More than 500 people attend commemoration at Lety
Every year a commemorative ceremony takes place at Lety by Písek in honor of the memory of the Roma who were murdered at the concentration camp there during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Both the camp commander and its guards were Czechs, who sadly became famous for stealing food intended for the prisoners, causing many of the Roma interned there to die of hunger.
The Roma also starved
Čeněk Růžička, chair of the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust, opened the ceremony by speaking of the lies and half-truths that still exist in the public mind about the Lety concentration camp. As an example of one of the half-truths, he mentioned the claim that the Roma had died at Lety of typhus, explaining that at least half of the total number of people imprisoned there died before the typhus outbreak even occurred. They perished of cold, of hunger, and as a result of excruciating maltreatment.
More than 500 people attended the commemoration this year, an unusually large number compared to previous years. The ceremony was attended by the families of the victims and survivors; by schoolchildren of all ages, primarily Romani children (seven busloads); by both Romani and non-Romani activists and celebrities; by government officials responsible for minority affairs; and by politicians. There was quite a bit of press coverage, including photographers. The ceremony opened with a beautiful rendition of the Romani song “Čajori Romaňi”, followed by the Roma national anthem, “Dželem, dželem”, and then by the Czech national anthem, “Kde domov můj”, performed by a girls’ choir.
Father František Lízna, known for his courage during the totalitarian regime and for his very open approach to the Roma, gave a sermon and led those gathered in prayer. Besides Čeněk Růžička, many other politicians in attendance made speeches. The main speech was given by the Vice-Chair of the Czech Senate, Jiří Liška.
Repairs worth CZK 21 million crowns
Last year the government decided to transfer management of the memorial site from the municipal level to that of the state, specifically under the management of the Lidice Memorial, and the Czech Culture Ministry has invested CZK 21 million into transforming the grounds of the memorial. On the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the memorial being unveiled, significant construction work has begun there which was interrupted by weather and will be completed in July.
“I am glad the appearance of this memorial has been improved,” said Czech Human Rights Commissioner Michael Kocáb. Milouš Červencl, director of the Lidice Memorial, said the costs for building access roads, a parking lot, landscaping, and the construction of two replicas of the original buildings of the internment camp as exhibition spaces have run to around CZK 15 million. There is also a new amphitheater. A new information center about the memorial has been created at the Lety town hall, from which a walking path with signage leads to the memorial itself.
Pig farm remains on the site
The Roma have not yet succeeded in having the large-scale pig farm on the former concentration camp site purchased and removed. Kocáb said the steps for removing the farm have already been decided on, but that given the current economic crisis, money cannot be provided for the purchase of the farm, which is being postponed. Čeněk Růžička is satisfied with the new look of the memorial, but neither he nor other Roma can accept the pig farm on the site. He said he would continue to pressure the government to remove it. “The pressure is coming not only from Roma abroad, but from politicians,” Růžička said. In his view, the state should start a fund with a sizeable initial investment and then hold a collection drive over the next few years to put together the money to purchase the farm, most of which has been built on the territory of the former concentration camp.
A little history
The original camp at Lety served as an accommodation facility for construction workers. A few months after it opened, it was transformed into a “disciplinary labor camp” in which were to be “concentrated…nomadic gypsies capable of work and other vagrants living the same lifestyle, professional beggars and those living off of the proceeds of begging (children, etc.), professional gamblers, notorious idlers, loiterers, and persons making a living through the profits of dishonor (prostitution, etc.), whether their own or others’.” The first 12 prisoners arrived there on 17 July 1940.
The Gypsy Camp
On 1 August 1942, the “disciplinary labor camp” was transformed into a Gypsy Camp and entire Romani families were transported there. The Gypsy Camp was created by the order of Protectorate Interior Minister Josef Ježek on 15 July 1940 and was issued on the basis of Government Decree No. 72 on disciplinary labor camps dated 2 March 1939. That particular decree had been issued just prior to the occupation of the republic by the Nazis, during what is now called the Second Republic, when Czech ultra-conservatives were in power.
According to the website Holocaust.cz, the camp consisted of 50 temporary buildings made out of thin boards where were intended only for summer occupancy. After the Gypsy Camp was created, its capacity was expanded to 600 prisoners, but even that number was soon exceeded. During August 1942, more than 1 100 men, women and children were interned in the camp, which was not equipped with the necessary hygienic and other facilities for such a large number of people. Moreover, up until August 1942, only men had been imprisoned there. As of August 1942 women and children were also expected to live there under conditions which were completely unsatisfactory.
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