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Renata Berkyová: Who were the guards at Lety by Písek?

7.11.2016 8:58
This photograph shows a group of children imprisoned at the concentration camp of Lety by Písek, where they died primarily of cold and hunger. (PHOTO:  Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic/Akademie věd ČR)
This photograph shows a group of children imprisoned at the concentration camp of Lety by Písek, where they died primarily of cold and hunger. (PHOTO: Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic/Akademie věd ČR)

Even though more than half a century has passed since the camp at Lety by Písek came into existence, to this day that place and especially its story continues to spark tempestuous emotions. For some, the Romani Holocaust is one of the most tragic episodes in the life of the Czech Roma, while for others this controversial topic seems, at a minimum, one that it is appropriate to cast doubt on or to exploit as a way to score votes.

An integral component of the camp was its guard personnel. Who were the men who supervised order there?

Where did they come from, what did their duties consist of? This article attempts to answer such questions and to clarify what actually happened at Lety.

Creation of the camp

The official date of the camp's creation, or rather, the beginning of its functioning as what originally was a labor camp at Lety by Písek, is listed as 8 August 1940. The basis of the camp, however, was established long before then, prior to the existence of the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

One of the most important Government edicts related to these camps was one from 1939 about the disciplinary labor camp system. In that edict, the Government, led by Rudolf Beran, not only laid the groundwork for the Lety camp to exist, but generally defined the criteria for the persons assigned to serve as supervisory authorities there.

The law on these camps was not originally concerned with any particular ethnic group, but had to do with those who, according to general societal criteria, did not live what was considered a "decent" life, people such as beggars, criminals, "vagabonds", and those on the outskirts of society. It was also determined from the very beginning that the choice of whom to assign to these camp would rest with individual Czech state bureaucrats, who would just decide, on the basis of general criteria, who should be deprived of their freedom and relocated to such a guarded facility, without ever standing trial, and without ever being charged with committing misconduct.

The specific steps that led to the creation of the disciplinary labor camps were begun by the individual authorities and ministries once the Interior Ministry issued its decree of 6 May 1940. That decree instructed the provincial authorities in Brno (for Moravia) and Prague (for Bohemia) to establish disciplinary labor camps at Lety by Písek and at Olšovec by Hranice, and each camp was to be assigned one executive officer as its director, one accounting officer as the deputy director and manager, one chief sergeant or warrant accounting officer as the accountant, and 25-30 rank and file service members as supervisory authorities.

In June of that year the Interior Ministry, under the direction of Josef Ježek, approved the creation of the disciplinary labor camp at Lety by Písek. From the begining, it was led by the high official Josef Janovský.

What was essentially rapid action by the ministry to create this camp was related to the difficulties the Protectorate Government was grappling with when it came to solving its "problems" with itinerant "gypsies" - until 1942, from the perspective of the Protectorate authorities, itinerant "gypsies" were considered those defined by Law No. 117/1927 Coll. and related regulations on itinerant "gypsies" as anybody living what was considered a "gypsy" way of life, but "gypsy" was not considered an ethnic origin. The Protectorate Government first began to undertake measures against people who were living itinerantly on this legal basis.

After a series of various edicts aiming at restricting itinerancy, the Interior Ministry instructed its subordinate authorities and bodies to call on all "itinerant gypsies" to settle permanently by the end of January 1940 at the latest and to stop travelling - and if they failed to so so, they would be proposed for assignment to a disciplinary labor camp. The successfulness of these measures frequently depended more on the opportunity for these people to settle somewhere than on their willingness to settle - e.g., whether there would be enough local work opportunities for the population once they settled, or whether a municipality refused to set aside a place for them to settle.

Position of the guard personnel and subsequent erroneous interpretations

The performance of guard duties at the camp, as well as the legal position of the administrative and managerial officials there, was legislated by the 1939 service regulations, according to which all staffers fell under the relevant ministry as individual hires and were managed as permanent additions to the staff serving in the disciplinary labor camps. These people could be released from duty only with the agreement of the Interior Ministry, either at their own request or through some bureaucratic instrument, i.e., for reasons of medical ineligibility, or if the disciplinary labor camp where they were assigned was closed, for example.

The regulations specified in great detail how firearms were to be used at the camps. A supervisor was allowed to fire a weapon only in cases of necessary self-defense, to "respond to a violent attack committed against him, or one that is in immediate danger of being perpetrated, or through which the life of others is threatened", as well as if a dangerous criminal refused to leave a hiding place and there was no other way to resolve the intervention against the criminal, or if the supervisor were unable to prevent the criminal from escaping in any other way.

Lastly, the regulations recommended always using less forceful means, such as firing warning shots or using a truncheon. A very important historical note on the position of the supervisory staff in the disciplinary labor camps is that the employees of the camps at Hodonín and Lety did not belong to the gendarmerie for most of the time that they were assigned there, but were in fact employees of the political administration.

In the literature on these camps, the supervisory staff are frequently erroneously referred to as gendarmes. The assertion that they were gendarmes is refuted by the documentary record - for example, a request made by the Lety camp commander, Janovský.

Immediately at the outset of the operations at Lety, Janovský officially requested the cooperation of the gendarmerie, because "supervisory staff can perform duties in just a limited area around the camp and the workplace, but cannot follow an escaped inmate beyond that area." The misconception that these guards had actually been gendarmes was apparently supported by the surviving prisoners, as well as by authors of subsequent texts about Lety, and eyewitnesses may have been confused by the uniforms worn by the supervisory staff.

Some members of the gendarmerie had been transferred into the employment of the political administration, so the need arose to distinguish between the two kinds of uniform. All the officials, however, were allowed to keep their existing rank, which was worn on their epaulettes - most of them just held the title of office clerk, while in the case of the director, he was chief office clerk and his deputy was a deputy chief.

It was precisely this lack of consistency, whereby the names of the men guarding the camps were sometimes reported using one official title, while their former rank in the gendarmerie was officially worn on their uniforms during their contact with those imprisoned in the camps, that led to the later, erroneous association of the camp staff with members of the gendarmerie. It is necessary, however, to add that a certain role was also played in this by the guards themselves through their intentional lack of discipline - it was exactly such alterations to the service uniforms (primarily, the sabotage of them) that was apparently one way to express resistance to being assigned to duty at a disciplinary labor camp.

Composition of the guard staff

A change to the composition of the supervisory staff did not happen until the critical situation of the autumn and winter of 1942. As a consequence of the "Decree on combating the gypsy nuisance" of 10 July 1042 and its implementation, the number of prisoners at Lety rose to 1 100.

These people, who often were there as entire families (children, the elderly, men, women, youth, etc.) were to be guarded by approximately 20 supervisors. When a decline in the number of those on duty happened after some of the supervisory officials left to work at other correctional facilities and others fell ill, Commander Janovský demanded from the Interior Ministry on 1 October 1942 the assigment as quickly as possible of 20 men, preferably unmarried gendarmes or municipal police officers, as reinforcements for the supervisory staff.

The responsible authorities approved the need to reinforce the staff but were not able to obtain such a large number of eligible employees from among those in the political administration, because "the nature of this service requires that these officials be transferred from the ranks of the uniformed forces (gendarmerie and police)." On 10 November 1942, the Office of the General Commander of the Uniformed Protectorate Police compiled a list of retired gendarmes who might be able to perform guard duty at Lety.

On that basis, the General Commander created a gendarmerie guards section under the leadership of Chief Constable František Fráně, comprised of 26 gendarmes returning from retirement. From these facts, it can be seen that all of the employees of the camp must have served there, to a certain extent, voluntarily and that they were mostly men who were mainly demotivated, older, and sometimes problematic.

The consequences of choosing such staff began to appear immediately after the camp opened, when many supervisors, after being assigned to Lety, did their best to be transferred elsewhere. Unlike the general conditions in the camp, which were legislated by Government edict and the Interior Ministry, the detailed regulations for everyday life at Lety were the so-called "house rules" for the labor camp during its phases as a "collection" and then as a "gypsy" camp.

House rules

The first "house rules" for the Lety camp were created and submitted for approval by Josef Janovský in July 1940 on the basis of applicable legislation and on the house rules for the provincial forced work houses. From the perspective of these supervisors, Section 8 of these rules was important, as it established that "the inmate is, furthermore, obliged to exactly obey the instructions of all other bureaucrats of the institution, the heads of working groups and supervisory officials, as well as the orders of the special forces, both at the accommodations and in the workplace. Resistance, violence, or tumult will be punished mercilessly and can be suppressed using weapons as necessary."

According to testimonies of the former prisoners and some archival documents, "resistance" was apparently considered to include looking directly at a supervisor, or incorrectly greeting a supervisor, which for men was supposed to involve removing one's cap. In the first draft of the "house rules", on the other hand, there is no option to shoot escaping prisoners.

In the briefest period of its transformation, the camp also underwent a change in the stand taken by the authorities towards persons who now were being deported there because it was a "collection" camp. That change happened on the basis of Government Decree No. 89/1942 of 9 March 1942 on the preventive elimination of crime.

Essentially, the group of persons who were to be subjected to internment was expanded - besides groups in the population such as "itinerant gypsies", "vagabonds" or female prostitutes, the group was expanded to include "habitual criminals", "criminals by trade", and, for example, alcoholics. The definition of people who could be imprisoned by either the Brno Police Directorate or the Prague Criminal Police Headquarters, who were responsible for this issue, was so broad and so misleading that state bureaucrats could actually have imprisoned almost anybody they wanted to, although from some of the decrees it can be deduced that these measures were aimed against Romani people.

The most essential and previously unimaginable change in the operation of the Lety facility arrived with the reorganization of the "collection" camp into a "gypsy" one. That was connected with the next phase of the Nazis' efforts to concentrate ethnic Romani people and "resolve" the so-called "gypsy question".

The final preparations for that action took place in June 1942, when the Interior Ministry issued its decree on "introducing" families and individuals into the "gypsy camps". When the General Commander of the Plainclothes Protectorate Polcie added another decree on 19 July 1942 about eliminating the "gypsy nuisance", which ordered Romani and Sinti people to be accumulated in the camps of Hodonín and Lety, the most tragic chapter at each camp began to be written.

Sources:

Klinovský, Petr.: Lety u Písku. Neznámý příběh dozorců

Nečas, Ctibor.: Holocaust českých Romů. Svědectví těch, kteří přežili Lety

Nečas, Ctibor.: Českoslovenští Romové v letech 1938-1945

Nečas, Ctibor.: Andr´oda taboris. Vězňové protektorátních cikánských táborů 1942 – 1943

Pape, Markus.: A nikdo vám nebude věřit

www.lety-memorial.cz

State Archive Praha

State Archive Třeboň

The author is a graduate in Romani Studies from the Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague. She is a poet, prose writer and publicist originally from Slovakia whose literary works have been published in several collections and periodicals. She works at the ROMEA association and is a lecturer in educational seminars.

First published by the HateFree Culture website.

Renata Berkyová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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History, Holocaust, Lety u Písku, Pomník obětem holocaustu, Porrajmos , romský holocaust



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