The extermination of 90 percent of the Roma population in the Czech lands during World War II has no equivalent in any other country worldwide. How could it have happened?
© Markus Pape, journalist and HR researcher based in Prague
Czechoslovakia was one of the first European countries occupied by Hitler’s Germany. Shortly before German troops invaded Prague, in early March 1938 the Czechoslovak government passed a decree establishing forced labour camps. In the newly-formed Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Nazi officials were pleased to receive lists with the names of the entire Roma population from Czechoslovak officials. In 1927 the Czechoslovak Government had ordered by law that all Roma and “people living in the gypsy way” have to register separately.
When the camp at the South Bohemian village Lety u Písku was opened in summer 1940 it served as a labour camp for male adults considered “work-shy”. The duration of their imprisonment was limited to a maximum of six months. In July 1942 a decree by the General Commander of the Protectorate Police transformed the facility into a concentration camp for Roma families for an unlimited time.
Victims of victims
Even though there was no explicit order to kill those interned there, the camp command did its best to decrease the high number of camp inmates by worsening their living conditions, withholding food, heating and medical care from them. Officially 1 309 persons were imprisoned in the so-called “Gypsy Camp”. Within nine months at least 319 of them had died, among them 241 children.
This indicates that the priority of the camp was its labour force and that children were of no use. Although the camp commander was entitled to transfer ill, injured or heavily pregnant inmates to the nearby hospital in Písek, he seldom did so. According to survivors, children of inmates were drowned in a pond close to the camp. In case of attempts to escape by camp inmates, the guards were ordered to shoot them. More than 500 survivors of the camp were then deported to the extermination camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
After the end of World War II the history of the Lety camp was carefully covered up by the communist government. None of those suspected of committing severe crimes in the camp were ever tried. Until 1994, when the US genealogist Paul Polansky coincidentally discovered camp documents in a regional archive and published the results of his research in the USA, almost nobody knew about the existence of the camp and the fate of its inmates. The government at the time claimed that all of the camp victims had died of abdominal typhus (which does not correspond with the data in the death register) and that none of the survivors were alive anymore – but Polansky found dozens of survivors and published their oral histories. In May 1995 Czech President Václav Havel unveiled a small monument at the mass graves close to the site of the former camp, but did not call upon the Government to remove the pig farm there, which had been built during communism and is still in operation to date. The book And Nobody Will Believe You (A Nikdo Vám Nebude Věřit…), published in 1997, revealed the camp’s history and was attached to a criminal complaint on suspicion of genocide that was filed by 20 intellectuals of various ethnic backgrounds.
Cover-up of history
Since then the perception of the camp’s history, by society Czech as well as Roma society, has been changing slowly but surely. Dozens of national as well as international institutions and NGOs together with descendants of the survivors called upon Czech government to replace the pig farm by a suitable memorial site. In 2005 and 2008 European Parliament did the same by a resolution. In May 2014 for the first time Czech Prime Minister joined the memorial Act at the Lety mass graves, organized by Roma annually since 1997.
The reasons for the Lety cover-up, which has lasted for decades, are various and there is not enough space to deal with this issue here. In most historiography, ethnic Czechs as well as many other “small” European ethnicities have been presented as the “eternal victims” of larger foreign forces so far, not as perpetrators of atrocities themselves. Lety proves the unpleasant fact that this has not always been the case.
 See also: www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xmMQcRJh-Q  See also: www.errc.org/article/book-review-nikdo-vam-nebude-v%C4%9B%C5%99it–markus-pape-gplusg-publishers-prague-1997/38  www.geschichtswerkstatt-europa.org/media/projekte/brochure_0115_s.pdf