Czech Roma reclaim Holocaust site, but equality feels distant

USA & World

Czech Roma reclaim Holocaust site, but equality feels distant

Prague, Czech Republic – Putting an end to decades of controversy, a ceremony on June 22 kicked off the demolition of a pig farm that has for decades stood on the site of a World War II-era concentration camp for Roma in the Czech Republic.

But an end to the discrimination against the country’s largest minority remains distant.

Official records say 327 Roma people died at Lety, which sits 70km (44 miles) south of Prague. It is estimated that 90 percent of the Czech Roma population was killed during the Holocaust.

Descendants of the victims insist, however, that thousands perished at the camp, which was run by Czechs under the auspices of the Nazis.

The removal of the farm, built by Communist authorities in the 1970s and the planned construction of a memorial will crown a long campaign which, thanks to opposition from hard-right political forces, had become emblematic since the 1990s.

But despite the victory at Lety, the struggle for equality for the nation’s 250,000 or so Roma is making little progress.

Some headway has been made but it remains piecemeal.

After decades during which Roma children were corralled into special needs institutions, legislation to improve Roma access to the education system was introduced in 2014.

Meanwhile, in a landmark move last year, the government agreed to pay compensation to hundreds of women who were involuntarily sterilised.

But some Roma still suffer chronic social and economic exclusion.

“The progress at Lety is symbolic,” said Jana Horvathova, the director of the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno, which has managed the site since the state bought it in 2018.

“But exclusion is the more fundamental issue. It results in poverty and problems in health, education, employment and housing.”

The campaign at Lety became symbolic of the struggle for Roma rights.

Resistance to the education reforms persists among teachers and parents, and in the face of this deep discrimination, more than 70 percent of Roma still leave school early.

But they are not leaving for jobs. Unemployment is rife among the minority – in some localities higher than 90 percent – despite the Czech Republic having the lowest unemployment in the European Union at just 3 percent or so.

On top of the poverty this produces, prejudice and exploitation in the housing market have created vast and virtually lawless ghettos.

Some of the worst spots, such as Predlice in the northern city of Usti nad Labem – a stone’s throw from the German border – are being renovated.

But the squalor still often belies the Czech Republic’s standing as a modern European state, as bare-footed children patrol unclean and unsafe streets.

As in other parts of Europe, Czech Roma complain that they commonly face violence and aggression from far-right mobs and police.

The EU and UN have over the years called on Prague to curb discrimination but international pressure has had little effect.

“Lety is a victory for the families of those that perished at the camp,” said Miroslav Broz of the Konexe NGO, which has helped lead the campaign to unseat the pig farm. “But there has been no improvement in terms of integration. Racism is still firmly entrenched in Czech society.”

The depth of Czech antipathy towards Roma hit international headlines earlier this year, as refugees from Ukraine arrived.

Czech society rushed to show solidarity with those fleeing the Russian onslaught, welcoming them in the hundreds of thousands. But Roma refugees found themselves stuck at Prague’s main train station, as authorities around the country accused them of benefit tourism and baulked at offering shelter.

President Milos Zeman has often referred to the Roma, who make up less than 2 percent of his country’s population, as “un-adaptables”: a euphemism branding them as work-shy and anti-social.

Given the widespread prejudice, this approach leverages a cynical political system.

One regional mayor from STAN, one of the five parties in the centre-right government coalition that took power in December, boasted last month of his call to have Roma shot. He still plans to run for re-election.

And despite the victory at Lety, the country’s new political leadership, which rode to power with a pledge to remove populism, continues to struggle to find the courage to deal with the problem, just like its predecessors.

“Roma issues are the third rail of Czech politics,” said political analyst Jiri Pehe. “Politicians are afraid to speak up in support of the minority because public opinion is so hostile.”

It was notable, he added, that while Prime Minister Petr Fiala spoke on social media of commemorating “the memory and the horrors of the Holocaust with dignity,“ he did not attend the ceremony celebrating the removal of the pig farm.

“The last major politician to stand up for Roma was Vaclav Havel,” said Broz. The playwright, who 27 years ago unveiled a small memorial near the farm at Lety, left the presidency in 2003.

This deep lack of political support leaves activists weary and sceptical that change is achievable any time soon.

Horvathova said that while the symbolic victory at Lety is reflected by progress in some areas, society still considers Roma as “inferior”. That, she warns “remains the huge unsolved problem”.

One recent survey revealed that 86 percent of Czechs aged under 36 have negative perceptions of Roma and this level of animosity has some looking outside the Czech Republic for hope.

People protest during a rally against police in Teplice, Czech Republic, 26 June 2021. Hundreds of people remembered slain Roma, Stanislav Tomas, who died in the city a week ago shortly after being arrested by police. The originally planned commemoration turned into a march to the police station. Police officers intervened on 19 June, because of a fight between two men who were also damaging other people's cars. When the patrol arrived at the scene, one of the men was lying on the ground with apparent injuries, according to police. When the officers approached him, he became aggressive and attacked them, police said. Footage of the arrest shows police officer kneeling at various times on the man's neck and back. A forensic autopsy ruled out a connection between the deaths and the police intervention, but the autopsy report points to drug impairment, a police spokesman said earlier. Officers insist the death was not related to the intervention. The Council of Europe and the Czech branch of the human rights organization Amnesty International have called for a thorough investigation of the incident. EPA-EFE/MARTIN DIVISEK

Broz is helping the family of Stanislav Tomas, who died last year after police knelt on his neck during an arrest, with a bid to put the case before the European Court of Human Rights.

“We have to take it to an international court,” the activist said. “There’s no way we’ll get a fair decision here.”

But there are signs that some younger political leaders are ready to try to confront the Roma question.

“Officially Roma are now not meant to suffer any injustice,” Marketa Pekarova Adamova, parliament speaker and head of the conservative coalition party Top09, told Al Jazeera, as she returned from speaking at the ceremony at Lety.

“But the problem is not the letter of the law. It’s the prejudice. And as long as this persists, we cannot call our society truly fair.”

According to Pehe: “Some of the smaller parties are starting to approach the Roma issue from a more modern and more European perspective. But most still don’t. There’s a long way to go.”