November 2017 will be remembered by many Czech Roma as it is the month when two-decades-long strivings to remove a pig farm standing at the Romani Genocide site Lety u Pisku were crowned with success: the Museum of Romani Culture director, Jana Horváthová, and the owner of the farm, AGPI company, signed the contract on buying out the pig farm. After the last animal leaving the site in February 2018, the Czech Government will pay AGPI around €17,6 million (VAT incl.) for the buildings and grounds.
Behind these bare facts and numbers, there is a tragic story of Romani people indigenous to Bohemia who died at the camp or were deported to Auschwitz as well as of those few who survived and wanted to protect the memory of their townsmen in a dignified way: «The story of Genocide of the Romani minority was almost wiped out during the Holocaust. There is not so much left apart from their family histories,» says the Museum of Romani Culture historian Dušan Slačka. The majority of the Roma living in the Czech Republic nowadays came, or are descendants of those who came, from Slovakia after WW2, so they do not know much about Lety u Pisku. That is why the fate of the Lety camp victims could have slipped through the cracks, alike hundreds of other concentration camps in the Czech Lands, due to the lack of shared memory, material objects as well as indifference or even denial of the Nazi genocide of the Roma.
The after-war history of the former camp was also characterised by a lack of respect from the society; since 1970, the territory of the camp itself has been occupied by a pig farm. It is only after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 when a group of Romani activists started addressing the poor recognition of Romani Holocaust at the governmental and international levels. As a result, the Czech Republic officially recognised the victims by unveiling a small monument near Lety by the then-President Václav Havel in 1995. Furthermore, it is how the Museum of Romani Culture, the only European museum that focuses specifically on Romani history and culture, was founded: «Our museum was established by people who survived the Holocaust. One of the founders of the museum Karel Holomek, father of current director of the museum Jana Horváthová, is a Holocaust survivor himself. Most of his family perished in concentration camps. This institution is built on the legacy of commemoration of the victims,» highlights Dušan Slačka. Thus, the family histories of less than 10% of survived Czech Roma did not fall into oblivion as the museum will manage the state property of the former Lety camp. Nevertheless, as the historian emphasises, the closure of the farm at Lety and its reconversion into a memorial is a historic moment for all Romani people as well as the result of joint efforts by local and international organisations such as Konexe, EGAM (the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement), IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance), the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust and its president Čeněk Růžička and many other individuals and organisations.
Considering the fact that many activists and organisations representatives have different ideas regarding the future of the Memorial, Dušan Slačka believes that there should be a discussion to evaluate the ideas with those who helped to push the topic: «Not just how the site will look, if there will be some exhibitions, a visitor centre, a memorial, but also what will happen next? What about education and commemoration activities? What should happen to the remains of victims of Lety that are buried there? Some of activists want to exhume them, whereas some don’t want to disturb them.»
However, not all people are happy about the purchase of the farm at Lety. In line with political theory scholar Huub van Baar, who noted in 2011 that «national and local debates on the removal of the businesses have frequently led to outbursts of anti-Roma sentiments and even Romani Holocaust denial», the historian confirms that museum has received such denial in quite a few emails: «It is quite common, some people even say that the camp was not at the site where the farm is.» Dušan Slačka believes that more attention should be focused on archeological research at Lety as this way more people would have physical evidence of the tragic past of the Roma. To illustrate, last summer, Mr Pavel Vařeka from The University of West Bohemia in Pilsen carried out an archeological research around the perimeter of the farm and found personal items of prisoners and guards and even pieces of clothes. «We will be having these artefacts in our museum collection and we will display them. If there will be exhibition rooms [at the future Lety memorial], then these artefacts should be displayed there because they would really connect people to the topic.»
Connecting to the topic is crucial as non-Romani people usually do not know much apart from the name of the former camp – Czech school teachers are generally not interested in giving children a fresh perspective by introducing them to Romani history as a part of Czech history. Therefore, the museum workers participate in teachers training seminars, produce educational programs in permanent exhibitions as well as go to schools and give lectures about Romani Genocide accompanied by a screening of a short documentary composed by Romani survivors’ testimonies. By connecting visitors to the history of their Romani countrymen through personal stories in documentary films, archeological artefacts and a decent memorial, the museum workers hope that neither the victims nor the Holocaust will be ever forgotten.
Author: Yelena Kilina
 Huub Van Baar (2011) Cultural policy and the governmentalization of Holocaust remembrance in Europe: Romani memory between denial and recognition, International Journal of Cultural Policy.