Chakra

Confronting a Roma Killing Field
in the Czech Lands

by Ivan Gabal


The East must re-evaluate its history based on 'new truths'

For post-communist countries, no complete transition can be made without addressing history. Loss of historical perspective, collapse of time into the short term, and predatory thinking are features of postwar angst. But a significant part of that angst is based on an uncertainty surrounding who we are and who we used to be under the thumb of Nazism and later under communism. Who were the collaborators here? Who perpetrated violence, and who helped the violence, oppression, and misery? Was it us or them-Nazis, Germans, communists, Russians? What to do with so many more or less quiet years living under communism, more or less completely cooperating with the regime? If we do not face the fact that communism was functional for such a long time in part thanks to ourselves, that we were present when the Nazis transported Jews and Roma to the gas chambers, we will find ourselves at a point where there is no dimension of time and history.

Markus Pape forces us to discuss the past. In his book And No One Will Believe You, which is intended to a be a factual account of the concentration camp in the village of Lety in southern Bohemia, the young German journalist takes us to the period of the German protectorate in Bohemia and Moravia (1939 to 1945) and looks at the question of Czech participation in the murder of Roma. Considering the relationship between Czechs and Germans during the war and after, as well as the lasting xenophobia and evident latent and explicit racism of Czech society toward Roma, the book represents a strong appeal for Czechs to discuss our history and come to terms with it. Pape's book includes, in addition to documents and descriptions, 12 theses claiming that the Czech protectorate's government and police, of their own volition, arranged and carried out the genocide of Roma in the concentration camp at Lety in 1942 and 1943. The camp was  administrated by the protectorate's authorities and brutally managed by a Czech camp chief and Czech wardens, who committed offenses intentionally-in other words, purposefully.

Pape documents his argument that building and operating the camp in Lety was a direct consequence of the presence of the Nazi protectorate in Bohemia and Moravia, but, because of the increasing repression of Roma and Sinti even before the German occupation, it was not contradictory to popular sentiment toward Roma and Sinti at the time. Maltreatment and persecution-even murder-of the prisoners by the Czech chief and wardens did not contradict the general Czech attitudes toward Roma. But in addition to giving substantial evidence documenting those claims, Pape implies that the historical trend of prewar Czechoslovakia led not only to persecution of Romani, but even to violence and genocide. Such claims go against past interpretations of historical facts, their connections to the present, and the assigning of blame.

While I do not doubt the victims' suffering and the tragic dimensions of the behavior of the Czechs under the German protectorate, I believe that the treatment of the Lety prisoners was a gross abuse of the situation under the protectorate, a situation that allowed personal acts of violence, cruelty, and theft. Pape's evaluation of Czech attitudes toward Roma is openly critical, stating that Czech racism against the Roma was a fundamental part of the politics of the Czech state:
 

Thesis 10. The public is unconcerned about the misery of the prisoners in Lety. The historical memory of the public has done nothing to bring about the closure of the pig farm that was built in the 1970s on the site of the former camp ...

Thesis 11. Important facts about the camp in Lety are concealed ... The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has attempted to obtain microfilm of camp documents and other material concerning the concentration camp in Lety ... [The Czech Foreign Ministry] sent only photocopies of selected archival materials together with a historical introduction. But the photocopies left out important documents, such as instructions from the Interior Ministry ... that ordered the transportation to Lety and Hodonin [a camp in Moravia exclusively for Roma] of Czech and Moravian Roma and Sinti and which provided detailed lists on their number ...


Pape believes that the Czech state and public intentionally suppressed and distorted history to the disadvantage of the Roma. It seems, however, that Pape is so carried away by his own interpretations that he disregards other historical facts. There is no doubt that postwar governments, especially the communist bureaucracy, had little interest in presenting an accurate historical picture. Maybe Pape does not know that the communist police took over a network of Gestapo agents and continued to use it after the war or that the communists used to move the Roma by force from Slovakia to the Czech border area (in the 1950s) and to the north of Bohemia (in the 1960s). He probably does not know that Roma in Slovakia lived in incredibly underdeveloped, backward villages, that they were forbidden to lead their traditionally nomadic life, that the communist regime forced them to assimilate, losing their mother tongue and historical consciousness. Yes, the communist government did all that and more, as it was a totalitarian regime of injustice where human rights were concerned. Today we have to uncover history and correct it step by step, to give ourselves a complete picture. Nevertheless, it is not appropriate to blame the present Czech state for intentionally suppressing or corrupting history.

Markus Pape has written a careful and solid-extremely solid by journalistic standards-historical piece of research. But he did not present its results in the form of historical research; instead, he used it to apply pressure, however well intended. But even this is speculation. The truth cannot be fully told without further historical research.


Ivan Gabal was born in Prague and received a doctorate in sociology in 1978 from Charles University. He was a member of the Civic Forum movement and has been a political analyst in President Vaclav Havel's office. He now works as a private consultant and political analyst.

Copyright © 1998 by Transitions magazine.
Reprinted by the Patrin Web Journal with permission.
Posted 17 March 1999.



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