Four years ago after discovering 40,000 documents
in a Czech archive on a Gypsy Holocaust camp, I appealed to President Vaclav
Havel's office to help find survivors to determine if the camp was run
by Czechs or Germans. According to the documents it was a Czech-run death
camp. A spokesman said the President was following my investigation with
interest but unfortunately they had already determined that the camp was
ran by the Germans and there were no survivors. Havel's spokesman also
told me that Gypsies weren't worth investigating. They were an unclean
race with no history, no culture, no achievements. He suggested I look
for a better project.
Most of my Czech friends agreed. They told me I was a naive American
who had no experience with Gypsies. If I lived with them, really knew them
as the Czechs did, I wouldn't waste my time. So I asked where I could find
some Gypsies to live with. My friends told me if I wandered into the Gypsy
ghettos of any Czech city, I would never be seen again.
I visited Chanov first because it has the worst
reputation. When the Communist Government stopped Gypsies from travelling
with their wagons in the Fifties, many families were housed in apartment
buildings here. These Gypsies weren't used to living eight stories high.
But they were used to collecting scrap metal. Once these apartments were
stripped, Czech photographers flocked in to illustrate in national magazines
that Gypsies did not know how to live like human beings.
The present-day Czech government has left these high-rise abandoned
buildings to show the world how difficult it is to deal with Gypsies. 'Today
there are no problems with the Romany living in the two-storey apartment
blocks surrounding these gutted structures. The only problem is that there
is no work in Chanov for the Romanies since the Velvet Revolution. Every
father I met in the ghetto was going to or coming from prison.
But it was the children of Chanov that intrigued me the meet. All attended
a special school for the mentally handicapped because that is the only
school for Gypsies in these ghettos. I asked these children to teach me
a few words of Romany. Instead they sang me all of Michael Jackson’s songs
in English. He is their hero because he was able to change the colour of
his skin. They all dream of doing that some day.
Living in a Gypsy ghetto in Prague, I found my
first survivors of Lety, the Holocaust camp I had been researching. After
several interviews I knew it was no use reporting back to President Havel
that his spokesman had been wrong, because I discovered a cover-up originating
in the President's own office. Most of the survivors showed me copies of
letters they had written years ago to President Havel, asking him to help
them obtain justice. As early as 1990 the President had been promised in
writing to help them, but no one ever received a second letter or any help.
Later I was to find almost 100 survivors of Lety, to the embarrassment
of the Czech Government, And from the oral histories I collected I was
able to track down the Czech guard regarded by survivors as the most notorious
killer in the camp, who allegedly abused and murdered young men and women.
Still alive and willing to testify is his cleaning lady who says she had
to wash up the blood in his office.
In 1992, while President of Czechoslovakia, Havel
made a humanitarian speech at Letanovce, a Romany community in Slovakia
before the Czech Republic and Slovakia split). He proclaimed to the foreign
press that the real litmus test for his country’s new democracy would be
the Gypsy question. At that time the Romany ghetto of Letanovce had two
one-room log cabins housing over 700 people. The ghetto, five kilometres
from the rest of the village, had no electricity, water, sewage or transportation.
President Havel promised the Romanies they would have the basic necessities
of life within months.
This year I stayed in Letanovce. Nothing has changed since Havel's visit,
except that more women have died in childbirth because there is no phone
to call a doctor. Actually, one thing has changed. The Romanies are no
longer allowed to collect firewood in the forest, a right they enjoyed
until the Slovak Government declared the forest a national park. Now a
policeman patrols the forest to stop Gypsies from collecting kindling and
also to prevent them from using it as a toilet. The ghetto has never had
an outhouse, private or public.
Most Romany families I've lived with board up their windows when the
sun goes down to prevent a Molotov cocktail being thrown into their home
by skinheads. It is a refreshing experience to sit with a close-knit family
all evening, playing cards, telling stories. They are clean, honest and
Today I live with a Romany family in a small town
north of Prague. Six of us live, eat and sleep in two small rooms in a
two-storey apartment building owned by the city council. Although this
family has never applied or received welfare from the Czech Government,
the town hall is determined to move them and the other six Romany families
in the building out of the centre of the town. These Romanies pay a high
rent for miserable conditions, but the town hall has refused to repair
a broken municipal sewage pipe in the basement of the building. Last year
a Molotov cocktail was thrown through this family's window, injuring two
children. The municipal street lights were turned off minutes beforehand.
As horrible as life is for the Romanies in Slovakia and the Czech Republic,
it is much worse the further east one goes. If Britain and other EU countries
fear that 3,000 Gypsies are on their way, then the Council of Europe should
prepare a few million more beds. A Romany friend who works for the European
Roma Rights Centre, which monitors Romany communities, estimates
these Romany populations: Czech Republic 350,000; Slovakia 900,000; Hungary
2,500,000; Romania 4,900,000; Russia 1,000,000; Bulgaria 1,500,000; Greece
The Republican political party in the Czech Republic
campaigns openly against Gypsies. In full-page ads in the Prague newspapers
during the last national elections, they promised a 'Final solution’ for
the Gypsies if elected. In Parliament the Republicans went from zero seats
Legislation signed into law by Havel has not helped the Romanies. A
new citizenship law in 1993 allowed only about 10 per cent of the Romany
population to qualify. A new census bill required all citizens to state
their race; failure to do so was punished by a large fine and prison sentence.
Many Romanies feel this was the same census law the Nazis used. In such
a situation, can another Lety be far behind? One 83-year-old Holocaust
survivor asked me why God was punishing her twice in her life. Her only
grandson spent six months in hospital after being impaled on a metal pole
After the minor exodus of Romanies to Dover,
the Republican party this week published an article in their newspaper
which said: "We Republicans are guilty of being racists and fascists for
three reasons: firstly, because we are Czech, secondly because we are white,
and thirdly because we are patriots. Gypsies might have protection under
the law but for true citizens, Gypsies have none." Comments such as this
appear daily. Dr Miroslav Sladek, leader of the Republicans, continually
states that the Gypsies' worst crime is being born.
Ironically, as President Havel, the professional
humanist, jet sets around the world collecting awards, his Gypsies follow
him, hoping the country that now believes in his words will give them political
asylum. Honours abroad to a country's leader do not translate into improved
human rights at home.
As a naive American maybe I should now live with a Czech family to hear
the other side of the story. Perhaps President Havel will invite me to
stay in his new $2-million home. But I think the stink of hypocrisy there
might be worse than a broken sewage line.