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May 23, 2022



Václav Havel's 1995 speech at the unveiling of the Lety memorial

22.5.2015 11:26
Václav Havel (PHOTO:  Jiří Jiroutek, Wikimedia Commons)
Václav Havel (PHOTO: Jiří Jiroutek, Wikimedia Commons)

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the unveiling of the modest memorial to the victims of the so-called "Gypsy camp" at Lety by Písek by Czech President Václav Havel. News server publishes the speech he made on that occasion in full translation here.

Speech by the President of the Republic, Václav Havel, on the occasion of the opening of the memorial to Roma at the site of the former Gypsy internment camp and on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe

Lety by Písek, 13 May 1995

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It has already been a half a century since the end of the war. To this day, however, we are transfixed by the tragedy of the victims of genocide, by the memory of the millions of defenseless people who were murdered simply because they were labeled racially deficient, as members of an inferior race.  

Until now we have primarily connected the Holocaust with the tragedy of the Jews, so the suffering of the Roma, even though we have been repeatedly reminded of it, seems to have disappeared from the general memory. As many as 20 000 European Roma perished in Auschwitz alone. Of the almost 6 000 Romani people from Bohemia and Moravia, less than 1 000 survived. Roma, too, were victims of the Holocaust.

The Gypsy internment camp at Lety was near this burial place on which we now are standing. Over the course of nine months, from the end of 1942 to the start of 1943, more than 200 prisoners - particularly children, but also men and women - died. They perished because of terrible housing and hygienic conditions, lack of food, hard labor, and primarily as the result of an epidemic of typhus.  

The Gypsy internment camp was established at the order of German Nazi officials. However, Czech police administered the camp and guarded the prisoners, and Czechs living in the neighborhood of the camp exploited the cheap labor force of the Gypsy prisoners. Very few of those Czechs found enough compassion and courage to ameliorate the tragic destiny of those prisoners. However, there were also Czech doctors who treated the prisoners and other Czechs who risked their lives to help Gypsy families avoid deportation, or who adopted Gypsy children to rescue them.    

The memorial here is a fragmented sphere, which is supposed to be a symbol of perfection and wholeness. Each missing piece disrupts the harmony of its form. Similar laws apply to human society:  If a part of the whole is missing, the whole itself is disrupted. There is no civil society, there is no civil state, if all of the pieces are not conceived of as belonging to that whole.

Here we evidently are at the root of the problem. The Roma were not considered an integral part of Czech society, they were perceived as a different, foreign society of their own. This difference led to contempt, distrust, and rejection, the victims of which also included those Gypsy families who had already adapted to the local conventions of life, to the way of life of the majority.

The Roma of Bohemia and Moravia - or at least some of them - made their living honestly, were settled among their fellow citizens, and proceeded, together with many Czechs, to coexist in a satisfactory way. That journey, however, tragically ended with the genocide of the entire population of Roma, including children, in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is our responsibility to admit to the victims and to ourselves that the Czechs bore a certain share of responsibility for preparing their fates and for these horrors.

What happened later, during communism? Maniuplation, organized resettlements, disruption of ancestral ties, and the Roma were, under the pretext of state care, stripped of responsibility for their own fate. This unfortunate legacy has yet to be overcome in the minds of both components of our society, the Czech majority and the Roman minority, to this day.  

We are, once again, at the beginning of a journey.

Let's learn to listen to Romani people, to understand them, let's abandon the conviction that we, as the majority in this society, set the standard for all values and that our way of life and the values that we profess are the norm for everyone. The coexistence of all the nationalities in one state naturally is conditioned by their mutual adaptation to the generally applicable civic norms. However, that in no way prevents the further development of the cultural and linguistic heritage of a minority that enriches all of society. The quality of our relationship toward ethnic minorities, i.e., toward those whom we feel are different, is the measure of the quality of our civic awareness.  

The Nazi totalitarian system almost completely massacred the Roma. The communist totalitarian regime made sure the memory of those Romani victims was forgotten:  Instead of the tragedy at Lety being commemorated, the site was covered over by a pig farm. The memory of the Romani victims, however, did not die out - a cross was left here, which has since succumbed to the ravages of time, and the graves remain, and of course the memory remains among those who know the tragedy of the Roma must not be forgotten.

Do we know this history? Do we need to know it, do we want to? Knowledge of one's own history is a component of the identity of each society. This is not about a separate history of the Roma. This is the history of all the occupants of this territory, our shared history. It must be identified, understood, and then never forgotten.  

The fate of the victims of the Holocaust remains a permanent warning to us. I have spoken more than once about the fact that if we do not face up to racist evil at the moment of its apparently initial, innocent appearance, it will grow into a phenomenon that is truly dangerous, serious, and a threat to all of society. If we do not face up to it right away, we risk not being able to face it later on, or only being able to face it at the cost of more human lives.

It would be very reckless to rely on the notion that the spirit of intolerance, national hatred and racism no longer exist. Even today we can sometimes hear people calling for sending the "Gypsies to the gas chambers". Even today we can observe the indifference to these displays, the quiet support for those who shout them, the cowardly spectators, the renewal of divisions among people according to their ethnic origin. All of this must be faced up to again and again, because it is the time-tested rear guard of racism.  

We know the horrors that racism produces. Let's not allow them to be repeated!

Today we are paying our long-overdue debt. This memorial, in the form of a broken, incomplete shape, will remain a memento and an expression of our respect for the Romani victims of the Holocaust, who shared our fate during the worst time in history. The Nazi assault on the Roma was an attack against human beings, against humanity, against the right of every person to live. To forget either the camp at Lety or the similar camp at Hodonín would mean not just forgetting this criminal assault, but forgetting the values against which it was perpetrated.  

Thank you for your attention.

Source of Czech original:

Václav Havel, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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