By Kaitlyn Kurdziel
When we study the Holocaust, it is often from the Jewish perspective. We hear stories of Jewish survivors and the number of Jews killed. Historians have crafted a narrative that often overlooks the other victims of the Holocaust. The disabled, homosexuals, political prisoners, and the Roma appear as a footnote within the narrative. The plight of these minority populations exists as a forgotten or unknown Holocaust.
The forgotten Holocausts have been created as a result of a hierarchy of marginalization among Holocaust victims. This hierarchy has been built by historians and is assisted by the lack of evidence regarding the persecution of minorities other than the Jewish population during the Holocaust. The Holocaust’s hierarchy of marginalization is propagated by the fact that “one victim group controls such a large percentage of the testimonies that bear witness to the fate of the other” (Joskowicz 2016:111). The Roma Holocaust victims represent only a fraction of the Holocaust victims. An estimated 14.5 million people were murdered during the Holocaust, 196,000–220,000 of which were Roma. The Roma were and are a minority among minorities. Most of today’s accounts of the Holocaust come from Jewish Holocaust survivors. Historians and history have given Jewish Holocaust survivor’s a platform to share their stories and help build and contribute to the history of the Holocaust. The Romani have not been given the same chance to build and contribute to the history of the Holocaust. There is little to no testimony from Romani survivors. The Roma are left out of most of the narratives. Their history is often untold and unknown by the general public. Their history is often neglected and cast aside.
The former Lety camp is a prime example of how Roma history is cast aside. The site of the former concentration camp is located about one hour outside of Prague. In 1940, the camp was built by the Czecho-Slovak government as a labor camp in order to detain criminals and people avoiding work. In August of 1942, the camp made the transition from a labor camp to “Gypsy Camp.” The transition was an attempt to eliminate what Nazi Germany deemed the “Gypsy problem.” Over 1,300 people passed through the “Gypsy camp” between August 2, 1942 and August 6, 1943. Of the 1,300 people who passed through the camp over 300 died as a result of the atrocious living conditions within the camp. The camp was overcrowded and detainees were underfed, forced to conduct hard labor, and live in unhygienic living conditions. Over 500 of the 1,300 occupants of the Lety “Gypsy camp” were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Most of the deportees were murdered in Auschwitz.
There is a memorial at the Lety site commemorating those who were detained in the camp as well as those who died there. When visiting the site and memorial, visitors are greeted with the stench of manure. Part of the former internment camp is now home to a pig farm. The presence of the pig farm taints the Lety site as a site of memory. It demonstrates a sense of disregard for the memory of those who suffered in the former “Gypsy camp.” There have been attempts to buy out the pig farm by the government but most have fallen through due to the inability to agree on a price for the farm. While the government and the owner of the pig farm have argued over the price point the farm has continued to expand on top of the site.
The owners of the farm have requested that the government pays to have them moved to a new location rather than a buyout of the property. The Czech government has been reluctant to do so because of the cost of the move as well as the difficulty of obtaining the proper permits and paperwork. It has raised the question of what matters more: money or memory? It appears that some government officials have placed a price on memorializing lost lives and suffering of the Roma. Recently, the pig farm has accepted the Czech government’s most recently proposed buyout but it has taken twenty years to get to this point. This is the only known Holocaust concentration camp site that appears to have had this much contention.
The issue of the Lety site is not aided by the fact that the former Czech President Václav Klaus once denied that Lety was a concertation camp stating it was only a labor camp for those who refused to work. Others have claimed that the deaths within the camp were a result of poor personal hygiene habits of the Roma rather than crowded unhygienic living conditions. It is evident that even in persecution there is a hierarchy.
The differences in physical appearance, as well as language and culture, of Romani have constantly led to them being viewed as a part of a lower social class. When looking at the Lety site and lack of records on the Roma during the Holocaust, it is evident that this viewpoint has spread to the crafting of history and memory of events. The stigma against the Roma has spread to how the Roma are remembered and viewed in history. Though the government has bought out the pig farm, the damage has already been done. Due to the stereotypes and prejudices against the Roma, their history has been placated by a pig farm.