Archaeologists discover graves of Roma persecuted during WWII in Lety camp

Photo: ČTK/Václav Pancer

Archaeologists, excavating the site of the former WWII internment camp for Roma in Lety, have found some of the victims’ graves. Those who took part in the project say that the discovery is not only the first time that graves of Roma people persecuted by the Nazis have been found in Europe, but also undisputable proof of what happened in the camp.

Photo: ČTK/Václav Pancer

During World War II internment camps were used to concentrate the Roma population living within the territory of what was then the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Many of the prisoners would end up being transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp and similar institutions in their hundreds.

One camp where the Nazis placed Bohemian Roma was located in the village of Lety, near the south Bohemian town of Písek.

One of the camp survivors, Pavel Vrba, who was born there, described its conditions to Radio Prague in 2005.

Lety camp model,  photo: ČTK/Václav Pancer
"I know from my parents that it was a place of cruelty; that starving children were eating raw cabbage from the fields, and that the townspeople from Lety paid no attention to them. Small children were dying on piles of—I don't want to say it—piles of excrement. My parents managed to protect me and my brother, so that we survived. But I lost my sister here and my grandfather.“

Over 80 adults and 241 children died at the camp. Overall, it is estimated that about 90 percent of the pre-war Romani population of Bohemia and Moravia did not survive the Nazi genocide. However, unlike with Lidice or Terezín, the process of honouring the victims has been very slow in the country.

A pig farm was built on the site of Lety during the 1970s and, although then President Václav Havel unveiled a small memorial on what was believed to be the spot where many of the camp’s inmates were buried in 1995, the pig farm still remains on the location.

This is mainly because the history of the camp, which had originally been set up by Czech authorities in early 1939 as a labour camp, has been a very sensitive issue in the country Former President Václav Klaus described Lety not as a site of genocide, but of a camp "for those who refused to work".

This argument was also adopted in 2018 by the anti-migrant Freedom and Direct Democracy party of Tomio Okamura, which criticised the government’s intentions to build a larger memorial on the location.

Now, however, archaeologists from the University of West Bohemia, who have been conducting a dig on the site since 2018, announced the discovery of the remains of a woman and a new-born baby, who were buried very close to where today’s granite memorial stands.

Pavel Vařeka,  photo: ČTK/Václav Pancer
Speaking at a news press conference on Tuesday, the leader of the archaeological excavation, Dr. Pavel Vařeka, explained the relevance of the find.

“I see the most important contribution of this research in the fact that after more than 70 years we have managed to find the location of the prisoners’ graves. That means that the relatives of these victims, many of whom are still alive today, now know where exactly they are buried.”

“It will now be possible to exactly delineate the location of the grave in Lety.

“This is the first time that graves of Roma and Sinti people who were persecuted by the Nazis have been found in Europe. The genocide of the Roma is no longer an abstract term. We now have real physical evidence that this took place.”

Čeněk Růžička, the chairman of the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust, said that he hopes this will end any debate about the purpose of the Lety camp.

“During this occasion, I would like all xenophobes and racists in this country to stop saying people did not die on this location, that victims in this camp died for other reasons, etc. I ask that they stop doubting the hard facts and the evidence. They will look truly ridiculous if they do not.”

Allowing the excavations to go ahead was not an easy thing.

Čeněk Růžička,  photo: Jana Šustová
Růžička, who is himself a Roma, says that it was considered desecration in their culture, but that it had to be done in order to be certain that the current memorial is situated at the right place. He says that since the memorial was uncovered, he had come across a map of the camp in the archives of the nearby town of Třebon, which outlined its location in a different spot.

He also found other documents, which stated that Wehrmacht soldiers were buried somewhere in the area.

“I was worried that we might be honouring Wehrmacht soldiers there, or even something worse!

“We have a close relationship to the memorial that Václav Havel unveiled here and I could not bear the thought that the actual location may be somewhere else. I had to think about it, because it is my responsibility and I didn’t want to go around the issue.”

The recent findings prove that the location is correct and both survivors and relatives can now look forward to a larger memorial site, which state authorities hope to have finished by 2023.

Dr. Jana Horváthová from the Roma Culture Museum, which is leading the effort, says that a tender to design the memorial will soon be announced.

“Proposals will be evaluated by the end of May next year, if everything goes according to plan. It will be an international competition, so we hope that renowned architects will also take part.”

Lety pig farm,  photo: Martin Pokorný / Czech Radio
The authorities plan to start demolishing the pig farm only after the winner of the tender is decided upon. They say that this is because architects should get the chance to use some of its buildings in the memorial, as a memento to the difficult process of acknowledging the site.

During the first phase of construction, the plan is to develop the area surrounding the current smaller memorial and create a visitors centre with a small exhibit.

According to Dr. Horváthová, the main exhibits will be located in a specialised facility in Prague called the Center for Roma and Sinti peoples, which will be part of the Roma Culture Museum. It also opens in 2023 and hopes are that its location in the capital will attract more visitors.