It concerns my affairs

With Petr Uhl about the case of Lety and Czech nationalism

We asked the former government commissioner for human rights about his failed effort to relocate the pig factory farm in Lety near Písek from the WW2 site of the concentration camp for the Roma. We also discussed an ethnic definition of a nation among Czech politicians and why it was never possible to enforce any concept of Romani cultural autonomy.

When did you first learn that there was a concentration camp for the Roma in Lety?

I only heard about the Lety concentration camp after the 1989 Revolution. Someone pulled it out when I served as a deputy to the Federal Assembly. At that time, President Václav Havel was interested in the matter. I discussed it with him several times. I found him to be completely understanding and only minimally concerned to talk about, in Paul Polansky’s words, “Czech” guilt.  


Going off of this point: what is your opinion on Polansky’s belief that Havel did not do enough in this matter, even though he could have changed much in the Lety case by the sheer symbolic weight of his personality?

The president of the Czech Republic bears no constitutional responsibility, thus, the president has no constitutional powers; authority. Personally, I don't see any significant issues here. In the Lety case, Václav Havel attempted to do what was in his powers and abilities. Havel’s problem was personal and it was called Vladimír Mlynář. The president does not appoint government and cannot delegate the power to appoint government, even though it is presented this way. The president can only appoint the prime minister. In those days, Havel and Mlynář joined to appoint the so-called Tošovský government, working it out so that Mlynář, who I believe was nondemocratic and chaotic, had a spot there as well.  But he was deeply disturbed by Lety, possibly even more than I was, and I was concerned about the matter quite a bit. Mlynář was convinced that the problem was in the owners of the pig farm factory.  The owner was a joint-stock company that was formed after the break up of the agricultural cooperative that put up the pig farm factory for restitution. Those who could not be given back their fields, were given a share in the company that was formed for that very purpose. Mlynář thought to screen its owners to see if they were agents of the State Security. But they found out about it and got up on their hind legs. It turned out that not only Mlynář, but the share holders were friends with people from the Security Information Service. So he made the whole situation a lot more complicated.
I personally met with the owners of the pig farm factory when I served as government human rights commissioner. I told them I would not do anything that would have adverse economic impact on them, and suggested we all work together to find solutions. The country needs to find resources to demolish the pig farm factory and relocate it elsewhere. At the time, Karel Schwarzenberg suggested a nearby location. It would have been advantageous for the company as they would get a better, modern equipment. I was telling them that it would not have been completely free; the government must not support a private company. The government asked Jan Fencl, minister of agriculture, and Jaromír Císař, minister for development, to compile an expected budget needed to demolish the pig farm factory and rebuild it at a different location. They were supposed to submit it five days prior to the government meeting, which they failed to do. Then the government met and each member was presented with a "report" by historians Jaroslav Valenta and Oldřich Sládek. They claimed that historians oppose to the relocation. At the government meeting, one member eventually mentioned the expected cost - all I can remember after all these years is that I thought it was three times the value. I am convinced that the majority of the government members were not so concerned about economic issues but rather tried to prevent the Czech ethnic community from being blamed for participating in a genocide of the Romani nation. Yes, I use the terms purposefully, the Romani nation and Czech ethnic community, as an ironic response to the antigypsy term "Romani ethnic community."


How did the Lety negotiations proceed when you served as the government commissioner for human rights?

I took the lead in the negotiations with some support from the vice prime minister, Pavel Rychetský. If my propositions ever made it as far as the government, they were always supported by Pavel Rychetský who submitted them. A few ministers, occasionally the majority, including Miloš Zeman, and I were only co-submitter. Obviously, I attempted to see to it that the pig factory would be closed. But the other issue also was to rename the “gypsy camp,” how it was officially termed, to concentration camp, or at least a camp of forced concentration of Roma.  This is historian Ctibor Nečas’s term. Nečas was obviously aware that for Czech nationalists, calling Lety a concentration camp will be like a red rag to a bull. Nečas was the only historian who was in the pre1989 period allowed to conduct research on the Romani genocide. He then used the term in his publication, which was released in 800 copies, thus escaping attention of the public, Czech education and most experts.


The government eventually accepted your proposal that Lety was a concentration camp. How difficult was it?

Historians Jaroslav Valenta and Oldřich Sládek used Nečas's approach and moved the boundaries of the Lety concentration camp on an aerial image a few meters west so that it looked like the present-day pig farm is situated in a different location than the concentration camp was built, outside the site of the camp. The reasons of the government that accepted this were ideological… it could not be made public that the Romani genocide, which the Lety camp played part in, was organized by the protectorate and its organs, i.e. not the Reich’s authorities. On the other hand, it is true that everywhere, at every level of the state administration there was one Reich German who served as a superintendent to every Czech protectorate official. The Lety camp was established on the protectorate government decision. Both uniformed and plain-clothed police that served there was under the protectorate authority; those were not gestapo or SS that otherwise also operated in the country.
In connection to this, it comes to mind that in Paris, around Bastille, you can very often see plaques marking places where occupants were joined by the collaborators to round up Jews before transportations to Germany where they were murdered in concentrations camps. The cooperation between the Vichy regime and collaborators in the directly occupied zone is now always depicted as evil whereas in the Czech Republic such activities were not supposed to be mentioned, even between the lines. Čeněk Růžička, a son of a Romani woman who was imprisoned in Lety, made a proposal for a memorial plaque at the cemetery in nearby Mírovice by Lety. The original inscription read that the Lety camp was formed at the time of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The former head of the district office in Písek, Zdeněk Prokopec did not approve of such wording and Růžička was forced to change the text to exclude any mention of the protectorate. Formulations such as at the time of the protectorate or under the nazi occupation were also not used. The wording used was simply during the war. Although the government eventually agreed, by the majority decision, that there was a concentration camp in Lety, gradually, the term collection camp started to be used instead. I personally did not mind the period term gypsy camp. When I go to the pub, order the gypsy roast and do not by any means sing a song about “a Romani baron familiar to every Romani woman”. In Czech, the word gypsy, both as a noun and adjective, possesses a double meaning. The Roma call themselves “Cigan”, i.e. Gypsy; it is always a matter of context.


Did you encounter, at this time that you are talking about, racist comments in the former Zeman government?

Yes, there were frequent comments, especially from nationalistic, ethnically Czech positions. They were coming from the standpoint that those were internment camps for the “asocial.” Simultaneously, the argument was that Czechs are no racists. A telling example was the case of Eduard Zeman who appealed on the government not to task him with developing a concept of human rights education as this would result in providing pupils with information about ethnic minorities. He would say: why should our children learn about minorities? If they did, they would not have time to learn about Czech, i.e. ethnic history. At the time, the attitude among many government ministers resembled the Czech national movement.


What was the process of recognizing that the Lety camp was overseen by ethnic Czechs and not by Germans? Was it even thinkable for high-ranking officials of the Czech Republic to voice unpleasant truths about the role of Czechs in the case of a concentration camp?

Fortunately, the debate was not this ethnically focused. According to one of the presidential decrees – which later became part of the Czech legal code – the decision of the occupational authorities lost legal validity if it was not proven that they remain lawful in particular case (this typically concerns marriages, divorces, deaths, inheritance and similar). Both the Reich and protectoral state occupational authorities were made even; both were equally deplorable. Thus, the debated did not focus on whether those were Czechs or Germans. That did not happen until Polansky and I could not side with him because he was saying nonsense. It really was not that Havel would be a continuation of the protectorate. We are not in America with its presidential system.

The fact that guards in Lety were people from the surrounding area, i.e. ethnic Czechs, was obviously coming up. I personally did not keep quiet about it and I know that the former Prime Minister Zeman did not like it, even if he never directly reproach me for that. But he did reproach me when I went to the memorial event to Hrušovany nad Jevišovkou on the occasion of the anniversary of the repressions against local Croatians who were deprived of their buildings, cellars, and casks, but luckily not until 1948 so it was possible to vindicate. During the war, a group of these people “joined the Germans”. The region was still predominantly German speaking. The Croats formed a minority and leaned rather toward German than Czech.  In 1946 two or three families were expelled and resettled to Austria and the remaining hundred or so were dispersed. Based on an accepted government declaration I spoke up and on behalf of the Czech government said that we are sorry that this happened. Media turned it into an apology, because Czechs need apologies for everything, expressing sympathy is not enough. At the government meeting, Miloš Zeman reproached me that I speak in the name of the government, that it was too excessive, with the subtext that it concerns just some foreigners.


We continue to encounter the fact that minorities are not considered to be fullfledged part of the Czech nation...

National minorities could not be national minorities but ethnic minorities. Exactly as the first republic constitutional lawyer states in his memoirs: our compatriots are continuously humiliated by being made part of some ethnic minority while they form national minority for they declare their affiliation with a nation, not an ethnicity. His opinion did not carry through at the time. I too lost by two votes when the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms was being prepared and I proposed for ethnic minorities to be called national minorities. The Slovaks, i.e. some Slovaks opposed it the most because they were afraid of the Hungarians.


When, in 1990s, the Lety case was opened, would you say that the still living camp guards should have been tried? Should there have been criminal consequences?

I think so, but in order for them to be tried, they would have to have been charged. My opinion is that it would have been very difficult to prove that they participated in a genocide, which is not subject to the statute of limitations. But I do think that it was worth going into. This is what Pavel Rychetský attempted to do in the case of the guard Josef Hejduk who passed away shortly afterward.


Concerning Josef Hajduk’s complicity – was it a legal issue or rather a generic historical figure and a matter of guilt regarding what was happening during the war?

Probably the latter. I am no lawyer, even if I trained as one as Otakar Motejl used to joke. I use law to explain to myself and others who want to listen the principles of democratic legal state. These definitely include efforts not to mislead about the history of an ethnic group of a country we live in. And it does not concern only the time of the occupation. There were three million German civilians, predominantly elderly, women, and children, expelled from this country. Aside from wars and occupations, this is the worst thing that happened in the last hundred years. 


At one time, Lety were considered to be an international scandal. But did Czech politicians face any real pressure from the outside?

Yes, the European Parliament, European Commission, and mainly the organs of the Council of Europe put a great pressure. As far as I know, the United Nations was not involved in the matter but United Nations Special Rapporteur as well as the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination were involved in the case of the wall in Matiční street in Ústí nad Labem.


On the one hand, the case of Lety serves as an example of concealing Czech complicity and collaboration during WW2, on the other hand Islamophobes today talk about collaboration in the context of the so-called invasive army of refugees at every step. People from Blok proti Islámu repeatedly called Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka to be a collaborator. What is your opinion on these two sides of opinions?

In truth, I am not interested in the ideas expressed by Islamophobes. In my opinion, though, Prime Minister Sobotka does not “collaborate” enough. To make myself clear: I feel affinity with the German Green Party, leftist social democrats and people affiliated with the Die Linke Party, and they all have been criticizing Angela Merkel for not being forthcoming enough toward the refugees. I myself do not use the word “collaborator” as I am influenced by French where the term is connected with the Vichy regime.


What do you think about the argument that we have been hearing since the late 1990s; that is that the funds for the purchase or relocation of the pig farm should instead be used toward Romani integration programs?

It was a time when Jiřina Šiklová came up with an idea that the funds that could go to toward a relocation of the pig farm should be used toward building two schools. One would be called Lety, the other one Hodonín u Kunštátu. These two schools would offer - presumably segregated - education to Romani children. But where would the money come from when there are no money to be had? It is sheer nonsense. I went as far as to agree that the pig farm should be purchased using government funds and relocated elsewhere. But we do needed to realize that this matter does not concern the present-day Roma whose parents or grandparents usually arrive in Bohemia and Moravia from Slovakia and had no idea about such camps. It is rather my issue: in 1927, when Czechoslovakia adopted the law on vagrant gypsies, my parents voted for the deputies of the National Assembly. This law was an ideological predecessor of the Lety camp. This is not a matter of the descendants of those who came from elsewhere. From a moral standpoint, there is no doubt that this is my issue.


Why, in your opinion, should this be of interest to the young generation today?

Because it is a defamation of the memory of those who died there or were transported to their deaths just because they happened to be Roma. If Lety remained to be a work camp for the so called asocial as was the case prior to 1942, then it would definitely be awful and worth remembering. But only Roma remained there and the rest of the people who the protectoral officials recognized to be nonRomani were released. The police then gathered other Roma from the Czech part of the Protectorate to Lety and Moravian Roman to the Hodonín u Kunštátu camp. The essential matter is that you cannot handle people according to their race, nationality, religion, or political beliefs. That is the reason young people should concern themselves with this, otherwise we may live to see other types of discrimination, for example based on education level or place of residence. That is simply impossible.


How in this context do you perceive that seventy years after the end of the war a site of a former concentration camp is occupied by a pig farm?

I perceive it as an insult. At the same time, though, I have always objected to the demands regarding Lety being reduced to a memorial. First, there must not be a pig factory farm with the stench that is part of it, and the whole site needs to be tidied up with reverence. There can always be a fund-raising campaign for a potential memorial or another major alteration. I am convinced that it would be possible to collect enough funds in Europe over the course of the year. But this idea was never translated into a formal proposal because it was deemed to be too irrational from the very beginning.


The Charter 77 published a document on the positionality of the Roma that addressed their emancipation and even presumed some type of cultural self governance. Do you think there is anything from that document still applicable today?

I definitely think so. The document was assembled by Jan Ruml. The author was Zdeněk Pinc along with other people whose names I am unfortunately not familiar with. Since the Charter 77 historian Vilém Prečan did not do a good job with three volumes of the Charter 77 documents, it is now, when many people have died, difficult to figure out how individual documents originated. In the Romani document you mention, there is a clear note about a possibility of emancipation; that is for every Rom and for every group of Roma. The government should not oppose to the emancipation of the Roma by any means; but should encourage it instead. At the same time, it should slightly encourage and pave the way for assimilation to an extent that each Rom or Romani family chooses. So it is a concurrence of both courses: an emancipationist and assimilationist. But without any pressure that is prohibited by the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. The pressure to denationalize is, in contrast to, say, France, prohibited.


Have you encountered the concept of Romani autonomy as proposed by the doyen of Czech anarchism, Jakub Polák?

What was especially meaningful for me was an experience with a concept of cultural autonomy of a minority as a whole, on which the Hungarian constitutional system is based, though Orban has nothing to do with it. I also mentioned this approach in the concept of Romani integration, but it was rejected by the lobby and did not make it into the proposal for the 2001 Act on the minorities. Essentially, the point was that there would be two councils in the local administration. If there was enough people who would anonymously want a national minority council and would be voting from a national minority list, there would be another parallel ethnic minorities local administration. The “great” council would have to take into account the decisions made by the minorities council. The moment the majority of people in a specific locality would vote from the minority election list, the minorities council would become fullfledged, i.e. the “great” local council. I was aware about the plan for a cultural autonomy but there was absolutely no hope in its establishment since so many of government employees were having hard enough time adjusting to the term “national minorities,” and rejected the term “nation,” particularly in respect to the Roma. But the Roma are not part of another nation.


Translated by Dáša Frančíková.

Per Uhl (b. 1941) is a journalist, politician, signatory of the Charter 77 and co-founder of the Committee for the Defense of Unjustly Persecuted. Under the communist regime, Uhl spent a total of nine years in jail. In 1990, Uhl was elected a deputy to the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly for Civic Forum. Between 1991 and 2001 he was a member of the UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.  From 1998 until 2001 he was the Czech government human rights commissioner, deputy vice-prime minister on human rights and chair of the government Council for Nationalities, the Human Rights Council, and the Inter-ministerial Commission for Romani Community Affairs. He was also a deputy to the vice-premier for human rights. At present, Uhl’s publications are featured in commentary websites, including Deník Referendum, and A2larm.