Genocide and the pig farm: end in sight to the Lety controversy

15 August 2017

By Bernard Rorke

Radio Prague’s August 1 headline, Culture Minister: Sale of Lety Pig Farm is ‘Done Deal,’ broke the news that the Czech Government had finally secured the buy-out of the notorious pig farm located on the site of a former concentration camp where hundreds of Roma perished during the Second World War.

Of the 1,300 Roma rounded up in the Lety camp, over 327 died there, including 241 children, while more than 500 were deported to Auschwitz. The youngest of the Lety inmates deported in a mass transport in May 1943 were one-month-old Jiří Růžička and one-year-old Blažej Růžička. The pig farm was built on the site of the concentration camp in 1971, and sold to private interests after the collapse of the regime in 1989.

Czech Culture Minister Daniel Herman’s assertion that the buy-out will be signed and sorted before the October general election promises to bring an end to a long-running national disgrace. For this was a sordid and venal affair that brought shame on the Czech Republic; and stood as an abiding insult to the living and the dead, innocent victims of the ferocious attempt by the Nazis and their collaborators to wipe the Romani nation from the face of the earth.

Only a month earlier, Czech President Miloš Zeman said he favoured leaving the pig farm at the site, alleged that its removal would cost taxpayers a billion crowns (EUR 38 million), and declared that he was against shutting down a prosperous business: "I dealt with this matter as Prime Minister and refused to close the pig farm." Zemon was just one in a long line of Czech prime ministers who either failed or actively declined to do so.

Reckoning with the past

Back in 1999, frustrated by the Czech government shelving the issue because of the expense of moving the pig farm, the Roma National Congress (RNC) organized an international protest in Lety. Radio Prague reported that more than a hundred Roma took part. Frustrated by the lack of progress after years of lobbying, RNC representative Ondrej Gina called on the international community to take up the issue and for tourists and supporters not to eat pork, lest it originated from this pig farm.

Protests would continue for many more years as the last wishes of survivors went unheeded. As researcher and activist Paul Polansky author of the1992 book about Lety Black Silence stated “The last words that the survivors always told me was ‘our children are buried at Lety; our mothers and fathers are buried at Lety. And now there is a pig farm desecrating our loved ones.’ Their last wish was that that pig farm be removed from that Roma holocaust site.”

In 1997, Markus Pape published a detailed account of what happened in Lety. The book entitled And Nobody Will Ever Believe You, included testimonies of survivors and caused a national controversy because it confronted the Czech public with incontrovertible evidence that Lety was not merely a labour camp or a transit camp; that people did not simply die of disease; that state documents supported survivors’ accounts of executions, murders and rapes; and that Czechoslovak guards staffed the camp that operated with a degree of independence from the Reich and erratic control from Prague. As former government commissioner for human rights Petr Uhl said in a recent interview:

“The Lety camp was established on the protectorate government decision. Both uniformed and plain-clothed police that served there was under the protectorate authority; those were not Gestapo or SS that otherwise also operated in the country.”

International resolutions and Czech reactions

"Stench of Czech pig farm reaches Brussels" ran the headline in a Czech daily following the resolution from the European Parliament in 2005, which called on the Czech authorities “to take all necessary steps to remove the pig farm from the site of the former concentration camp at Lety and to create a suitable memorial.”

In reaction to the resolution, President Václav Klaus declared that while "many tragic things happened there … the victims of this camp primarily succumbed to an epidemic of spotted typhus, not due to what is traditionally understood as the fate of a concentration camp victim." Klaus also remarked that Lety had not been designated for Romani people, but "for those who refused to work".

A month later, and in stark contrast to Klaus, Prime Minister Jirí Paroubek described Lety as a huge symbol of racism and stated “the Czech nation owes a certain debt to the past." However, the government’s stated intent to purchase and liquidate the farm ultimately came to nothing. In 2007, the new Prime Minister, Mirek Topolánek, quashed any prospects for a resolution by stating that his government could not afford to relocate the farm.

In 2009, then Human Rights Minister Michael Kocáb, pledged to create a foundation to buy out the pig farm, but his tenure in office was too short for any progress to be made. Kocáb in 2010, managed to push through an extension of the existing memorial to include an amphitheater for events, a parking lot, new access roads, and two replicas of the original wooden sleeping-huts from the camp housing an exhibition about the Romani victims of Nazism. But the pig farm remained.

In 2011, Czech Green Party leader Ondřej Liška described the pig farm as “an insult to both the living and the dead.” He declared that "a large part of Czech society either does not know how to admit their share of historical blame for the fate of the Roma people here, or does not want to admit it." He accused the political elites as being deeply complicit in this "cowardice" and lambasted them for facilitating a shift towards racism, tinged with populism on the national political scene, and fostering public indifference to the fate of those who perished at Lety and of those who were deported from there to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In 2012, Czech PM Petr Nečas’ annouced that the Government could not afford to move the farm. In 2013 the UN Committee for Human Rights described the issue as a ‘litmus test’ and called on the Czechs to redouble efforts to close the pig farm as part of a wider engagement through symbolic acts, “to nurture respect for the Roma culture and history.”

In May 2014, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka attending the annual commemorative ceremony at Lety declared that the tens of millions of Czech crowns necessary to destroy and rebuild the pig farm would be better spent on "educating Romani children" and improving social conditions in the country's socially excluded localities. The renowned human rights activist Gwendolyn Albert castigated the continued failure of the Czech state to invest in human dignity, and described Sobotka as the unwitting participant in an “annual ritual theater during which state representatives pretend to pay their respects to a people whom they do not, in fact, feel any respect for at all.”

Holocaust denial, revisionism and racism

In August 2014, Czech MP Tomio Okamura, chair of the Dawn of Direct Democracy Movement (Úsvit) stated: "According to the information available, this myth that it was a Romani concentration camp is a lie. There was a labor camp there for people who avoided proper work, including Czechs and Germans in the Protectorate. They were not interned on the basis of ethnicity, but on the basis of the gypsy way of life, which means that no working Roma were there … No one was killed at the camp - people died there as a result of old age and the diseases they brought with them as a result of their previous travelling lifestyle.”   

In the Czech Republic, Okamura’s comments were described as "the kind of moral turpitude that rises to the level of a felony", and drew direct condemnation from the Prime Minister, other prominent politicians, as well as Romani intellectuals and activists. Petra Gelbart, in a moving rebuttal of Okamura’s lies said that he was also propagating the mistaken notion that all Romani victims of the Holocaust were so-called ‘asocials’: 

“In reality, both in the Protectorate and in other countries, highly integrated Romani and Sinti people were also included in the transports to the concentration camps. I happen to know what I am talking about in this regard not just thanks to historical sources, but because the Holocaust affected my relatives, of whom only a tiny fraction survived. As for the fairytale that ‘the Germans were responsible for everything’, my great-great-grandmother was killed directly by a Czech camp guard.”

In 2013, a major scandal erupted following an interview with the director of the Lidice Memorial, Milouš Červencl, who is also responsible for the memorial to the Roma Holocaust at Lety. NGOs and human rights activists called for Červencl’s dismissal following his comments about “inadaptables”. He stated

“what people here cannot identify with and do not tolerate are our inadaptable fellow citizens, especially when they do not respect our customs, general order, and our laws, and when they abuse the broad social welfare system established by the state, to say nothing of committing crime. This concerns our coexistence with Romani people, which is very often problematic, but to construe it as a manifestation of racism is misleading.” 

While crude prejudice has become the staple diet of extremist politicians, it was especially sinister that such a racist statement  – using the fascistic turn of phrase “our inadaptable fellow citizens” – could be made about Roma by the director of an institution charged with running educational programs, conferences and events “aimed primarily at nurturing young people to embrace democracy and tolerance and to oppose racism and xenophobia.” 

A denouement of sorts

More than ever we have become alert to the fact that public knowledge, or ignorance of what transpired in Europe’s dark past has a direct bearing on the politics of our present. For many years, numerous Czech politicians, among them serving and past prime ministers and presidents, have by their words and deeds insulted the memory of Roma who perished in the Holocaust.

Unbothered by the fact that for decades the stench of pig shite wafts over a killing field, a site where hundreds of Romani children were done to death in ways to cruel to imagine, by their inaction and denial, these politicians stand accused. They stand accused of fostering public indifference to the Romani victims of Nazism, and for their complicity in the institutional and popular racism that is visited upon Czech Roma today.

There have of course been many honourable exceptions, many Czechs who have heeded Vaclav Havel’s warning about anti-Roma racism. At the unveiling of a monument in Lety back in 1995, Havel spoke of the need – when once again people shout “Gypsies to the gas chambers” – to face up to every manifestation of racist evil: “We know the horrors that racism produces. Let's not allow them to be repeated!”

More than twenty years later, Minister Herman’s ‘done deal buy-out’ with the imminent prospect of the pig farm being removed from the Lety site, could mark the beginning of a more profound reckoning over the fate of Romani people in the Czechoslovak past. If so, let it also be a prelude to ending the segregation and discrimination the Roma face in the Czech present; for this is a historical debt that is long overdue.

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