Paul Polansky: How many Letys?
A few days ago Czech PrimeMinister Petr Nečas said the Czech state has no money to buy a pig farm built over the site of a Czech-run camp where hundreds of Roma — mainly children — died from disease, hunger or abuse during the German occupation. This is my article refuting the continued procrastination and lies of the Prime Minister and his government.
How many Czech Gypsies (Roma and Sinti) died during World War II?
From my research experience, that is a question no Czech historian wants to investigate, just as they don’t want to know how many were actually murdered at the WWII Lety Gypsy camp. Of course, if you refuse to investigate that era it is hard to come up with a number. But the evidence is still there, haunting “amateur” historians such as myself.
I first got interested in Lety while doing my Czech genealogy. Lety was the first village that sent Czech pioneers to America after the 1848 revolution. But as I sought out the popular history of Lety village by interviewing the locals, I heard about the Gypsy death camp there during WWII.
I spent several months in 1994, interviewing Czechs in and around the village of Lety about that Gypsy camp while waiting for permission from the Czech government to review the records in the South Bohemia Archive in Trebon.
Much to my surprise, several locals claimed Lety wasn’t the only Czech camp for Gypsies during WWII. At the time, I thought they were referring to Hodonin in Moravia. But Dr. Kalbach (a doctor at the Lety camp during WWII) living in nearby Mirovice set me straight. He told me there were many camps for Gypsies in Bohemia and Moravia. He said it as if I was being stupid to concentrate on Lety when there were so many other camps. He acted as if Lety didn’t deserve the title of being the only Gypsy camp in Bohemia.
From then on, every time I interviewed another local Czech, I did ask that questions: Was Lety the only camp in Bohemia for Gypsies?
I was shocked to hear from almost everyone I interviewed that there were “many camps for Gypsies” in Bohemia during WWII.
For a long time, I was not convinced because no one could name another one. Several Lety Czechs had “heard” of other camps, and of some Lety guards with Gypsy experience being transferred to the “other” camps. But no one could remember a name, or a place.
By this time, I had read Prof. Necas’s writings on Lety. He never mentioned another Gypsy camp (except for Hodonin in Moravia) but I felt if anyone knew the truth he should, so I paid him a visit at the University of Brno.
Necas was a gracious man. He received me without an appointment but was not too interested in talking about Gypsy camps in the Czech lands. His research was mainly about Auschwitz. His interest in Lety and Hodonin in Moravia was only to interview survivors who had also been in Auschwitz. Auschwitz was his main historical interest.
Necas assured me he had already seen all the archive records in Trebon in the 1970s and there was no mention of any other Gypsy camp during WWII in the Czech lands except Hodonin in Moravia.
At the time I was sure he was right. After all, he was a “professional” historian, a university professor of history, and was considered an expert on that era of Czech history. But one thing puzzled me.
In my research of the New York Times newspaper archive for pre-war stories about Gypsies in Czechoslovakia I had come across an article stating that in 1939 Czech anthropologists estimated there were about 80,000 Gypsies living at that time in Slovakia and another 35,000 in Bohemia and Moravia. I asked Necas if those numbers were more or less correct.
That was the first time I saw Necas get a bit nervous. He hesitated. He suddenly didn’t seem so accommodating. He nodded, and then shook his head. He said the figure was probably correct for Slovakia. But he questioned the figure for Bohemia and Moravia. He said that according to a government institute in Prague that kept accurate records on concentration camp Gypsies returning to the Czechoslovakia after WWII there were only about 300 Roma and Sinti survivors for all the Czech lands. He couldn’t possibly imagine that 34,700 had been liquidated. Only a few thousand had passed through Lety and Hodonin. And since there were no other camps, that figure had to be wrong. He thought it was more likely that there had been a typo in the article and that the population of Roma and Sinti in the Czech lands before WWII was probably around 3,500.
I went back to Lety and continued my interviews, convinced that Necas was right and the Lety villagers were wrong about “other Gypsy camps.” But the claims still persisted as if the citizens of Lety were determined to convince me that I should not concentrate my investigation just on their village. They did not want to be known as the only village in Bohemia that had a WWII Gypsy camp.
Finally, the mayor of Lety sent me to a local family whose aunt had married a Lety guard who was later transferred to another Gypsy camp. Here was actual proof, I was told, that there were other camps besides Lety.
I was impressed by the family photos of the Lety guard and his local bride. But in the end, this family could not remember the name of the “other” Gypsy camp. They only remembered it was in eastern Bohemia.
In January 1995 I finally got permission to see the Trebon Archive
records on the Lety camp. There were more than 40,000 pages in 31 cartons of documents, plus 16 camp books with various accounts and details.
I was so excited to see these documents that I forgot about the rumors of “other Gypsy camps”… until I was going through carton number 14 which contained 295 pages of Correspondence & Camp Liquidation (1942-1943).
At the bottom of that green cardboard carton I found a folder titled Railroad Wagon Receipts. The first document in this file was a letter from Prague, ordering Janovsky, the Lety Camp director, to distribute his inventory to the “other Gypsy camps” when Lety was closed in June 1943. The rest of the letters in the file were from Janovsky to each camp, informing them that he was shipping by rail from Mirovice supplies for their "Gypsy camp."
From July 5th until September 15th, the Lety camp truck delivered goods to the railroad station in Mirovice. Ten pages of railroad wagon receipts showed that goods were sent to the following places: Hradischko by Benesov, Hodonin in Moravia, Plan, Gross-Kunzendorf, Swatoborschitz in Moravia, Rusin, Odevzdano, Miroschan, Tscheitsch in Moravia, and Mahrish Ostrava.
Everything on hand was sent to these camps from summer shorts and summer shirts to rubber boots, wagons, rifles, pistols, and kitchen equipment. Along with the goods, several Lety guards were also transferred because of their experience in handling Gypsies. To Criminal Police Headquarters in Prague, Janovsky sent the camp's Singer sewing machine.
Although I was elated at finding the other Gypsy camps, I still couldn’t imagine how 34,700 Gypsies could have been accommodated in only eleven camps run only by the Czechs.
If Lety had been the biggest camp with supposedly less than 2,000 prisoners, where were the rest sent? The records of Gypsies received in Auschwitz were pretty exact. Only a few hundred from the Czech lands. So where were the Czech Roma and Sinti during the war and what had happened to them?
That question may never be answered, but I got a good clue when I interviewed Dr. Stuchlik. From previous research in Prague I had come across court documents and testimony from Czech guards serving at Lety that Dr. Stuchlik had been in charge of all the work camps in the Protectorate.
I had hired Markus Pape, a young free-lance German journalist who had interviewed me about my Lety research to work for me after I was banned from the Czech archives. I paid Markus to go to the Prague archives to carry on with my research, using the excuse that he wanted to disprove Polansky’s accusations as reported in the Prague newspapers that during WII Lety was a death camp for Gypsies, run only by Czechs.
The director of the Prague archive gleefully accepted the excuse and provided Markus with thousands of documents. Overlooked by the director were also documents showing that Prince Karel Schwarzenberg of Orlik had been paid by Department 5 of the Czech Ministry of the Interior to provide the building materials for the Lety camp.
In the Prague archive Markus found more documents showing that Dr. Stuchlik was indeed in charge of all the work camps.
On the off chance that Stuchlik might still be alive we looked up his name in the Czech telephone directory. Unbelievably (at least for me), Stuchlik was listed. Markus called and got us an appointment to see him.
Although Stuchlik was 92 years old at the time (1996), he looked in good health and still had a sharp mind. He said he could remember the names of all his colleagues before and during WWII. He swore he wasn’t personally involved in the Lety camp, although many Czech guards at Lety testified at a court hearing in 1947 that Dr. Stuchlik visited Lety and gave the orders on how the camp should be run.
During our interview, Dr. Stuchlik said he only made the files on each camp and later handed them over so they could be translated into German. How many camps in the Protectorate did he make files on? He said many, but couldn’t remember the exact number.
The camps were actually authorized by law by the Czech parliament before the Germans marched in and occupied the country. The camps were called labor-discipline camps and were meant to teach gadabouts how to work and to get vagabonds (esp. Gypsies) off the streets. The camps were run by Department 5 of the Czech Ministry of the Interior.
In reality, the camps were mainly used to supply large landowners like the Schwarzenbergs of Orlik with slave labor. Many noble families solicited camps to be built near their estates. The noble Schwarzenbergs of Orlik used two of these camps next to their forests: Lety for Gypsy slave labor, and Cerhonice for Jewish slave labor (after WWII the Schwarzenbergs used Sudetendeutsch slave labor from the Cerhonice camp until their estates were confiscated by the Communist government).
We also interviewed the widow of Dr. Kuchar who later became head of Department 5. She claimed the Germans never got involved in the administration of these camps. According to her, the Germans didn’t even know where most of the camps were.
She said the camps were not only for Gypsies. She personally knew of one camp for prostitutes. She claimed her husband used the camps to get valid IDs for the Czech resistance. In other word, the prisoners would never be seen again.
In the Czech archives in Prague, we found the following document regarding a conference about running these camps. No Germans attended this conference. No Germans were present nor quoted at this meeting. The original document is in the Czech language. We found no copies in German.
Although Rudolf Seidl the chief of the conference had a German surname, he was Czech and had recruited Vaclav Stuchlik from the Czech army to oversee the camps.
This is a translation of that document, which shows how the Czechs felt about their “prisoners.”
CZECH CONFERENCE ON THE LABOR-DISCIPLINE CAMPS
3rd Department of State Archive in Prague FILE: GKNP II 1622-Lety 1939-40
Protocol of conference held on 10 January 1941.
Chief of the conference: the head of Department 5, the government advisor Mr. Rudolf Seidl.
Present: Minister-General Josef Jezek (Minister of the Interior) Jan Svoboda, representing the Prague County Office. Commissioner Frantisek Kuchar, Chief of Department 22, in charge of labor-discipline camps Prague. Mr. Kaderavak, head of Department I/7, representing the Brno County Office. Secretary Mr. Prohazka, in charge of labor-discipline camps Brno. Josef Janovsky, director of the 1st labor-discipline camp (Lety), with his deputy Brabec. Mr. Blahynka, director of the 2nd labor-discipline camp (Hodonin), with his deputy Lichenik. Mr. Rudolf Seidl, representing the Ministry of the Interior and head of Department 5 and Mr. Vaclav Stuchlik, in charge of Department 5 labor discipline camps.
Minutes of the meeting: Svoboda: Mr. Minister, gentleman, the labor discipline camps have been working already for five months. We began without any experience since the former military work gangs and forced labor institutions are different and we could use their system only with caution. Four months (sic) is too short in order to say that we have archived the final degree of development. But during this time we have gotten so many experiences that the conference today is absolutely legitimate. The issue of the conference is that we will exchange experiences to evaluate further approaches that will make us aware again of the tasks of the labor discipline camps and of the problems we have to solve. The Minister of the Interior gives a very extraordinary attention to all issues regarding the labor discipline camps; he inspected one of the camps and decided to look at the importance of the issue, to give some fundamental orders to the people in charge of these camps.
These are our four main subjects: 1- question of compensation for the personnel when they had two households (when guards have a house at camp and one at home); 2- housing for the guards and their families; and school for the children of the guards; 3- request of Mr. Janovsky to solve the question of the ranks for the guards; the policemen are wearing uniforms but their ranks are civilian, so there should be a special title for them; 4- Director Janovsky applies for the rank of hard working personnel for the camp (like miners have) so that by this rank they will receive more money.
Minister Jezek: Gentlemen, I have to tell you in advance about the prisoners who come to these labor discipline camps. When I studied in detail the lists I saw that these people are so perverse, such horrible examples of the human race, that any idea of education or pre-education for them is nonsense. If we take another point of view in this question we will absolutely change things. I think there is not one man who can be saved. In other words, when somebody goes through these kinds of institutions before (hard labor prisons) and he did not become a useful citizen so he will never become one. These people are the tumors and cancer of the human community. They should be kept in prison and detained until death. They cannot be any kind of contribution for the human race. And they will never be. They will always be a danger. I don’t think a physical danger but a moral stigma for the human race. Which method should be considered today if there is any kind of repair possible? After a long and careful study, I came to the opinion that there is only one thing good for these people---it is fear. A labor discipline camp must be something for this man that the realization that he might have to go there again must take his breath away. Being a criminologist, I have to say that it is impossible that we will make something out of these people by educating them. This is a mistake and about this gentlemen we have to speak. I'm coming to the conclusion that here we have to go on a draconian way, that referring to the physical power or strength, the work (in our camps) must be so hard that this man will watch out not to fall down once more so that he will never come here (to this camp) again. All the other things that are done apart from the educational part must be taken aside. No volleyball, no soccer. These institutions need not become privileged prisons; this prisoner has to breath and blink according to the rules.
Janovsky: The words that you expressed sound hard, but they are true. No government order can solve the question from this aspect that you spoke about, that these people are outcasts of the human society; they are people that divert from work. The people need hard work and again hard work. We must not allow them any kind of rights. Some came to me and pointed out the rules to me and immediately I punished them. And when they said it in a rude way I punished them in a rude way. Janovsky repeats what the minister says: We have people with eighteen years hard labor, and we also have people who have never been sentenced. One-sixth of the people have never been sentenced.
Minister Jezek: All depends only on the personnel, the staff. The guards must be rude, they must not be influenced by feelings. They must be special people that are capable of managing it with their minds; they must not step back, they must be iron men that don’t speak to the prisoners. Tthis man must not speak. There must be select guards and they must not consider this as a punishment that they are in the camp. They must recognize, they must be aware, that they received a totally special task and that this task must be awarded. Because of this it is very important that you must not be stingy in building the housing of the guards. We must care for them and there has to be money for that. We have to care for their housing, for their families and for their food. You will have a special collection of prisoners. When this prisoner sees the whip that is hanging above him, then I will not be afraid that there will be order. And though this man must have the feeling that this is just, everything depends that there will be no difference between the first prisoner and the 101st prisoner. The physical work must exhaust all the power up to the border before it will damage his health, but up to this limit of his power. When he comes back in the evening from his work, this machine must be empty. All energies must be dissipated. (the rest of the report is missing)
So why should people be surprised today at how the Czechs are treating their Roma and Sinti. Has anything really changed in the Czech mentality since WWII regarding “Gypsies”?
Before the Czech government sold the Lety state cooperative pig farm to a private company in 1995 in order to wash its hands of the scandal I had created, I warned Bonas (the company negotiating for the pig farm) that they were buying a Holocaust site. They replied that their lawyer had advised them that a Holocaust site was a good investment; that sooner or later the Czech government to abide by the Helsinki Agreements would have to pay whatever Bonas wanted to get the site back.
Today the Czech government could legally confiscate the site without having to pay any compensation since Bonus knew what they were buying. And records in the Ministry of Agriculture show they got the pig farm for almost nothing. So why does every Czech government continue to procrastinate over removing the Lety pig farm from a Holocaust site?
And why has Prince Karel Schwarzenberg never apologized to the Romani and Jewish communities in the Czech Republic for his father using Gypsy and Jewish slave labor on their estates before forced administration arrived?
Doesn’t anybody see the present day political cover-up?
- Czech Agency for Social Inclusion accuses paper of anti-Romani campaign
- Help Romea.cz win support from Vodafone
- Czech Republic and "gypsies" - 1938 vs. 2012
- Czech Republic: Equal Opportunities Party to protest local-level anti-Romani moves
- Czech mayor: Romani people face lynching unless rape suspect taken into custody
- Czech municipality gets tough on Ostrava ghetto residents again
- Czech Republic: Proud Romani students in IT, medicine, and natural sciences
- Prosecutor: Czechs started last year's brawl with Romani people in Rumburk
- Roma Pride 2012 marches through the center of Prague
- Czech Republic: 70 ultra-rightists march on Romani neighborhood
- Czech Republic: Project commemorates postwar Romani labor
- European experts compare experiences working in socially excluded localities