Voices of the victims

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Czech Republic

Dušan Slačka

In the autumn of 1938, the German Reich occupied large parts of the Czechoslovakian border region on the basis of the Munich Agreement. The armies of Poland and Hungary also annexed Czechoslovakian territory. The newly created second Czechoslovakian Republic witnessed a radicalisation of anti-Roma sentiment. Police authorities, municipal administrations, journalists and commentators as well as politicians proposed, following the German model, that Roma be sterilised or placed in concentration camps. In mid-March 1939, Slovakia declared its independence, and the rump state was then occupied by the German Army. The Nazis proclaimed the ‘Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia’, a state entity effectively annexed by the German Reich.

Various Roma Groups

According to estimates, around 100,000 Roma lived in interwar Czechoslovakia. They were divided into several groups, with Slovak and Hungarian Roma forming the absolute majority. Moravian Roma had begun to settle in the seventeenth century. Not many in number, Bohemian Roma were mostly involved in itinerant trades, as were Vlach Roma. Sinti lived in the German-speaking border region and in larger cities. Later, industrialisation superseded the traditional metalworking trades of Roma. Besides the relatively prosperous musicians and horse traders, the majority of Roma had a low economic and social standing, earning their living as day labourers. Assimilation of Roma intensified in the interwar period, particularly in Moravia, where Roma attended secondary schools and universities for the first time.

Discrimination in the Interwar Period

Roma were perceived more as a social group than as an ethnically or racially defined minority. Roma and non-Roma, classified according to a discriminatory law from 1927 as ‘vagrant Gypsies’ or ‘living in the Gypsy way’, were issued special passes and placed under constant police surveillance. They were, for example, refused entry to larger cities and certain regions.

Race Laws and Camps

The perception of Roma as a racially inferior group ran parallel to the adoption of anti-Roma decrees in the Protectorate (in the border region occupied by the German Reich this had already taken place in the autumn of 1938). First, ‘vagrancy’ was prohibited in 1940. Some Roma were deported to concentration camps as part of radical measures taken against alleged ‘asocial elements’. Open persecution on the basis of race began in the summer of 1942, when the ‘Decree for Combating the Gypsy Menace’, in effect in the German Reich since 1938, was implemented. Some 6,500 ‘Gypsies and mixed-blood Gypsies’ were consequently registered. More than 2,500 of them were interned in ‘Gypsy camps’ at Lety u Písku and Hodonín u Kunštátu, where more than 500 Roma – men, women and children – died as a direct result of the horrific living conditions.

Deportation and Murder

Beginning in the spring of 1943, Roma, whether still living in freedom or already interned in camps, were then deported to the concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. This terrible fate befell almost 5,000 Roma from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Their possessions were sold, expropriated or destroyed. Fewer than 600 distressed and impoverished Roma survivors returned from the concentration camps after the war. The Nazi genocide led to the almost complete annihilation of the original Roma population in Bohemia and Moravia.

No Recognition, No Remembrance

The racially motivated persecution of Roma was not officially recognised after the war. Commemoration of Romani victims of the genocide remained limited to the intimate family milieu of a small group of survivors. Society in general and the authorities turned their attention to the newly arriving Romani immigrants from Slovakia. Researchers first began to investigate the genocide against Roma at the end of the 1960s, and the first specific study was published in 1981. Interest in the topic first grew after the fall of the communist regime in 1989.

The same applies to commemorating the victims and the payment of compensation to the survivors. Greater awareness was achieved by the briefly active Association of Gypsy Roma, the very first Roma organisation in the country, at the beginning of the 1970s. The general disinterest and apathy of the public towards discussing the Nazi persecution also meant that the places where Roma suffered were not treated in a way befitting a memorial site. For decades, a pig farm was located on the grounds of the former camp in Lety u Písku, while until recently a recreational centre used the Hodonín u Kunštátu site.