“He really elevated the event”: Pavel first president in years to attend Roma Holocaust event

Petr Pavel in Lety u Písku

President Petr Pavel on Sunday took part in an annual memorial in South Bohemia to victims of the Roma and Sinti Holocaust. He was the first Czech head of state at the event in over two and a half decades and his attendance meant it garnered extra attention.

An annual memorial ceremony to Czech victims of the Roma and Sinti Holocaust was held at the site of a WWII concentration camp for Roma at Lety in South Bohemia on Sunday.

Miloš Vystrčil,  Petr Pavel,  Markéta Pekarová Adamová and Martin Baxa | Photo: Roman Vondrouš,  ČTK

Among those who spoke at the solemn event was the Czech president, Petr Pavel.

“The Lety memorial is a reminder of crimes against those imprisoned at this concentration camp, where more than 1,300 men, women and children lost their freedom, human dignity and in many cases also their lives.”

In his address he also referred to a wartime hero of the Roma people, Josef Serinek, who was interned in Lety with his wife and five children in 1942. Serinek later escaped and joined the anti-Nazi partisans.

“He deserves great respect for his actions and courage. Sadly his family did not survive the tough conditions here.

Roma Holocaust event in Lety u Písku | Photo: Roman Vondrouš,  ČTK

"His story is a fragment of history that illustrates how long, and complicated, the convergence between Czechs and Roma has been.

"We still have a long way to go, but also opportunities, in our mutual coexistence.”

In 2024 Lety should get a new, permanent memorial, built by Czechia’s Museum of Romani Culture in Brno.

Petr Pavel in Lety u Písku | Photo: Roman Vondrouš,  ČTK

However, the site was occupied for several decades by a pig farm that – following many years of discussion – was only removed recently when the state bought it out.

Mr. Pavel told journalists that that process had been long and undignified, adding that Czechs should admit their part in this dark chapter of history.

The current, stopgap memorial at Lety was unveiled by President Václav Havel in 1995 – and until this weekend he was the only Czech head of state to have attended the site's annual ceremony.

Gwendolyn Albert works with the Roma affairs website Romea and took part in Sunday’s edition.

“The Office of the President usually did send an official wreath to those ceremonies. But they never sent the president himself.

Václav Havel,  Lety u Písku 1995 | Photo: Jaroslav Sýbek,  ČTK

"And while other politicians have attended the annual ceremony over the years, and expressed a desire for the pig farm to be removed and tried to make a political statement by attending, no other president, besides President Pavel yesterday, has ever gone.

"Of course the fact the president was there meant that there was much more security than usual, much more media than usual.

"He really elevated the annual event in the way that only a president can.”

Senate speaker Miloš Vystrčil, who was also in attendance, said next year’s opening of the new memorial ought to be an opportunity to improve relations between the majority society and the Roma.

Sunday’s ceremony marked the 80th anniversary of the transport of 420 Roma from Lety to the Auschwitz extermination camp.