“They didn’t get to experience the world”: Roma children born and killed in camps get monument

This month a monument was unveiled in Liberec entitled To Children Who Didn’t Get to Know the World. The memorial is specifically to Roma children who were born and died in WWII camps – and follows years of research by historian Ivan Rous and others.

Czechia’s best-known WWII Nazi concentration camp for members of the Roma minority was in Lety, south Bohemia. A pig farm was built on the site in the 1970s and only demolished in 2022, after – following long years of discussion – the facility had been purchased by the Czech government. A new memorial to the victims of the Roma and Sinti Holocaust is planned there.

The memorial in Lety u Písku | Photo: Barbora Němcová,  Radio Prague International

However, Lety was by no means the only concentration camp on Czech territory into which the Nazis forced “gypsies”, who they considered racially inferior.

Historian Ivan Rous works for the North Bohemian Museum in Liberec and has been studying this dark chapter in history for many years. Last year he published The Arms Industry and Camps I, the first Czech book exploring in detail the functioning of the Nazi arms industry and forced labour in the Sudetenland.

Recently Rous has been closely involved in the creation of a monument that specifically seeks to remember the children who were born in such places – and never experienced anything but camps before meeting their deaths at very young ages.

“The whole thing started very simply. I was doing research into all different types of Nazi forced labour camps in the Liberec and Jablonec districts. And in documentation from the 1960s I found a single mention of the fact that there had been a Roma camp by a quarry. That’s where it ended – and for a long time we couldn’t find any concrete material related to that camp.”

A breakthrough came when a German oral historian, Rado Faltis, managed to track down a survivor of the local camps. The now elderly Roma lady managed to identify the spot where camp for Roma and Sinti had been located.

Ivan Rous | Photo: Jana Švecová,  Czech Radio

However, according to Rous – who says it is believed that there were at least four camps for Roma in the Liberec Region alone – it took some time to establish more of the facts.

“The initial research was in the archives. We discovered that the camp for Roma and Sinti in Liberec moved about. First it was by that quarry in the Rochlice district, in a small building that had already been there. Then they moved them to a factory. And in the end they built a camp that the city authorities referred to as a ‘concentration camp’ in 1941.”

As to the question of how many camps specifically for Romanies there were, the historian says quite a lot is known today about those that were in the Nazi-created Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

But things were very different in the Sudetenland, the part of the country the Nazis occupied first, in October 1938. There is scant information on camps in that part of the country.

“We know for example that there was one more camp in the Liberec area, though we don’t know its exact location. In any case, it can be assumed that there were more, for instance around Ústí nad Labem and in similar localities where, according to Nazi doctrine, it was necessary to concentrate the Roma and Sinti. The camp here in Liberec held around 130 people.”

In recent times Rous has been specifically working to honour the memory of the Roma children who were born and died in Nazi camps.

“We identified that the first transport was to Auschwitz. That transport included children who had a date of birth from the time when the camp already existed here. So we were thinking they couldn’t have been born in freedom and were most likely born in the camp.”

Seven wooden crosses at the site of the former camp in Liberec | Photo: Lucie Fürstová,  Czech Radio

Nearly six years ago the historian was involved in the erection of seven wooden crosses at the site of the former camp in Liberec, by the city’s Kunratická St. Each was dedicated to a boy whose life had been cut cruelly short during the Roma Holocaust.

Some time later, the names of little girls also murdered by the Germans before they reached the age of four, or even one, were also tracked down.

This discovery prompted the creation of the more substantial monument that now stands in Liberec. It is made of local granite and is inlaid with a bronze plaque listing the children’s names along with the stark facts of their dates of birth and death (where known).

“We identified seven boys who were born in Liberec while that camp was in existence. Later Michal Schuster tracked down the names of four girls, which makes it 11 children in total. The awful thing is we have zero information about them. They were born in work camps and all that awaited them were transports to Auschwitz concentration camp, where they were murdered. Some individuals also ended up in Buchenwald or Ravensbrück.”

Today virtually nothing is known of the conditions in which the children and their families were forced to live in the Liberec camp, says Rous.

“As early as 1943 it was converted into a camp for French POWs. So that layer of French POWs covered over the memory that might have remained in some way. We came across just one piece of information: that a Roma man was punished for chopping up a door for firewood in the winter.”

Photo: Radek Petrášek,  ČTK

The historian says there were around 330 Nazi forced labour camps of different kinds in two districts in North Bohemia alone. But the camp that gave rise to the new monument was among the harshest.

“That camp, meant for Roma and Sinti, belonged to the worst category, meaning that the entire population was murdered. So that’s the same level as concentration camps. There is a moral obligation to mark such a place with a monument.”

The simple but imposing six-tonne monument was initiated by the North Bohemian Museum and Roma groups, including one led by local Roma community leader Jan Cverčko. Funding came from the Liberec Region.

“We had it erected quite quickly. I didn’t want to waste time with a competition to design it. It was also relatively reasonably priced, at under CZK 100,000. Above all it’s such a big stone that it will last for a long time, I’m sure.”

The camp for Roma and Sinti | Photo: Ivan Rous

Ivan Rous, who has dedicated a lot of energy to this endeavour, says he couldn’t help but be personally touched by the fates of the young children now memorialised.

“As a museum we were also carrying out archaeological research at the site. But then my daughter was born. When you have a child you think about the kind of life they will have, the kind of world they have been born into, and so on. In that moment it struck me that these children hadn’t got to experience the world. For me this is the most important point: These were children who were denied the chance to experience the world.”

As so often, says Rous, it is the most vulnerable who suffer due to events clearly far beyond their control.

“The consequences of these conflicts between adults are borne by children, who are innocent. We could speak for ages about how the world works, whether it’s possible to do anything about it and whether it’ll still be like that a millennium from now. But it’s simply terrible really.”

The children’s names were Anton, Erika, Hilda, Max and Raimund Bamberger, Adolf Bernhardt, Maria Klimt and Erika, Fritz, Johann and Rudolf Richter.