Gwendolyn Albert: Pigs to stay on Roma Holocaust site, Czech Govt won’t invest in human dignity
The potential significance of Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka attending
the traditional commemoration ceremony organized by the surviving relatives of
the victims of the WWII-era concentration camp for Romani people at Lety has
been completely undercut by the embarrassing remarks he has made on this
occasion. The PM is not aware of it, but he has unwittingly continued an
unofficial tradition at Lety, that of engaging in seemingly unconscious
disparagement on what is otherwise supposed to be a solemn occasion. This
unofficial tradition began with the very unveiling of the monument at Lety in
1995, when the sound engineer, for reasons known only to himself, blasted a
kitschy pop song from the sound system as the mourners, including President
Havel, left the site.
Sobotka’s remarks on 10 May 2014 are instructive, as they reveal the parameters of the thought process that has turned what is an issue of human dignity into a strange piece of annual ritual theater during which state representatives pretend to pay their respects to a people whom they do not, in fact, feel any respect for at all.
For those who have never been to Lety, this is the issue: Part of what was once the site of a concentration camp where people died horrible deaths has now been used by an industrial pig farm for more than 40 years. When one visits the memorial to the people who died there, one can smell pig feces, and they do not smell good. One does not have to have any personal connection to the people who died there, any understanding of Central Europe, of Romani people, or anything else “complicated” or “specific” to find this a wholly undignified arrangement. Imagine that smell in any place that is sacred to you and you will understand why the farm must go.
Of everything he could have said on this occasion, the PM used the commemorative ceremony to make an argument for leaving that smell in the air. His argument was that the money used to move the farm would be better “spent on Romani people” in other ways. This argument has been repeated for 15 years, and now, as before, it reveals that Czech officials still do not understand what human dignity is about.
The argument that many people have made, are making, and will continue to make in favor of removing that smell from the air, is not an argument that “money should be spent on Roma”. The Czech Republic must remove that smell from the air, and the farm from the site, because to do so is an investment in its own future as a democratic state that actively educates everyone in Czech society (and everyone who comes to visit) about the crimes of its past and its vision of its future.
Czech history is full of examples of the state investing its money without
hesitation into violations of human dignity, only to claim later on that redress
for those violations is too expensive. This sends the message to every member of
Czech society that redress is not worth pursuing and that justice will never
prevail. How can a democracy worthy of the name be run from such a frame of mind?
"I don't have a good feeling that the discussion around Lety is reduced to the question of there being a pig farm nearby,” Prime Minister Sobotka shamelessly said today in the presence of people whose very loved ones died at that site. “I think we should talk about more essential matters, such as, for example, the latent racism that is still present in Czech society and that surfaces here from time to time.”
In these two sentences, the PM has done his best to attempt to paint a demand for restoration of human dignity as a petty, tangential dispute, one that has also somehow mysteriously silenced discussion of “latent racism” in Czech society. He was very wrong to make this statement.
What is needed is not discussion, but action. Czech society will move away from racism when its actions show that it takes human dignity, justice, and the value of redress seriously – in other words, when it does everything it can for those values, no matter the cost. That is what it has always taken, and that is what it always will take, to save human dignity from human violence. That is an investment that is always worth making.
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- Czech ceremony commemorating Romani prisoners sent to Auschwitz on 20 August attended by more than 150 people
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- Here is the winning design for the new memorial to Holocaust victims of Roma and Sinti origin at the former concentration camp in Lety u Písku, Czech Republic
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