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The concentration camps in Letymarker and Hodonínmarker were World War II internment camps for Romani people (Gypsies) from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (which nowadays forms the larger part of the Czech Republicmarker).

Background

On March 2, 1939, (two weeks before the German occupation), the Czecho-Slovak government ordered that a labor camp be set up for "people avoiding work and living off crime" (at this time labour duty was mandatory).

The construction of a camp near the village of Letymarker (in Písek District) started on July 17. The location was picked because nearby forests, owned by the House of Schwarzenberg, had been devastated by a storm. The first twelve prisoners arrived on July 17, 1940.

The camp next to the village Hodonínmarker (near the town Kunštátmarker) was constructed later and was opened during December 1940.

The camps consisted of several large and small wooden barracks, and were surrounded by a wooden fence. Czech gendarme (četníci) guarded the places (service in such camps was considered a disciplinary punishment). Josef Janovský was named commander of Lety camp; Štefan Blahynka, commander of Hodonín camp.

Similar forced labor camps existed in Planá nad Lužnicí, Mirošovmarker, Hradišťko and other places; prisoners were typically used for hard labour such as road construction. In total, around 50,000 people went through such labour camps during the war.

The total number of prisons and camps of all kinds within the boundaries of modern-day Czech Republicmarker was 2,125 (František Nedbálek, Místa utrpení a vzdoru, Prague 1984).

As Labor camps

Lety

During 1940, 233 persons were sent to Lety, of those 197 with previous criminal records. During 1941, the numbers were: 537 persons, 498 with previous criminal records, 45 persons labeled as Gypsies, 27 escape attempts with 25 escapees caught.

The prisoners were forced to do hard work in a quarry, were treated harshly and the sick lacked medicine. Many guards, including commander Janovský, were regularly stealing food from the camp stores, further reducing meager rations for the prisoners.

Hodonín

Projected capacity of the camp was to keep 300 people during summer, 200 during winter. New barracks were added later, lifting official capacity to 750 prisoners in 1943. Running water, sewage and electricity infrastructure was planned but never finished.

Situation of Romani people in the Protectorate

Starting in 1940, Romanies were forbidden to travel. In 1942, the measures already in force in Germany were applied in the Protectorate as well and, as immediate result, a few hundred people deemed "asocial" were deported to Auschwitzmarker. On June 24 1942, protectorate minister of interior, Richard Bienert, ordered the collection of statistics about "Gypsies, mixed Gypsies and people with gypsy style of life". Around 6,500 people were recorded in these statistics (based on older records and often on skin color).

On July 10, general Horst Böhme, Chief of Security Police, ordered Romanies to be moved into two camps: Lety for Romanies from Bohemia, Hodonín for those from Moravia.

As 'Gypsy' camps

Lety

All pre-existing prisoners at Lety were released or transferred, except for 19 Romanies already imprisoned. On October 2 1942, the first new internees arrived.

The capacity of the camp was soon exhausted. Even though new buildings were constructed, the site continued to be overcrowded. Some internees were able to secure their release by bribing officials in Prague.

Internees worked on logging trees, road building and on neighbouring farms. The food was meagre and the rations decreased over time. During winter, internees were not provided by sufficient clothing. Brutality on behalf of the guards was common. A typhoid epidemic started in December 1942 and did not recede until the camp was closed in May 1943. Commander Janovský was recalled for inability to deal with the epidemic and replaced by Commander Blahynka.

The first transport with 94 people to Auschwitz left on December 4, 1942, and a second followed with 417 people on May 14, 1943. Most of the remaining prisoners were sent to the camp in Hodonín.

Overall numbers

The records are generally considered incomplete and all figures can be considered minimums:
  • Compilation of existing data gives a total of 1,327 prisoners interned in the camp
  • 359 deaths (estimate), including all children born in the camp
  • Around 1/4 of the prisoners were either released or attempted to escape (cca 100 escapees succeeded)
  • Over 500 deported to Auschwitz


Hodonín

All pre-existing prisoners at Hodonín were released or transferred, except for 7 Romanies already imprisoned. During the first month after it was re-opened, 1,229 people arrived. On October 1, 1942, the camp held 205 men, 287 women and 561 children and youths.

Internees were assigned to work, typically on construction of local roads; those not performing were beaten. Like in Lety, the food and winter clothing provided was insufficient.

On December 7, 1942, 78 "asocials" were transported to Auschwitz. In December 1942, typhoid started to take its toll in the camp and by the next May, only 5-10% of internees were considered healthy. A lack of medicine to treat the disease, as well as the horrible hygienic conditions, kept the epidemic going for months. On October 21, 1943, 784 prisoners were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenaumarker. Of the remaining 62 internees, some were released, and the rest were sent to Auschwitz in 1944.

Overall numbers:
  • Around 1300 prisoners passed through the camp
  • 207 deaths
  • 262 released
  • 67 successfully escaped (thouse caught were brutally beaten)
  • 863 deported to Auschwitz


Extermination at Auschwitz

During the course of the war, a total of 4,831 Romanies from the Protectorate were sent to Auschwitzmarker. Of those, few survived. Estimations vary, but well over 4,000 of them died there.

Postwar investigations

Lety

After the war, several trials against personnel of Lety camp began. Commander Janovský was jailed and charged in 1945. The investigation was stopped in 1946 but restarted in 1948. Both guards and former prisoners gave testimony about his brutality and theft, but Janovský was acquitted.

Guard Josef Hejduk was accused of torture, and former prisoners accused him of several murders. He was acquitted in 1947: the witnesses were not seen as trustworthy due to their criminal records. Harsh treatment was explained by the "need to deal with dangerous criminals." Guard Josef Luňáček, also accused of torture, was found guilty of a minor offense and punished with an official warning (důtka).

The Chief of Police in the Protectorate, Friedrich Sowa, was sentenced to 10 years for crimes that included extermination of Romanies, the decision was later overturned, (since he acting on Himmler's orders), and he was expelled from the country.

Hodonín

When rumors about atrocities in the camp appeared after the war, Commander Blahynka wrote a statement in 1946 denying any wrongdoings. No official investigation against him had started. Former prisoner Blažej Dydy, acting as Kapo (a supervisor of other prisoners) in Hodonín and Auschwitz, was sentenced in 1947 to life in prison for theft and the murder of other inmates.

Forgotten and Rediscovered History

After the war, the existence of Romani camps was practically forgotten outside the Romani community, except by specialized historians. The whole community of Czech Romanies was annihilated and the new ones, who came from Slovakiamarker and Romaniamarker, had no knowledge about this tragedy. During the 1970s, a large factory pig farm was constructed near the place of Lety camp. In place of Hodonín camp, a tourist hotel has been built.

In 1992 the book Black Silence by Paul Polansky compiled historical records and testimonials of survivors. The book started heated discussions in the Czech Republic about Czech relations to the Romanies and their history.

The most recent book on Lety is 1997's And No One Will Believe You by Markus Pape. One review noted:
Previous studies of the Romani Holocaust in Czechoslovakia have, as Pape suggests, rejected survivors’ memories of extermination, executions, murders and rape carried out by the commandant and his guards, and have claimed that the camp did not function as an extermination camp. Such claims are joined to the assertion that survivors have, with the passing of time, confused what they saw with their own eyes in the camp. At the same time, previous studies have concluded that state documents exclude the possibility of such crimes having been committed. Pape succeeds, with this volume, in demonstrating that the state documents themselves not only support, but actually go further than, the eye-witness accounts; the idea that Lety really was an extermination camp is the first of the two main theses of the book... The second thesis of the book is that the camp at Lety operated with a certain independence from the Reich and erratic control from Prague.


Political symbolism

The existence of the camps (or, more precisely, that they were guarded by Czech policemen and the existence of the pig farm near Lety) quickly became a very powerful symbol in Czech politics. Some politicians, starting with minister Vladimír Mlynář, tried to appeal to the conscience of the population, some warned of "rewriting history in name of political correctness" and "artificial planting of guilt into public opinion". The issue started to attract minor political groups seeking to receive media attention.

Romani activists picked the pig farm as a symbol of the Czech stance toward the Roma. They insist it is a source of shame for the country internationally and have repeatedly asked the government to relocate the farm. Their efforts gained further attention by a resolution of the European Parliamentmarker in 2005 asking the Czech Government remove the farm.

Opponents have criticized the massive cost of the farm's relocation, and insisted it has no impact on the actual life of Romani people. They claim that the real intention of the activists is to extort money from the state and that the farm's removal would lead to a worsening of already tense relations between ethnic Czechs and Roma.

In both 2005 and 2006, the Czech government announced its intention to buy and liquidate the farm, but has recently decided against it.

In 2005, an exhibition of historical photographs and documentation entitled Lety Detention Camp: History of Unmentioned Genocide was held in the European Parliament and toured cities in Europe.

More recently, organizations in the Czech Republic such as the Committee for the Redress of the Romani Holocaust, Dzeno Association, and Romea are working to keep the issue alive and defend the site from right-wing extremist political demonstrations.

Lety Stone

A commemorative stone, with a plaque, was erected by the small far right party the National Party at the site of the former Lety Concentration Camp to reflect its opinion that it was a labour camp. It was removed by the local authorities after a national and international campaign.

See also



Notes

  1. http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/czech-republic/090515/pig-farm-roma-concentration-camp
  2. Book review: Nikdo vám nebude věřit
  3. Lety genocide exhibit moves from Brussels to Prague, causes political action Radio Prague, 28-06-2005
  4. Renewed Controversy at the Lety Concentration Camp Radio Prague, 24-01-2006


External links

(texts in Czech language)

(texts in English)


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