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Subject: O Porrajmos -- "The Gypsy Genocide" by Paul Polansky
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The Gypsy Genocide 
by Paul Polansky 

Why have Czech Gypsies come to Britain? Paul Polansky spent years living
with them and uncovered a systematic hate campaign that goes to the heart
of the government

Four years ago after discovering 40,000 documents in a Czech archive on a
Gypsy Holocaust camp, I appealed to President Vaclav Havel's office to help
find survivors to determine if the camp was run by Czechs or Germans.
According to the documents it was a Czech-run death camp. A spokesman said
the President was following my investigation with interest but
unfortunately they had already determined that the camp was ran by the
Germans and there were no survivors. Havel's spokesman also told me that
Gypsies weren't worth investigating. They were an unclean race with no
history, no culture, no achievements. He suggested I look for a better
Most of my Czech friends agreed. They told me I was a naive American who
had no experience with Gypsies. If I lived with them, really knew them as
the Czechs did, I wouldn't waste my time. So I asked where I could find
some Gypsies to live with. My friends told me if I wandered into the Gypsy
ghettos of any Czech city, I would never be seen again. 

I visited Chanov first because it has the worst reputation. When the
Communist Government stopped Gypsies from travelling with their wagons in
the Fifties, many families were housed in apartment buildings here. These
Gypsies weren't used to living eight stories high. But they were used to
collecting scrap metal. Once these apartments were stripped, Czech
photographers flocked in to illustrate in national magazines that Gypsies
did not know how to live like human beings. 

The present-day Czech government has left these high-rise abandoned
buildings to show the world how difficult it is to deal with Gypsies.
'Today there are no problems with the Romany living in the two-storey
apartment blocks surrounding these gutted structures. The only problem is
that there is no work in Chanov for the Romanies since the Velvet
Revolution. Every father I met in the ghetto was going to or coming from

But it was the children of Chanov that intrigued me the meet. All attended
a special school for the mentally handicapped because that is the only
school for Gypsies in these ghettos. I asked these children to teach me a
few words of Romany. Instead they sang me all of Michael Jackson’s songs in
English. He is their hero because he was able to change the colour of his
skin. They all dream of doing that some day. 

Living in a Gypsy ghetto in Prague, I found my first survivors of Lety, the
Holocaust camp I had been researching. After several interviews I knew it
was no use reporting back to President Havel that his spokesman had been
wrong, because I discovered a cover-up originating in the President's own
office. Most of the survivors showed me copies of letters they had written
years ago to President Havel, asking him to help them obtain justice. As
early as 1990 the President had been promised in writing to help them, but
no one ever received a second letter or any help. 

Later I was to find almost 100 survivors of Lety, to the embarrassment of
the Czech Government, And from the oral histories I collected I was able to
track down the Czech guard regarded by survivors as the most notorious
killer in the camp, who allegedly abused and murdered young men and women.
Still alive and willing to testify is his cleaning lady who says she had to
wash up the blood in his office. 

In 1992, while President of Czechoslovakia, Havel made a humanitarian
speech at Letanovce, a Romany community in Slovakia before the Czech
Republic and Slovakia split). He proclaimed to the foreign press that the
real litmus test for his country’s new democracy would be the Gypsy
question. At that time the Romany ghetto of Letanovce had two one-room log
cabins housing over 700 people. The ghetto, five kilometres from the rest
of the village, had no electricity, water, sewage or transportation.
President Havel promised the Romanies they would have the basic necessities
of life within months. 

This year I stayed in Letanovce. Nothing has changed since Havel's visit,
except that more women have died in childbirth because there is no phone to
call a doctor. Actually, one thing has changed. The Romanies are no longer
allowed to collect firewood in the forest, a right they enjoyed until the
Slovak Government declared the forest a national park. Now a policeman
patrols the forest to stop Gypsies from collecting kindling and also to
prevent them from using it as a toilet. The ghetto has never had an
outhouse, private or public. 

Most Romany families I've lived with board up their windows when the sun
goes down to prevent a Molotov cocktail being thrown into their home by
skinheads. It is a refreshing experience to sit with a close-knit family
all evening, playing cards, telling stories. They are clean, honest and

Today I live with a Romany family in a small town north of Prague. Six of
us live, eat and sleep in two small rooms in a two-storey apartment
building owned by the city council. Although this family has never applied
or received welfare from the Czech Government, the town hall is determined
to move them and the other six Romany families in the building out of the
centre of the town. These Romanies pay a high rent for miserable
conditions, but the town hall has refused to repair a broken municipal
sewage pipe in the basement of the building. Last year a Molotov cocktail
was thrown through this family's window, injuring two children. The
municipal street lights were turned off minutes beforehand. 

As horrible as life is for the Romanies in Slovakia and the Czech Republic,
it is much worse the further east one goes. If Britain and other EU
countries fear that 3,000 Gypsies are on their way, then the Council of
Europe should prepare a few million more beds. A Romany friend who works
for the European Roma Rights Centre, which monitors Romany communities,
estimates these Romany populations: Czech Republic 350,000; Slovakia
900,000; Hungary 2,500,000; Romania 4,900,000; Russia 1,000,000; Bulgaria
1,500,000; Greece 1,000,000. 

The Republican political party in the Czech Republic campaigns openly
against Gypsies. In full-page ads in the Prague newspapers during the last
national elections, they promised a 'Final solution’ for the Gypsies if
elected. In Parliament the Republicans went from zero seats to 18. 

Legislation signed into law by Havel has not helped the Romanies. A new
citizenship law in 1993 allowed only about 10 per cent of the Romany
population to qualify. A new census bill required all citizens to state
their race; failure to do so was punished by a large fine and prison
sentence. Many Romanies feel this was the same census law the Nazis used.
In such a situation, can another Lety be far behind? One 83-year-old
Holocaust survivor asked me why God was punishing her twice in her life.
Her only grandson spent six months in hospital after being impaled on a
metal pole by skinheads. 

After the minor exodus of Romanies to Dover, the Republican party this week
published an article in their newspaper which said: "We Republicans are
guilty of being racists and fascists for three reasons: firstly, because we
are Czech, secondly because we are white, and thirdly because we are
patriots. Gypsies might have protection under the law but for true
citizens, Gypsies have none." Comments such as this appear daily. Dr
Miroslav Sladek, leader of the Republicans, continually states that the
Gypsies' worst crime is being born. 

Ironically, as President Havel, the professional humanist, jet sets around
the world collecting awards, his Gypsies follow him, hoping the country
that now believes in his words will give them political asylum. Honours
abroad to a country's leader do not translate into improved human rights at

As a naive American maybe I should now live with a Czech family to hear the
other side of the story. Perhaps President Havel will invite me to stay in
his new $2-million home. But I think the stink of hypocrisy there might be
worse than a broken sewage line.

- - - - -

Paul Polansky is a professor of history working for the Czech Historical
Research Council. He is also the author of Black Silence: The Lety
Survivors Speak, a collection of stories from his interviews with Lety

This article was first published in The Big Issue, No. 257, 3-9 November
1997, pages 6-7, and is reproduced by the Patrin Web Journal with the
permission of Simon Rogers, Features Editor.

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