Renewed Controversy at the Lety Concentration Camp

Photo: CTK

In recent days, the site of Lety near Pisek has been back in the spotlight. The Czech Republic's National Party stirred-up controversy when it erected a memorial stone to victims of WWII near the site where a Roma concentration camp stood between September 1942 and spring 1945. Seeing it as a denial of the Roma Holocaust, the mayor of Lety had the stone removed late last week. On Saturday, January 21st members of the National Party held an organized gathering at Lety, where Roma leaders and their supporters also met to guard what they consider a sacred memorial. Linda Mastalir was there and spoke to people on both sides of the issue.

Photo: CTK
What you heard there was Markus Pape, a lawyer and human rights activist, shouting "Stop Nazism!" as he was taken into custody by police after interrupting the speech of Petra Edelmannova, the National Party's leader. Pape went to the spot of the National Party's gathering on his own accord, wanting to start a dialogue and explain to the right-wing party members that over 300 Roma had not died at Lety because of unhygienic conditions, but rather because they were interned in a concentration camp. However, the very idea of starting a dialogue is a point of conflict amongst Roma leaders and their supporters.

"Markus, I don't think it's a good idea for you to take such a step."

Ondrej Gina, a prominent Roma leader there, explaining to Markus Pape that acknowledging the National Party's gathering is a mistake. True to his position, Gina stayed behind to guard the memorial to victims of the Roma Holocaust for fear that the "Nazis" would damage the stone structure erected in 1995. Cenek Ruzicka, another Roma leader, also stood his ground to protect the site where his own father and other relatives died during WWII.

"My dad, he would have to rise from his grave and smack me in the face, if I allowed one of these scoundrels to come here and enter this space. I can't allow it to happen—I simply can't."

During our walk to the site of the National Party's gathering—about a kilometre away from the existing Roma memorial—Fedor Gal, a Slovak intellectual resident in Prague and himself a Jewish Holocaust survivor, told me why a dialogue with the National Party is impossible:

Photo: CTK
"There's no dialogue possible with extremists because they come from a totally different world. I really don't know what the dialogue would be about, but I'm not going there to engage in a discussion. I'm going there to show that we're not afraid of them, and that they don't belong here—but we can't talk about any dialogue. I should engage in a dialogue with someone who denies the Holocaust?—when I myself was born in a concentration camp and three-quarters of my family died in the gas chambers? That's nonsense."

Saturday's drama certainly centred around the detainment of Markus Pape and the National Party members whom he calls neo-Nazis. Yet by Monday morning the National Party's web pages were filled with articles referring to Pape as a "German Nazi." Petra Edelmannova, the National Party's leader, takes the position that the money the state intends to use to remove a pig farm at the site of Lety would be better invested in healthcare, or other needy areas.

Photo: CTK
"The gypsy lobbyists are the only ones, together with some pseudo-lobbyists, historical revisionists, and a few parliamentarians of the soon-defunct government of the Socialist International who are pressing [for the pig farm's removal] at the expense of children, who have the ceiling falling on their heads in Motol hospital."

Gwendolyn Albert, the Director of the League of Human Rights, shared her opinion on the National Party's monument at Lety near Pisek, and explained why she came to support the Roma community.

"I've come here today to express my support for the people who originally had a monument erected to the victims of Lety, to express my support for the mayor of Lety who did the right thing in removing this unofficial monument that was erected by the National Party."

Was it really the mayor who removed the monument?

"That's what it said in the media. My understanding of the legal situation is that because the town owns the parking lot on which they put their rock, the mayor had to request that it be removed—there wasn't any other way to do that without an official request. So, this was finally achieved and I think that was the right thing to do, and I'm here to express my support. In addition, I personally have been active with the Committee for the Compensation of the Romany Holocaust for the last 10 years in trying to get the pig farm removed from this site. I think the pig farm is really the reason that this is something parties try to politically capitalize on, because they know the issue of removing it at the state's expense is much more of a recognition of what took place here than simply erecting a monument, which is what happened 10 years ago."

Markus Pape,   (in the middle),  photo: CTK
What does the controversy at Lety indicate about Czech society, and the history of the Roma Holocaust in central Europe?

"Unfortunately to me it's still a very set indicator that parties know that the anti-Roma sentiment in this country is a politically successful tactic. They know that it's something they can bank on, something to which the media will respond, something that they can bank on to maybe get extremist voters to go along with them."

What are the prospects for having the pig farm removal from the site of Lety?

"In 1998 the government recognized that this was something that should actually occur, and so since then it's been a question of actually either negotiating with the owners to make them realize that they own something on land that is sacred—that what they own is a desecration. Also, if you go back in the history of this problem, there is even a larger issue which is that the farms were originally owned by the state, and they were privatized when the issue of them being here and of a missing monument to the victims [arose]. They were then privatized very quickly and for far less money than many people at the time thought was responsible. So from a certain point of view we can say that the state's willingness to take full responsibility for acknowledging what has gone on here has always been half-hearted. They thought that they could get rid of responsibility in 1994 by privatizing the farm and that didn't work, and then they created this monument and that isn't enough because we're standing here right now and you can smell the pig shit. Those of us for whom this is a serious part of recognizing the history of totalitarianism in central me it's very depressing that there still exists so much misunderstanding, genuine incomprehension—I think it's genuine incomprehension of the meaning of the Holocaust, of the meaning of places like Lety. It would not have been possible for the entire extermination mechanism to have worked without places like this all over Europe."

Are you of the opinion that the issue of Lety in the Czech Republic is so controversial, or so unrecognized, primarily because it was a camp that housed mostly Roma?

"Yes, I believe that there is more or less a straight line between the fact that the victims here were Roma, and the fact that Roma since 1989 have been discriminated against in many, many areas. I will never forget it: I was actually here in 1989 during the revolution and in early 1990, one of the first other open, public gatherings I saw on Wenceslaus Square was a gathering of fans of Nazism. I don't understand how anyone in this part of the world can embrace that ideology, but they do. I think it also has a lot to do with the unrecognized, undiscussed history of collaboration with the Nazis, not only here but all over Europe. To me it's tragic that there isn't yet a consensus in the Czech Republic about WWII, about the Holocaust, about what happened. I think it's tragic."