Commemoration of Roma interned during World War II

07 November 1997

Roma and non-Roma gather regularly in August in Hodonín, southern Moravia, Czech Republic, to commemorate those interned in the Gypsy camp here during the second world war. This year the gathering took place on August 17 and with the support of the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno, a monument by Romani sculptor Eduard Oláh was unveiled. Dr Jana Horváthová, a Romani historian and co-founder of the Museum, made the following speech to those present:

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN,

Allow me, on this Memorial Day, to speak about the events that occurred here fifty-five years ago. Not far from here, on the site of today's leisure complex, a Gypsy camp was opened on August 1, 1942. This camp was to replace the original punitive work camp, later a reception camp for people described as shirking work. Unlike the previous arrangements, however, the Gypsy camp interned not only adult males but also their wives and children, including old and sick people. It is, then, quite clear that the aim was in no way to try and teach people to work, but rather to isolate an offensive group of people as a first step in a continuing process. The establishment of the Gypsy camps was the result of the ordinance of the general chief of the plain-clothed protectorate police and was linked to the realisation of the Decree on the Elimination of Gypsy Disorder (June 10, 1942). Thus the anti-Romani provisions which had already been realised in the Reich came into effect in the Protectorate. Their aim was the liquidation of Roma and Sinti as anthropologically unsuitable groups of inhabitants, confirmed by the removal of Roma not only from our territory, but also from other European countries, to the specially built Gypsy camp in Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The Hodonín camp was designated for Roma and Sinti living in Moravia; for Bohemia an equivalent camp was opened in Lety. The location of the Gypsy camp for Moravian Roma was carefully chosen, close to Hodonín, on the route of the planned highway from Plzeň to Ostrava. The camp prisoners were to share in its construction, and share they did, prisoners of alt ages, young men in full working condition and pregnant women, or toddlers huddled on the backs of their mothers who worked in the noonday heat, breaking up rubble for the building of the road. Let us recall that the road which most of us took to Hodonín today is also the work of those prisoners' hands.

Some Roma came to the camps as Gypsy barons, with gold in their fancy metal-plated wagons, and some of them came only with the clothes on their backs, but after a few weeks spent in the camp they alt looked the same. Here, creeping figures with shaven heads could be seen, stripped of alt ornaments, haggard human shadows dressed in rags. Life in the overcrowded, uninsulated wooden shacks, or in caravans without any means of heating, soon turned them into wrecks. The heavy work, hunger and psychological hard ship completed the work, and then in the winter of 1942/43 an epidemic of typhoid broke out in the camp, mowing down one prisoner after another. Children were worst affected, and of the thirty-four children born in the camp, only one little girl survived. At the time of the large-scale deaths three pits were dug here, where dead bodies were buried without coffins. Altogether one hundred and twenty-one Roma found their anonymous resting-places in the communal graves. A further seventy-three were buried in nearby Černovice before the outbreak of the epidemic. (Fourteen more prisoners were taken with symptoms of typhoid to Brno at the time when the epidemic was breaking out in the Brno hospital: they died in Brno and were buried there). Three transports were made from Hodonín to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The largest took place on August 21, 1943. After that, the camp was liquidated, and the last small group of prisoners who had worked on the clearing of the camp was transported in January 1944. August 21 has thus rightly become a Memorial Day on this site.

In 1990, the municipality of Hodonín began commemorating the Roma imprisoned here and a chapel and Marian pilgrimage were initiated. The prisoners who survived the hardships here were to face far worse suffering, since the complex of the Auschwitz concentration camps was to serve the systematic extermination of undesirable individuals and groups. Of the Roma transported there, only a few individuals returned after the war: the majority died as a result of the conditions in Auschwitz, or were gassed on August 2 and 3, 1944, when the Gypsy camp in Auschwitz II-Birkenau was liquidated. That is how the Roma of the Czech-speaking lands, including the Moravian Roma, were exterminated. This group was significant because, despite the hostility, which met them, they had attempted from the eighteenth, and especially in the nineteenth century, to settle in our territory. To some extent they succeeded: before the Second World War there were thirty Romani settlements and camps in north-eastern Moravia alone. Roma were only allowed to build their settlements on the edges of villages and towns, not in the municipalities themselves, although some refused to give up their efforts to join the majority community and become a part of it. This was a difficult process, unpleasant, but sometimes crowned with success. And to this day, some older people in the region speak about what they call 'our Gypsies'; the long-term settled Roma, who did not return from the death-camps after the war.

Despite this, in the period just before the out break of war, anti-Romani hysteria reached a climax in the pages of our press, and the fascists could not fail to use it for their perverted goals. The process of integration was not only interrupted, but also terminated. After the war, Slovak Roma, who came to our land to work, filled the space left by the Czech Roma. Again their acclimatisation was to take many years, and had to face the direct attempts of the state to assimilate the Roma.

The result of the unprofessional efforts to 'integrate' Roma and liquidate their specific features was an ethnic group which could not be called an ethnic group, its morale crushed. Today, only some speak their native language, only some are unashamed of their origins, only some are unafraid to pre sent their culture publicly and proudly.

After 1990, the clumsy efforts on the part of the state were stopped. But with the long-suppressed freedom came, for Roma, the trial by fire of freely expressed racial intolerance and xenophobia. This is not the result of legislation, but of fact - the aversion of the whole of society prevents Roma from enjoying the same rights as other members of that society. Their feelings about life in this country are marked day after day by expressions of open hostility. There is oppressive discrimination on the labour market, unpleasant and degrading exclusions from restaurants and places of entertainment, horrific fear of Roma to go out into the streets after dark because of the neo-fascist groups in our country. The results in the courts have only shown these attackers that they do not have anything to fear. Now we are confronted with the possibility of massive Romani emigration to Canada. Our state is democratic, our laws too, but the people who put these laws into practice are just as narrow-minded as ever. Perhaps you will feel that I should not be recalling these facts on this commemorative day, but history is the teacher of life, and it is history that proves to us, unfortunately, that with certain modifications, events tend to repeat themselves. We people remain the same and we continue to practice both the positive and the negative sides of our characters. I say all this for one purpose: that we may all try constructively to work together so that one day, many years from now, our descendents will not have to unveil memorials on half-forgotten Romani tombs."

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