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Book review: Nikdo vám nebude věřit - Markus Pape. GplusG Publishers, Prague. 1997

15 July 1997

By David Chirico

In 1995 and 1996, the American genealogist and historian Paul Polansky carried out research into the ‘Gypsy camp’ (cikánský tábor), which operated from August 1940 to August 1943 at Lety in South Bohemia. He began a re-valuation of the extensive official archive material concerning the camp, and in the company of Nicole Taubinger and Ľubomír Zubák, Polansky conducted about sixty interviews with survivors. A German journalist living in Prague named Markus Pape has continued this work, and on the basis of his own and Polansky’s research, Pape published A nikdo vám nebude věřit (And nobody will believe you) in April of this year.

The book is the first to deal in any detail with the camp at Lety. Previous studies of the Romani Holocaust in Czechoslovakia have, as Pape suggests, rejected survivors’ memories of extermination, executions, murders and rape carried out by the commandant and his guards, and have claimed that the camp did not function as an extermination camp. Such claims are joined to the assertion that survivors have, with the passing of time, con fused what they saw with their own eyes in the camp. At the same time, previous studies have concluded that state documents exclude the possibility of such crimes having been committed. Pape succeeds, with this volume, in demonstrating that the state documents themselves not only support, but actually go further than, the eye-witness accounts; the idea that Lety really was an extermination camp is the first of the two main theses of the book. Pape’s polemical intention results in the fact that far less attention is paid in the book to survivors’ information than to the material to which he and others managed to obtain access in various state archives. The second thesis of the book is that the camp at Lety operated with a certain independence from the Reich and erratic control from Prague. Pape shows this particularly with reference to the visit to Lety at the start of January 1943 by Jiří Letov, who worked as referent to the camp for the Prague Ministry of the Interior. Although this was already after Himmler’s so called Auschwitz Declaration of December 16, 1942, which began the most intensive phase of the Holocaust, Letov found the conditions in the camp to be unacceptable:

Of 966 camp prisoners: 49 have typhus (or suspected typhus), 156 angina, 98 pneumonia, 200 influenza, 500 have colds. This means that not one of the prisoners is well, and that several of the prisoners have more than one ill ness[...] Every day coffins are taken to the cemetery, which is creating anxiety and panic in the whole area.

The main cause of the illness in the camps was malnutrition and cold:

Among the children, in particular, this is the cause of permanent gastric flu. In addition, the food is not being distributed and the children are not receiving
the amounts due to them [...] By Christmas 1942 the children had not received clothing or boots. For weeks they could not go out of their unsuitable, more than overcrowded dwellings which were, in addition, inadequately heated. All these circumstances have led to the deaths of the children.” (Report from Letov to the Minister of the Interior, January 1943, in Pape, p.76)

The systematic denial of fond, clothing and heat referred to is clear enough, even before consideration of acts of physical violence by the guards, to identify genocidal practices in the camp; at the same time, the fact that Letov was complaining openly to the Ministry of the Interior, and the fact that his complaint resulted in the suspension of Camp Commandant Josef Janovský and in changes in the running of the camp, show to what extent guilt for the camp’s operation lay with the individuals put in charge of it, all of whom were Czechs. 

"I also saw which guards beat gypsies working at a construction site on the highway [...] to goad them on the work harder. I saw with my own eyes how [...] the guards tied two women to a post, so that only their toes touched the ground"

TESTIMONY OF FORMER INMATE VÁCLAV STUDENÝ AT THE TRIAL OF LETY CAMP DIRECTOR JANOVSKÝ, 1945

The implication that Czechs rather than Germans are to blame for Lety has, predictably, received the most attention, despite the author’s own claims in the prologue that it is not his aim to attribute collective guilt. Even if the idea of collective guilt is rejected, the analysis of a collective discourse is possible, and becomes particularly important here, when the suspicion exists that the discourse existent under the Czech Protectorate to define and justify the ‘Gypsy Camps’ shows some continuities with the discourse about Roma in the Czech Republic today.

One example is the designation of the camp prisoners. Punitive work camps were established by a law passed in the so-called Second Republic (before the Protectorate) on March 2, 1939, for “individuals shirking work, aged 18 or more, who cannot prove that they earn a living in a proper way.” (Pape, p.26) This apparently purely social, ethnically neutral definition actually subsumed a conception of ‘Gypsy’ living, and this conception immediately re-emerged in propagandist newspapers: “It would be good to build concentration camps for Gypsies, tramps and professional beggars,” claimed the newspaper Venkov on December 17, 1938. The camps were fully ethnicised as a result of the law passed on March 9, 1942, in which “Gypsies and people wandering in Gypsy fashion [were] forbidden to leave the place which [had] been assigned to them without permission from the criminal police.” This step, preparatory to the transportation of Roma to camps, makes it clear that the possession of Romani ethnicity is sufficient to render the individual guilty of the “crime” of living “in Gypsy fashion” [i.e. travelling, stealing]. This rhetorical procedure, the absorption of ethnic determination into social at the stage of analysis, and then the mystificatory retranslation of the social into the ethnic at the stage of punishment or action, continues to this day to mark official discourse on Roma in the Czech republic. Jana Holomková-Horváthová, a Romani historian based in Brno, is quoted in Pape’s book as saying “Czech Roma had become more and more integrated into the life of the majority community, which many of them had accepted as their own [...] During the occupation, however, all Czech Roma and people of mixed race were hunted down, whether or not they worked and lived settled lives. It was therefore not a question of re-educating problematic and asocial people, but of liquidating the Roma as an anthropologically unsuitable ethnic group. Proof of this is the fact that particular care was taken by the Nazis in interning Romani students, because they were living proof of the invalidity of theories of the inferiority and uneducability of a “lower race”. Czech Roma were victorious over them selves, they integrated them selves into a majority which had been unwelcoming to them since the Middle Ages, only to be destroyed by one of the upheavals in that majority’s modern history” (Pape, p. 24).

The implications for the present are territory into which Pape does not venture. The main sequence of chapters, introducing the situation of Roma and Sinti in Germany and in Czechoslovakia before the war, and continuing with the two stages of the Lety camp, the punitive work camp (August 1940 — July 1942) and the concentration camp (August 1942 — August 1943) are followed by an analysis of the direction of the camp from Prague, and a description of the trials (by the Extraordinary People’s Courts) after the war, in which only one sentence, a flogging, was handed out to one of the Lety staff. The book is completed by a useful encyclopaedic section, including short biographies of the main characters in the camp’s history, and by a sample testimony. Another book is planned, which will consist of the survivors’ eyewitness accounts.

It is important that similar studies be carried out of the camps in Hodonin and else where on the territory of the Czech Republic. The importance of the book is shown in the reaction to it of Jan Ruml, Czech Minister of the Interior, who quoted it in public at Lety on May 12, and added, “According to the most trustworthy documents, the Nazis did not order an extermination camp in Lety: it was to be ‘only’ a transit station on the road to Auschwitz. Lety was changed to an extermination camp by the Czech guards with the support of the Czech Protectorate Ministry of the Interior — and it was an extermination camp in every way.” A few years ago it would have been unthinkable for a Czech Minister of the Interior to say this. Whether such words will be followed up by political action to remove the pig farm which still stands, insultingly, on the site of the camp remains to be seen. The book, however, has played an important role in opening up the discourse on Czech racism in the past and, by implication, in the present.

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