On 3 December 1998, an open letter was
presented to the Czech government asking for the elimination of the large-scale
pig farm at Lety u Písku in South Bohemia, the site of a concentration
camp for Roma during the Second World War. The letter was signed by a number
of well-known cultural figures and spiritual leaders, both within the Czech
Republic and abroad, including Simon Wiesenthal, Guenter Grass, Václav
Malý, Karol Sidon and Tomáš Halík.
The New Presence has written
about Lety before (December 1996), but it would not hurt to review the
details of its history. At the exact same location where a factory farm
for 13,000 pigs now stands, a concentration camp for Roma from across Bohemia
was in operation during the War. The camp was witness to severely inhuman
conditions, and hundreds of people, including children, were killed there.
Those who did survive Lety were sent to the extermination camps at Auschwitz,
Treblinka and others.
This camp (and the one at Hodonín pod Kunštátem in Moravia)
was responsible for the eradication of more than half of the Roma population
in the Czech lands. The extermination was often supported by the Czech
population, especially members of the Protectorate police force.
December's open letter evokes an agreement of the Conference for Security
and Co-operation in Europe from 1991, which Prague signed, binding the
Czechoslovak (and now Czech) government to "...attempt to protect and maintain
monuments and memorials, including the most well-known extermination camps
and related archives, which stand as evidence of the tragic events in the
common history (of the signatories). Such measures should serve to make
sure that those events will not be forgotten. They will help to teach this
and future generations about those events and ensure that those events
never happen again."
In spite of this, the factory farm at Lety remains, public debate drags
on and no Czech government has thus far declared that it will be removed
from the site.
Those who defend keeping the factory farm in place emphasize several
points. They use economic arguments, claiming that society does not have
the resources for such a costly project: the state would have to buy the
property (the factory farm was privatized in 1994 for several million crowns),
and local unemployment would increase (it currently has 18 employees).
Some say it would be better to use the state's resources.
Others say that eliminating a pig farm just for the Roma is not worth
it or that what happened in Lety is not really a crime on the same level
as the genocide in the camps in Poland, Germany and Austria. Some are even
claiming that the factory farm is in a wholly different location than the
camp. A few have said that if the state were to remove the factory farm
against the will of its owner, the Czech Republic's entire privatization
process could be thrown into doubt.
It is clear that neither the government nor the wider public is willing
to address the matter of the former camp in Lety in a manner appropriate
to the seriousness of what happened there. Even Czech historians (with
the exception of Ctibor Neèas at Brno's Masaryk University) have
not given much attention to this matter, and the prevailing tendency is
to refer to Lety as a "reception camp." It is notable that foreign authors,
such as the American, Paul Polansky and the German, Markus Pape, point
out that the camp at Lety played a significant role in the genocide of
the Bohemian Roma.
The hard reality is that, though the camp was run and managed by Czech
personnel, not one of the warders was ever sentenced on the basis of the
Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted
by the UN General Assembly 9 December 1948 and made Czechoslovak law in
1955. The only trial related to Lety was a case involving the camp's director,
Josef Janovský in the years 1945 to 1948. No guilt was found in
Certainly this legal debt is partially the result of the political situation
in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, but even today, justice has not been done.
A recent petition calling for an investigation of possible crimes committed
at Lety has been ignored. The genocide of Roma during the Second World
War is still a taboo subject in the Czech Republic.
The lack of official willingness thus far to deal with the issue of
closing down the factory farm has led Peter Uhl, the Czech government's
commissioner for human rights, to attempt to address the matter. One will
have to wait to see the final results of his intentions, but his current
plan to start a public collection to pay for the factory farm's elimination
does not evoke much hope. Meanwhile, the government is only discussing
the possibility of paying the remainder of the money needed.
In any case, the fate of the Roma during the War
is forgotten here in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Europe. Establishing
a proper memorial in Lety could be an important step toward remembering
and recognizing these sad pages in the history of the Continent.