The Romany Holocaust commemoration service at Lety


A bus of students and activists heads for Lety, South Bohemia, on May 13. They are driving to the site of a former concentration camp, set up by the Nazis to wipe out the Bohemian protectorate’s Roma population during the Second World War. Official sources say that 326 Roma perished in the concentration camp at Lety, while many hundreds more were transported from Lety to Auschwitz, where they were taken to the gas chambers.

Gwendoline Albert is an American-born Romany rights activist. On the way to Lety, she told me a bit about the commemorative service that we were about to attend:

Gwendoline Albert
“Today is the annual memorial ceremony at the former concentration camp at Lety by Písek. It’s a camp that was used for various purposes in the course of the Second World War, but the final phase is that is was a place were Roma families were interned and worked to death, and those who didn’t die there were sent on to Auschwitz. It’s quite famous in this country because there has been a lot of international criticism of the fact that there is a large industrial-capacity pig farm located on the site where this camp was, and the survivors’ organization, with whom I cooperate, has been trying to get the farm moved for a very long time.”

Isn’t one of the most recent developments that a local governor (Jan Zahradník) has come out and said ‘no, the local Romany are very happy with the monument which has been built, and we are not planning to do anything further. Our plan is to keep things exactly as they are’?

“I do know that the local administration is responsible for maintaining the existing monument, which is a registered cultural monument, and they have neglected their responsibility in that regard. And them bringing up the quote unquote “local Roma” and mentioning them is, to me, a classic example of confusing the issue. Lety is not about South Bohemia, Lety is about the history of the world – World War II, the history of Europe. It is not something that you put in the hands of a local politician to decide, even though it is important for these people to be involved in any decision. But this is about the Czech state taking responsibility for commemorating the Holocaust in a dignified way. And we see this devolution of responsibility to the lowest level in absolutely every aspect of any issue concerning the Roma, whether it’s the past or present.”

Priests sing a mass for the dead. At the Holocaust memorial a few metres away from the pig farm, a handful of government officials, as well as those who lost relatives, lay wreathes and light candles.

After the service come speeches, one of the most striking is delivered by Felix Kolber from the International Auschwitz Committee. He himself is a Holocaust survivor, who found himself interned in the ‘gypsy family camp’ at Auschwitz, several weeks after the camp’s last Romany inhabitants were liquidated:

“When we were there, nothing remained from the time that the Roma and Sinti were there. Everything had been incinerated. So the blocks were quite empty and we slept on the ground, at the start of the winter. But that is not so important, what happened to us. But we were living in an atmosphere of what had happened to the Roma, and we thought that this would happen to us too. It was only luck that some of us were sent to another concentration camp which was much milder than Auschwitz.”

And Auschwitz was where many Roma and Sinti from here, from Lety ended up…

“Yes, they were in exactly the same camp where I ended up two months after. Therefore I have a close connection with what happened in Lety, and what happened in Auschwitz to the Roma who arrived there from Lety.”

Karel Holomek is a Romany academic who was at the ceremony on Tuesday, he was himself interned at the other Romany concentration camp to be found today on Czech soil – Hodonín u Kunštat:

“I am a Roma originally from Moravia, I belong to the Czech Romanies, who were almost completely eliminated in Auschwitz. There were more than 6000 of us before the war, but only 500 people returned to their homes.”

International pressure has been mounting on the Czech government to move the pig farm from the Lety concentration camp site. He is outraged that, up until now, nothing has been done:

Pig farm
“Some people used to say that it is a question of money. But it is not a question of money. It is a question of thinking and memory and pieta – remembrance of this situation. It is not a question of money. A lot of money was squandered in the process of developing democracy here. It was lost to thieves and tunnellers etc. So this is a nonsense. It is not a question of money – it’s a question of memory.”

At this year’s ceremony, there was a high turn-out, relatively speaking, of government officials. One of the senior officials present was Džamila Stehlíková – the Minister for Minorities and Human Rights. She said it was her duty to find a solution to the Lety pig farm problem:

Džamila Stehlíková
“We are currently in very intensive discussion with all of the main players in this situation. I mean by that that we are talking to representatives of the firms which find themselves on this land, and with the local government, in order to find a dignified solution. I want to bring the results of this discussion to the Parliament by the end of the year, so that by the time we take on the EU presidency, we have some clear answers as to what and how the Czech government is going to move forward on the issue of Lety.”

Cemetery at Mirovice
After the service at Lety, it was time to lay wreathes at the nearby cemetery at Mirovice, where the bodies of many of the children who died at the camp were buried in mass graves. Recently some name plaques and a sculpture have been erected on the site, which is tucked away at the corner of the cemetery. The sculpture consists of a broken wheel, which Gwendoline Albert explains:

“A wheel is related to the earlier period of traveling and living on the road, and it is actually the central emblem in the Roma flag, and so to have it broken here is symbolic of what happened.”

Lasting memorials to what happened at Lety are discreet to say the least and not that easy to come by. What’s more, May 13 is the only day on which the Lety pig farm switches off its ventilation system, meaning that the air only smells quite bad. Minister Stehlíková has said she wants a solution to the problem by the end of the year, and it could well be that the Czech cabinet is keener than ever to find one too, because, as it has been noted, it will make it all the harder to push human rights issues during the country’s EU presidency next year if it doesn’t clean up the bad smell that Lety creates.