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November 18, 2018
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Karel Holomek: Who "discovered" the Romani camp at Lety?

Brno, 7.2.2015 0:53, (ROMEA)
Karel Holomek (left) and Paul Polansky (right). (PHOTO:  Lukáš Houdek, ROMEA TV)
Karel Holomek (left) and Paul Polansky (right). (PHOTO: Lukáš Houdek, ROMEA TV)

I was a direct witness to the events written about by Petr Zídek in last Saturday's edition of Lidové noviny (24 January 2015) in his article "A report on the discovery of the Romani camp at Lety by Písek" ("Zpráva o objevu romského tábora v Letech u Písku"). In particular, I was a witness to the participation of the American Paul Polansky, how he has framed the events concerned and how he evaluates his own role.

I cannot say that Mr Zídek's piece is not factual, and he does express critical reservations with respect to Paul Polansky's criticism of the Czech Government and society and the positions he takes. However, compared to the testimony of someone directly involved, a role which I am completely justified in claiming for myself, neither one of them has much chance of succeeding.

Mr Zídek has evidently not grasped some historical details. They are as follows:  

Ctibor Nečas writes in great detail about the Lety camp and about other similar camps on the territory of the Nazi Protectorate, such as the one at Hodonín by Kunštát, in his book entitled "On the Fate of the Czech and Slovak Gypsies" (Nad osudem českých a slovenských Cikánů), published in 1981 by what was then Jan Evangelista Purkyně University and is today Masaryk University in Brno. This was 20 or more years before Mr Polansky published his books.  

Mr Nečas's work was very detailed, as one might expect of a university professor of history, including a bibliography of his documentary sources. Anyone who has read that book can confirm that Ctibor Nečas under no circumstances spares the reader any information; he does not under-report the suffering of the Czech and Slovak Roma and he provides a faithful depiction of the situation in those camps overall.  

At the conclusion of his evaluation of the situation at Lety Mr Nečas writes the following:  "The tragic results of the nine-month concentration of Gypsy families at Lety qualify it for inclusion among the sadly infamous camps of death and suffering designed for the population by the Nazi occupiers of our country." It is true that he does not specify that the guards in these camps were exclusively Czech.

Mr Nečas could not afford to do that, as he was working during a time of harsh communist totalitarian rule, and the regime was not inclined to pay attention to either the Jewish or the Romani Holocaust victims, to say nothing of writing about them. For Mr Nečas to have done so is a sign of his civic courage, even though it was not possible for his information to reach the broader public at the time of publication.  

The contribution of Mr Polansky, as Mr Zídek correctly mentions, is that he brought this problem to the attention of the wider public, but he did so after the regime change made it possible. Mr Polansky behaves disgracefully toward Mr Nečas when he says that the professor who knows the most about Romani people agrees with him, just not in public.    

I would be very surprised if this were the case. Mr Polansky has no idea what an enormous amount of work Mr Nečas has performed on this matter.

In 1995 the memorial to the Romani victims at Lety by Písek was unveiled and Mr Polansky was there. I was there too.  

I had the honor of giving a speech following the speech of President Havel on that occasion. I have photographs of the event.

It is hard to imagine that Romani people would not have been given exceptional honor and respect in my words on that occasion - God forgive me for even having to write about this. In this regard, Mr Polansky's criticism of Mr Havel on that occasion is completely beneath comment.

His mention of Havel's handshake as being "damp and weak" also completely crosses the line of any kind of respectability. I shook Havel's hand several times and it was always dry and firm.  

As far as I know, [former Czech Prime Minister] Petr Pithart was not present and he should consider his words on this subject carefully. I have not spared Czech society any criticism for its behavior toward the Gypsies imprisoned at Lety, as can be proven.

There's more, though. Prior to the memorial at Lety being unveiled, there was an international conference on the Romani Holocaust at Písek on that same day, convened by the Museum of Romani Culture, and Mr Polansky was third on the program.

He ultmately refused to give his presentation on that occasion, and I had a personal conversation with him afterword. He was unable to explain to me why he was refusing to speak, and I believe he felt insulted at being third on the program, but objectively speaking, I believe he was actually not quite sure about his subject matter or sure of how to present his arguments.  

I had a personal conversation with him one year later in Brno, when he was interviewing Romani survivors (which, by the way, he did in an extremely inexact and unprofessional way) but in any case, we disagree in our perception of those events. In short, Mr Polansky did not understand Czech conditions, he did not understand the different approaches being taken toward these matters by the Government and by Czech society - approaches that were diametrically opposed to one another - and he did not want to acknowledge the decisive, supportive role played by President Havel in raising awareness of Romani people and their wartime victims.

Mr Polansky did not speak a word of Czech. My English is sufficient for a normal conversation.

That brings us to the role of [former Czech Foreign Minister] Schwarzenberg, whom neither Mr Pithart nor Mr Polansky seem able to leave alone. In 1990 or perhaps 1991 I was invited by Karel Schwarzenberg, in my capacity as a member of the Czech National Assembly, to Prague Castle where, as the serving head of the Office of the President, he brought the "gypsy camp" at Lety by Písek to my attention.

Ever since then there  has been direct support from the Office of the President and the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic for a program of building memorials to Romani Holocaust victims. Without that support we would not be where we are today.

Why would Karel Schwarzenberg have done that if his own conscience was somehow troubled on this issue, as these gentlemen have implied? Let me be very clear:  A critique of Czech and Slovak society at the time and a critique of the Government's treatment of Romani people are appropriate and justified, but only on the basis of facts, not on the basis of delusions and guesswork.

Reprinted with permission from the author's blog on Aktuálně.cz.

Karel Holomek, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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History, Holocaust, Holokaust Romů po Česku, Lety u Písku



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