Roma groups issue fresh call for removal of Lety pig farm

The pig farm in Lety

Members of the Czech Republic's large Roma community issued a fresh call this week for the removal of a pig farm on the site of a former concentration camp near the village of Lety in South Bohemia. The pig farm has caused some embarrassment to the Czech Republic, but proposals to remove it have come to nothing; the government says relocation would involve huge sums of money. And as Rob Cameron reports, the dispute over Lety remains as intractable as ever.

The camp poses a number of uncomfortable truths for the Czechs: a law establishing Lety as a work camp for nomads, drifters and other 'anti-social elements' was passed in early March 1939 - not by the Nazi Protectorate, but by Czechoslovakia's proto-fascist Second Republic that preceded it. In 1942, however, the Nazis designated Lety as a concentration camp for Roma. Over the next 12 months, a total of 1,256 Romani men, women and children were interned there, before they were finally sent to Auschwitz.

Historians are divided as to how many Romanies died at Lety - camp records list 326 deaths, two thirds of them children. Neither is there consensus over how they died - the German author Markus Pape has disputed claims they died in a typhus epidemic. But historians do agree that Lety was staffed solely by Czech guards, none of whom were punished after 1945. This complicated history has created confusion over what Lety should be called. Jan Jarab is the government's commissioner for human rights:

Jan Jarab: I would say Lety was a concentration camp. I wouldn't use the term 'extermination camp' because this really applies to different kind of concentration camps than Lety.

Radio Prague: But Lety was established as a 'work camp' by the Czechoslovak authorities, before the Nazis actually took control of this country. So would you agree that it was a Czechoslovak invention?

JJ: No, I don't think so. I think it was totally different under the so-called 'Second Republic' which was a kind of semi-fascist republic, the one that preceded the Nazi invasion, and then of course what happened after the Nazis came in. So I wouldn't mix those things entirely. I think that would be going a little bit too far, particularly because the real tragedies there started happening under the Protectorate. While of course it is undoubtedly true that the guards and the people who were running the camp were themselves ethnic Czechs.

RP: All Czechs?

JJ: As far as I know they were... But you have to realise that the authorities at that time were all being directed by the Nazis and this was really an occupation force. ...The Czech state has never recognised the Protectorate authorities as being legal antecedents of Czechoslovakia after '45. On the contrary, there is a clear legal break.

RP: Do you accept, though, that the Czech authorities are reluctant to see Lety for what it was: a concentration camp in which people were tortured and died?

JJ: Yes, I would agree with that. There is a reluctance in the society to accept that the Roma were to such a degree victims of the Holocaust.

RP: You say 'society' - would you extend that to the authorities, to your government?

JJ: Well not to the present government. I would extend that to all governments until 1989, and perhaps a little bit further beyond that.

RP: On the site of Lety there is a pig farm. It's been there since the 1970s, and attempts by your predecessor Petr Uhl to have it removed failed. Are you any more optimistic that you will be able to propose a way of removing the pig farm? Do you agree it should be removed?

JJ: I agree it should be removed, but I'm not going to make any such proposal... What I could do is I could just pick up my predecessor's proposal, sign it with my name and send it again to the cabinet. But I've been told in no uncertain terms that it would be equally unsuccessful as it was two years ago, that the chances were really nil...

"It is an extremely expensive operation, and there is no chance whatsoever to get that through the cabinet. And so it would be an absolutely empty gesture on my part if I sent it up there nonetheless. And I'm not going to do that.

For more details about Lety and the history of the Roma in the Czech Lands, see Radio Prague's Roma website.