‘Closer’ project brings high school kids to Lety to learn about Romany culture but also history of WWII internment camp

Lety memorial, photo: Jana Šustová

Friday, April 8, is International Romani Day, celebrating Roma culture and raising awareness about Roma issues. This week, organisers behind the Sobě blíž (Closer Together) project for high school children – brought interested kids to Lety, South Bohemia, to see performances by Roma groups, but also to learn about a dark chapter in Czech history. Lety was the site of a Romany internment camp in WWII where more than 300 people died and many more were sent to the death camp Auschwitz.

Lety memorial,  photo: Jana Šustová
I spoke to one of the organisers of Closer Together, Lubomíra Hédlová about the event and the initiative.

“We are working with students in grades 8 and 9, mainly these young people, and the aim is cultural but also a kind of memorial. We present Roma culture and want to show how much they have to offer to Czech society. We are trying to work in a positive way with young people to show cultural differences and how to raise mutual respect in society.”

This week you had an event planned at the Lety Memorial which, by all appearances, was very successful and interest was very high… what took place?

“We basically launched the main visitors’ season because not many travel to Lety in the winter and we had an opening day for more than 200 participants who were able to hear music by the great hip hop band Gipsy.cz and the children’s group of Roma dance called Ciriklore whose name means The Little Birds. There was also a lecture by the historian Dr. Vojtěch Kyncl who spoke about the genocide of not just the Roma but the Jews and other weakened groups, going back to the 1930s. He talked about the manner of their subsequent extermination during the Second World War.”

Gipsy.cz,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
To what degree are children shocked to learn what happened at Lety as well as the fact that to this day there is a pig farm on the former site of the camp which remains a problem for many today?

“If you are asking how they react when they learn about the Roma genocide, it is the same as when they learn about the genocide of the Jews or others. The fact that one group of people tries to exterminate another group, and all this is based on racial prejudice, affects almost everyone. Our main aim is to keep alive the memory of those who died and suffered at the camp in Lety, to ensure they are not forgotten. The role of the government is to deal with the controversy surrounding the pig farm.”