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Terezín Initiative in Czech Republic does not want Romani names included in Shoah commemoration, director of its Institute disagrees

3.4.2021 18:52
The Yom Hashoah event, held throughout the Czech Republic, has involved people publicly reading the names of the Jewish and Romani victims of the Nazi concentration camps since 2010. (PHOTO: Romea.cz)
The Yom Hashoah event, held throughout the Czech Republic, has involved people publicly reading the names of the Jewish and Romani victims of the Nazi concentration camps since 2010. (PHOTO: Romea.cz)

The board of directors of the Institute of the Terezín Initiative (ITI) in the Czech Republic has decided that this year's commemorative reading of the names of the dead on Yom Hashoah will not include the names of the Romani victims of racial persecution in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. However, the director of the ITI, Tereza Štěpková, disagrees with that decision and says the event, which falls on 8 April this year, will go ahead as planned and will read Holocaust victims' names from the Romani community.

The Terezín Initiative is an association of former Czech Jewish inmates of the Nazi ghettos at Terezín (Theresienstadt) and Łódź, as well as their descendants. It has established the Institute of the Terezín Initiative, which has its own board of directors and supervisory board.

Public reading of the names of Holocaust victims on Yom Hashoah

This event is a marathon reading of the names of the children, men and women who were labeled by the Nazis as racially inferior and unjustly persecuted on that basis, and whose lives were destroyed in the gas chambers of the Nazi extermination camps. Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day, in Hebrew "Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-laG'vurah", is the day when, through memorial services, Holocaust victims' memories are commemorated

The date of this remembrance day is the day when the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was launched in 1943 (14 Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, 19 April 1943 in the Gregorian calendar), and because that day usually falls before the Jewish holiday of Passover, the official date for Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-laG'vurah has been established by Israel as 27 Nisan in the Hebrew calendar. This year that date on the Hebrew calendar happens to fall on 8 April, which is International Romani Day.

The reading of the names in the Czech Republic has been held since 2006, and after 2010 the names of Romani victims of this racial persecution began to be read alongside the names of those murdered because of their Jewish origin. The lists of Romani names came from background materials archived with the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno and currently are being updated on the basis of a research project to create a database of Holocaust victims of Romani origin.

"The presidency of the Terezín Initiative has been holding a discussion for several years with its Institute of the Terezín Initiative as to whether what was originally the Israeli tradition of a commemorative ceremony for the deceased Jewish victims should not be returned to its original format in terms of content. That would mean holding this ceremony without the names of Romani victims, who were added to the program years ago as a gesture of aid toward initiatives that were Romani and who back then did not have their own platforms for commemorating the genocide of the Roma," Pavel Štingl, the chair of the board of directors of the ITI, said in the March 2021 issue of its journal.

"The board of directors of the Institute, as a result of this long discussion, arrived at the conclusion that the Institute of the Terezín Initiative will support, as a partner, the activity of the associations that are Romani and that have been participating in Yom Hashoah by organizing a public reading of the names of the Romani victims on another day of significance associated with the genocide of the Roma - i.e., on 2 August. In Prague such a tradition has been introduced. For that reason, Jewish names will be read this year on Yom Hashoah, and in August the Romani names will be read," Štingl asserted.

The decision was voted on by the board of directors of the ITI - four members were in favour, one person was against and one abstained. According to information obtained by news server Romea.cz, the vote against was cast by the author and publisher Jiří Padevět, who is said to have then resigned his membership.

News server Romea.cz has contacted all of the members of the Institute's board of directors to ask whether they could provide more of an explanation for this decision. None of them has responded yet.

Director of the ITI: I will not accept the board of directors' decision, I reject it

Director of the ITI Tereza Štěpková resolutely disagrees with the board of directors' decision. "The decision of the board of directors of the Institute of the Terezín Initiative, adopted in the form of a motion accepted during the 16 February extraordinary session of the board of directors about the event of the Public Reading of Holocaust Victims' Names - Yom Hashoah 2021, is one I will not accept and that I reject as the director and statutory representative," she told Romea.cz.

"The event will be held as planned and will conserve the decade-long tradition of reading the names of Jewish and Romani victims together," Štěpková said. The director of the Museum of Romani Culture, Jana Horváthová, said she is also disappointed by the decision of the ITI board of directors.

"This is really nonsense, I am not at all able to comprehend what led to this decision. The reasons given are, in my opinion, just a pretext. Reading the names of the victims of racial persecution together is, after all, a symbolic matter, which means it is a terribly delicate one, and this 'gesture' is a display of narrow-mindedness, intolerance, and overall I perceive it unequivocally to be a negative signal," Horváthová told Romea.cz, recalling the words of Pavel Fried, who was the president of Brno's Jewish Community for many years and who promoted the fact that, just like the Jews, Romani and Sinti people had also suffered during the Second World War.

Štěpková perceives the situation similarly. "The claim that, after 10 years, we should divide up this commemoration of the innocent people who were persecuted by the Nazis in such an unprecedented way on the basis of the labels that were ascribed to them as Jews or 'gypsies' is uancceptable to me, and contravenes the mission and purpose of our organization as well as its documentation, educational and research activity. I thank the many people from the Jewish community, the majority society and the Romani community who have long supported this position," she told Romea.cz.

Disagree? You'll be dismissed

Klára Kalibová, a former member of the supervisory board of the ITI, is also criticizing its board of directors today. "The decision by the board of directors of the Institute of the Terezín Initiative is one I consider cheap, incorrect and racist," she told news server Romea.cz.

"To exclude some victims of the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis from commemoration in a public space is also in direct contravention of how the commemoration of Shoah victims was approached, for example, by the previous president, the late Dagmar Lieblová, who repeatedly said it was not possible to differentiate between the Jewish and Romani victims and it is not possible to privilege one group over the other," Kalibová said, who added that she was dismissed from the supervisory board for her position on this issue. A similar fate awaited other members of the ITI board of directors.

"A meeting of the board of directors was scheduled and right before it was to be held, we received e-mails telling us that the Terezín Initiative, i.e., the founder of the Institute of the Terezín Initiative, was dismissing us," a former board member of the Institute, Adéla Hořejší, told news server Romea.cz. "No official reason why we were dismissed was ever given to us. However, it was clear that it was because of our stance on the reading of the names of Romani victims as part of Yom Hashoah," Hořejší said, explaining that this is about a much longer-lasting conflict between the liberal approach that had previously been advocated by the Institute of theTerezín Initiative and the closed, conservative attitude advocated by other Jewish organizations.

According to Hořejší, the argument over this issue with the Institute began after the death of Lieblová, who was replaced as president of the Terezín Initiative by Michal Stránský. "The aim of Dagmar Lieblová, an Auschwitz survivor, was to promote tolerance in society, to act against hateful violence, and to commemorate all of the victims. When Michal Stránský, who is second-generation, assumed the leadership, he began to advocate for all but racist tendencies. He justifies his attitude to the outside world by saying that Jews should dedicate themselves to the Jewish victims and the Roma to their victims," described Hořejší, adding that attempts not to include Holocaust victims who were not Jewish is advocated by Stránský in other activities of the ITI, which Hořejší believes directly contravenes its basic ideas and purpose.

The removal of Hořejší and Kalibová from the Institute's boards happened after the presidency of the Terezín Initiative first issued a declaration in October 2019 that it does not want Romani names read as part of Yom Hashoah. The minutes from a meeting of the presidency held on 8 October 2019 were quoted in its journal in September 2020: "A wide-ranging discussion developed around that point at the meeting of the presidency, from which it clearly followed that everybody present at the meeting (eight board members - three were excused and did not attend) do not consider it appropriate for non-Jewish names to be read on Yom Hashoah. It is not possible to associate that occasion with the suffering of the Roma, homosexuals, Polish resistance fighters and other victims of German nationalism. Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-laG'vurah, as can be seen from the name, is exclusively about Jewish victims."

The Institute's board of directors at the time objected to that position and disagreed with it. They were then dismissed.

THE CONCEPT OF THE HOLOCAUST

The word “holocaust” comes from ancient Greek: “ὁλόκαυστος - holókaustos” and its meaning in the original can be translated into Czech as "entirely burned" (celopal). This was a certain kind of sacrifice to God in which an animal was burned in its entirety, instead of just partially; the meaning of the word has changed over time.

During the Second World War and in its immediate aftermath the concept of "the Holocaust" became related to a concrete situation and to a specific group - the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Frequently this term is used to refer to all Nazi murders, and according to the Duden dictionary of standard German in the Federal Republic of Germany today, there does persist in the German language a second, more general meaning for "holocaust", the "massive destruction of human lives". (Source: www.holocaust.cz)

The term "Holocaust" should be used just in association with ethnic Jewish victims

In that same journal, the stance of the presidency of the Terezín Initiative is published claiming that the term "Holocaust" should just be used in association with ethnic Jewish victims. "Who else but the Terezín Initiative and its Institute should draw this distinction and not use the concept of the Holocaust where it is not appropriate. The term 'Holocaust' exists in association with ethnic Jews alone, it is necessary to use a different term for other ethnicities," reads the Terezín Initiative presidency's position adopted on 15 January 2019, indirectly confirming the claims of Hořejší that this is an attempt to narrow the Institute's activity to focus just on Jewish victims.

Dikhas: Publicly reading the names of Holocaust victims of Romani origin is not part of Romani tradition

A loose association of Romani people called Dikhas, represented by František Lacko and Libuše Martínková, has previously expressed the opinion that reading the names of Romani victims of the Holocaust during the commemorative reading on Yom Hashoah is not appropriate. In October 2020, they issued a declaration alleging that Romani people have felt embarrassed and sometimes also reluctant about the public reading of the names of Holocaust victims of Romani origin at some of the commemorative gatherings organization by the Institute.

"As members of the Dikhas group, we regularly hold discussions with Romani people about what their idea is of how to honor the memory of the Holocaust victims who are Romani in a dignified way. We cannot speak for all Roma and we do not want to, because there is not perfect agreement among them on this issue," Dikhas wrote in an explanation of their position sent to news server Romea.cz.

"From the dialogue among the Roma, however, it seems that what they consider dignified is flying the Romani flag at commemorative events, showing respect by holding a minute of silence, and also floral offerings, especially on Roma Holocaust Memorial Day, commemorated on 2 August. They also would like the mainstream media and public officials to pay these events the attention they deserve," Lacko and Martínková wrote.

"What has sparked feelings of embarrassment, and sometimes also reluctance, among the Roma is the public reading of the names of Holocaust victims who are Romani at some of the commemorative gatherings that have been organized by the Institute of the Terezín Initiative. Whether it is on Yom Hashoah day in April or in August on Roma Holocaust Memorial Day, reading the names of the dead in a public place is not part of Romani culture or tradition. The words 'Let our dead sleep' are unambiguously eloquent - Romani people perceive the public reading of names to be disrespectful and undignified, although they comprehend this is an attempt to symbolically commemorate the names of the victims. Romani people do not want to forget about their forebears who perished in the Nazi camps, just as the Jewish people do not, but their way of remembrance is culturally different, in short," the statement says.

Petra Gelbart: I have never heard from any Romani survivor that reading those names would be disrespectful

The Dikhas statement was rejected by some Jewish and  some Romani figures at the close of 2020. "I see no reason why the Romani and the Jewish Holocaust should be divided. My great-grandfather, who culturally was unequivocally a Romani man and sent to a concentration camp as a Romani man, was genetically half-Jewish. He was not the only such person. In any event, I have never heard from any Romani survivor or their descendants that the reading of names would be disrespectful. I do not comprehend that allegation at all," wrote Petra Gelbart, a curator of the music section of the RomArchive project.

"I would just like to say that if we have anything in common with the Jews, it's the Holocaust. Irrespective of what [Czech MP] Okamura or [Czech President] Zeman say. If there were not events like this one, the public would never learn how much the Holocaust affected us Roma too," said journalist Patrik Banga.

"I have never been insulted by the reading of the names of Holocaust victims and thanks go to the Insitute of the Terezín Initiative for constantly reminding the next generation that together we were subjected to the greatest crime in modern human history. If somebody wants the names to be read separately, that smells of racism. I love Jewish people. I have been meeting them all my live, we always get along on a human level. The main reason for that is that we have (among other things) this common, genetic memory of that Nazi atrocity," Banga said.

Support for the common reading of the names of the Jewish and Romani victims has been expresssed by figures in the Czech Republic such as Jan Cverčko, Věra Roubalová Kostlánová, Věra Baumová, Marta Jodasová, Jana Kosáková, Zoja Franklová and Lukáš Houdek. The Ghetto Fighters' House Museum in Israel, the institution where the Yom Hashoah tradition began, has also said that it considers the common commemoration of Jewish and Romani victims to be important.

Ahead of this year's reading of names on Yom Hashoah, Laco published a petition on 14 March called "We Ask for an End to the Reading of the Names of the Roma Murdered in the Concentration Camps at the Jewish Commemorative Events on Yom Hashoah on International Romani Day 8 April 2021." The petition has been signed by 37 people, including by Karel Karika, a successful regional politician.

When news server Romea.cz asked Karika why he had signed the petition, he answered as follows: "I have nothing against the common reading of Jewish and Romani names, I actively participate in it. I also attend the 2 August commemorations of the Holocaust and its Romani victims at Terezín. I regret that this year the reading is happening on 8 April, when the Roma celebrate International Romani Day, but I did not know that the date [of Yom Hashoah] is not fixed and that it's a coincidence this year."

The idea to include the names of Romani victims during the commemorative reading of the names of the dead on Yom Hashoah came about in 2010 as the result of the then co-organizers of that event, the Czech Union of Jewish Youth and the Foundation for Holocaust Victims, with representatives of the Romani community. The ITI is not the only Czech organization publicly reading the names of Holocaust victims who are Romani - since 2019 the ARA ART organization has regularly convened a reading of the names on 2 August as part of an event called "Leperiben".

ryz, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Institut terezínské iniciativy, pietní akt, Romani people, Terezín



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