President Pavel Calls For Improved Relations With Roma During Memorial Event at Lety

Pavel is only the second Czech president to attend the event after Vaclav Havel. Photo credit: Petr Pavel, via Facebook.

Lety, May 14 (CTK) – The need to defend freedom and human rights is the same now as in the past, while there is still a need to improve coexistence between the Roma community and the rest of the population, Czech President Petr Pavel said yesterday at a commemorative event in Lety, the site of the former WWII Roma concentration camp.

The event, marking the 80th anniversary of the transport of 420 Roma prisoners to the Auschwitz extermination camp, was attended by hundreds of people, including senior state representatives who laid flowers at the memorial.

Pavel is only the second Czech president to attend the event after Vaclav Havel, who visited 28 years ago.

“It is right and necessary to commemorate these events as a dark chapter of history, including our own,” the president said.

The need to defend freedom and human rights is the same now as in the past, he said. “It seems to me that humankind tends to repeat its mistakes,” he added, referring to the current suffering of civilians during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Senate chair Milos Vystrcil (ODS) said the opening of the Roma Holocaust memorial next year should be an opportunity to improve relations between the Roma and the rest of society.

“I would be very happy if the creation of this memorial became another impulse for dialogue. There are still prejudices among us, which in my opinion stem from ignorance,” he said.

He noted that he was sorry for recent words spoken in the Senate that could have hurt Roma people, such as comments from senator Jana Zwyrtek Hamplova in March about the segregation of Roma children at school. Vystrcil warned that even in democratic elections such tendencies can be encouraged.

Chamber of Deputies chair Marketa Pekarova Adamova (TOP 09) noted that the prisoners at Lety had also been mistreated by Czech gendarmes, for which the country should apologise. She added that in her opinion, it is fair to use the commemorative event for reflection as well.

“Even in today’s society here in the Czech Republic, there are many who still think in racist terms and discriminate against others. It is the duty of the rest of us to speak up against this,” she added.

She also said she expected Roma activist Cenek Ruzicka, who helped build the memorial, to receive a state decoration in memoriam from the president.

Jana Kokyova, chairwoman of the Committee for the Compensation of the Roma Holocaust in the Czech Republic and Ruzicka’s niece, pointed out that similar human characteristics that had led to the Holocaust, such as feelings of superiority and hatred, were the reasons for the current war in Ukraine. Even today, Roma people are facing attacks, especially hateful comments on social media, she added.

The forced labour camp in Lety was opened in 1940. A similar facility existed in Hodonin u Kunstatu, south Moravia. In 1942, both facilities turned into internment camps and in August of the same year, Roma camps were established there. Until May 1943, 1,308 Roma men, women and children were interned there, 327 of whom perished in the camp, and over 500 were sent to the extermination camp in Auschwitz where most of them died. According to some estimates, the Nazis murdered 90% of the Czech Roma population.

In the 1970s, a pig farm was built at the site of the Lety camp. The state purchased the farm in 2018 for CZK 450 million from the Agpi company, which kept 13,000 pigs there. The demolition of the farm was completed at the end of last year.

In its place, the site will host a memorial to the Roma and Sinti Holocaust in the Czech Lands. The Roma Culture Museum plans to open it in the first half of 2024.

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