims of some practical school directors and counseling facility psychologists that Romani children do not have the genes for regular school are preposterous. “When Czech Roma emigrate to Canada, many of the children who attended special education in this country are suddenly capable, after just three months in Canada, of learning a foreign language well enough to interpret for their parents. How is it possible that in this country they didn’t even learn to write?” he asks.
Holomek believes the tests used in educational-psychological counseling centers must be set up differently, as they are currently not able to say anything about the intelligence of the children taking them. “These are rather tests of lingustic and social sensitivity, which understandably disadvantage the Roma terribly. What should be most important is that all clever children receive a good education irrespective of their social origin. If such an approach were to be taken, there would be fewer children in the practical schools and teachers would be able to give them more attention. In the end, the situation everywhere would be improved,” he says.
In the interview, Holomek also welcomes the dissolution of the Workers’ Party, even though he is aware the problem as a whole is much more complicated. “I am not a lawyer and my emotions tell me the party should be dissolved. However, on the other hand, I am aware that in a democracy these people can join other parties and nothing will really change. Society has just received a clear signal that the behavior of the Workers’ Party crossed the line and that we do not want such a dangerous party in this country because its members and promoters commit violence,” he says.
Holomek does not believe Czechs are racists, although according to a wide variety of research, large numbers of people here take great exception to the Roma. “Yes, they have prejudices, and for historical reasons, many of them have had bad experiences, but who is without prejudice? We have to deal with this somehow, look at it from both sides, discuss it, refine our opinions. The world is full of others whom we can truly call racist. How this is dealt with, what kind of a stance the authorities take, depends on the society, on the degree to which its democracy has developed,” he says.
The full interview, conducted by Zuzana Tausova, can be found in the Brno, Vyskov, Breclav, Blansko, Hodonin and Znojmo print editions of Denik.
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