Roma Holocaust victims finally honored with dignified memorial in Lety

Memorial to the Holocaust of the Roma and Sinti in Bohemia

Roma representatives, top officials and cultural figures attended the opening of a memorial to Romany and Sinti victims of the Holocaust in Lety, south Bohemia on Tuesday. Due to communist neglect, the site of a former concentration camp originally served as a pig farm and it took close to three decades for the state to buy out the property and erect a dignified memorial in its place.

It was an emotional experience for descendants of the Roma whose lives ended in the Lety concentration camp in illness, poverty and isolation. Over 1,300 Roma passed through the camp’s gates between 1942 and 1943 never to come out. More than 300 of them died there, mostly women and children. Over 500 inmates were sent to Auschwitz.

Petr Pavel at the opening of the Memorial to the Holocaust of the Roma and Sinti in Bohemia | Photo: Petr Kubát,  Czech Radio

A handful of survivors and relatives of the victims fought for nearly three decades to get the pig farm that was built there under communism demolished and a dignified memorial erected in its place. Rudolf Murka, the son of a former inmate still felt bitterness as he watched the ceremony.

“You know what Lety stands for? Years of silence and averted eyes to what happened here. Years of disrespect for those who lost their lives and even those who survived. My father survived several concentration camps, including Auschwitz, as well as a death march. And it is inconceivable that even 20 years after the fall of communism the children of those interned here had to fight to convince the society that Romanies are people as well; people who deserve respect and a dignified memorial for their lost relatives.”

As Rudolf Murka says, it took three decades for the country’s post-communist governments to buy out the pig farm, opening the way for a dignified memorial site. Although members of the Roma minority and activists attended commemorative ceremonies there every year, the smell from the nearby pig farm was a constant reminder of the shameful neglect. "Stench of Czech pig farm reaches Brussels" the media wrote, when the EU urged the Czech authorities to address the matter.

In 2018 the Czech state finally bought the pig farm, opening the way for its demolition, and a competition was announced for the planned memorial. The studio selected for the task was Terra Florida which proposed a simple design involving a circle with the names of all the victims, a “path of remembrance” and a visitor centre with a permanent exhibition that presents testimonies of survivors in audiovisual form. Jana Kokyova, whose grandmother died in the camp, is the niece of Čeněk Růžička, a Roma activist who spearheaded the effort to have a memorial built on the site. He laid the founding stone for it, but did not live to see it completed.

“My family never believed it would happen. But my uncle did, he believed wholeheartedly that he would win this battle. He never let up in his efforts to convince politicians about it and it was his determination that made it happen.”

The memorial, which is managed by the Museum of Romany Culture, will open to the public on 12 May, when a commemorative ceremony is regularly held in Lety.