Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.

That Shameful Pig Farm

by Václav Trojan
On 3 December 1998, an open letter was presented to the Czech government asking for the elimination of the large-scale pig farm at Lety u Písku in South Bohemia, the site of a concentration camp for Roma during the Second World War. The letter was signed by a number of well-known cultural figures and spiritual leaders, both within the Czech Republic and abroad, including Simon Wiesenthal, Guenter Grass, Václav Malý, Karol Sidon and Tomáš Halík.

The New Presence has written about Lety before (December 1996), but it would not hurt to review the details of its history. At the exact same location where a factory farm for 13,000 pigs now stands, a concentration camp for Roma from across Bohemia was in operation during the War. The camp was witness to severely inhuman conditions, and hundreds of people, including children, were killed there. Those who did survive Lety were sent to the extermination camps at Auschwitz, Treblinka and others.

This camp (and the one at Hodonín pod Kunštátem in Moravia) was responsible for the eradication of more than half of the Roma population in the Czech lands. The extermination was often supported by the Czech population, especially members of the Protectorate police force.

December's open letter evokes an agreement of the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe from 1991, which Prague signed, binding the Czechoslovak (and now Czech) government to "...attempt to protect and maintain monuments and memorials, including the most well-known extermination camps and related archives, which stand as evidence of the tragic events in the common history (of the signatories). Such measures should serve to make sure that those events will not be forgotten. They will help to teach this and future generations about those events and ensure that those events never happen again."

In spite of this, the factory farm at Lety remains, public debate drags on and no Czech government has thus far declared that it will be removed from the site.

Those who defend keeping the factory farm in place emphasize several points. They use economic arguments, claiming that society does not have the resources for such a costly project: the state would have to buy the property (the factory farm was privatized in 1994 for several million crowns), and local unemployment would increase (it currently has 18 employees). Some say it would be better to use the state's resources.
Others say that eliminating a pig farm just for the Roma is not worth it or that what happened in Lety is not really a crime on the same level as the genocide in the camps in Poland, Germany and Austria. Some are even claiming that the factory farm is in a wholly different location than the camp. A few have said that if the state were to remove the factory farm against the will of its owner, the Czech Republic's entire privatization process could be thrown into doubt.

It is clear that neither the government nor the wider public is willing to address the matter of the former camp in Lety in a manner appropriate to the seriousness of what happened there. Even Czech historians (with the exception of Ctibor Neèas at Brno's Masaryk University) have not given much attention to this matter, and the prevailing tendency is to refer to Lety as a "reception camp." It is notable that foreign authors, such as the American, Paul Polansky and the German, Markus Pape, point out that the camp at Lety played a significant role in the genocide of the Bohemian Roma.

The hard reality is that, though the camp was run and managed by Czech personnel, not one of the warders was ever sentenced on the basis of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the UN General Assembly 9 December 1948 and made Czechoslovak law in 1955. The only trial related to Lety was a case involving the camp's director, Josef Janovský in the years 1945 to 1948. No guilt was found in that case.

Certainly this legal debt is partially the result of the political situation in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, but even today, justice has not been done. A recent petition calling for an investigation of possible crimes committed at Lety has been ignored. The genocide of Roma during the Second World War is still a taboo subject in the Czech Republic.

The lack of official willingness thus far to deal with the issue of closing down the factory farm has led Peter Uhl, the Czech government's commissioner for human rights, to attempt to address the matter. One will have to wait to see the final results of his intentions, but his current plan to start a public collection to pay for the factory farm's elimination does not evoke much hope. Meanwhile, the government is only discussing the possibility of paying the remainder of the money needed.

In any case, the fate of the Roma during the War is forgotten here in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Europe. Establishing a proper memorial in Lety could be an important step toward remembering and recognizing these sad pages in the history of the Continent.


Václav Trojan is a sociologist and member of the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly.
Copyright © 1999 by The New Presence magazine.
Originally printed in February 1999 and reproduced by the Patrin Web Journal with permission. Posted 22 February 1999.


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