Paul Polansky and the Lety Roma camp: Part 1
This is the first of a two part programme which focuses on American genealogist and amateur historian Paul Polansky and how he brought to Czech and worldwide attention the existence of the Czech camp for Roma at Lety during the Second World War.
Polansky did not set out be controversial or shed light on one of the most shameful episodes of twentieth century Czech history. He was a genealogist who was researching the Czech origins of families who originally founded his hometown of Spillville, Iowa.
The research took him to the regional archives at the library of South Bohemian Třeboň and his interest was sparked by a hint that from the librarian there that there was more to the small village of Lety than met the eye. In fact the library held a vast archive of documents about the creation, operation, deaths, and transports from what became Bohemia’s work, concentration, and death camp for the Roma population.
Once a 50 year ban on opening the files was set aside and Polansky was allowed to consult them, Polansky was able to explode a series of myths about the camp. A book published in Czech late last year ’Tábor Smrti Lety’ or ‘Death Camp Lety’, subtitled the investigation begins 1992 – 1995, tells the story how he pieced together the evidence, often against repeated local denials and official resistance. His findings created a furor in the Czech Republic with many then, and now, still trying to downplay his major revelation that the camp was Czech organized and Czech run with many of the deaths due to savage treatment and hunger.
In an interview with Mr. Polansky last week, I put it to him that the near 500 page book is very much his own personal detective story about how he battled with adversity to establish the truth.
“Yes, it is a memoir of my research, how I stumbled across by accident this story of Lety and how it grabbed me and I could not let go of it.”
The main feature is that you helped bring this camp to public attention. Can you explain what you found out because the whole history of this camp had been ignore, more or less covered up, or even shrouded with lies?
Included in that is the fact that what Czech accounts of the camp that did come out, for example in the 1970s, portrayed it as a German camp, the size of the camp appeared to be quite considerably underestimated and the number of deaths and cause of deaths was also different…
“Even to this day, the Czech government is releasing false figures about how many died at Lety. The burial records at Mirovice, where most of the children who were murdered, or beaten to death, or starved to death, were taken and buried is many times more than the official government figures today. And there are documents that show that people died. In the Třeboň archives I came across 800 death certificates that were signed by local doctors. And yet the government maintains that only about 300 or 330 people died at Lety. And so the documents, and the local archives, and the town chronicles tell a completely different story. And yet all of this is being ignored.”
How would it be best to describe this camp?
“I think you have to go to the oral histories of the survivors and let them describe the camp to you. Unfortunately, in this memoir the oral histories that I collected two years later are not included. The government said there were no survivors and then I found more than 100 and I took down all of their stories. And, of course, almost all of them said that Lety was worse than Auschwitz. Those that survived Lety and were sent to Auschwitz described Lety as worse than Auschwitz. The Czech guards were worse than the German guards. In Auschwitz if you survived roll call, you knew that you were going to live another day. But at Lety you could be killed at any moment. And this is what impressed the survivors the most, that at Lety the Czech guards could come up to you and club you to death at any time of the day and that did not happen at Auschwitz. And so the survivors stories from Lety are even more important than what I discovered in the archives.”
And so what has happened to these stories, they have been recorded presumably?
“They were published in a book, in Czech and English, in 1998 in Prague by the G plus G publishing house. In English the book is called ‘The Black Silence.’ The book is still available today on Amazon.com. In fact my published in 1998 published only 60 of the oral histories because he said he did not have the money to publish them all. So the second edition has all of the oral histories, more than 100, plus interviews with some of the guards that I found still living and widows of the administrators of department five, that created Lety as a concentration camp. So the information is there.”
Part of this story seems to be about the barriers that were put up in your way once you started getting some of the initial information. I have the impression that perhaps the only reason that you got as far as you did was the support of the US Embassy, which the Czechoslovak and later Czech governments could not ignore?
“Yes, in the beginning I had a lot of support. When I finished my research and a newspaper in the United States published a front page article about Czechs having a gypsy concentration camp during World War Two, the Czech Embassy in Washington DC called me and invited me to a meeting. They wanted to cooperate. They wanted to form a team of historians from Charles University to help research the documents and to help make available the story. They wanted the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to offer architects to design a proper memorial. They really wanted to go ahead and present this story openly to the rest of the world.
"But when they found out that I wanted to use this historical team to interview survivors rather than spend 10 years looking at documents, they withdrew their support and then they started to cover up all the information. They banned me from the archives for a while. It was only through the American embassy that I was let back in, but then under only certain conditions that I had to sign contracts that I would not slander the Czech government with any information that I found. It was really a cover up, a whitewash, and they did everything they could to stop the information coming out.”