PRAGUE, Jan. 19 (JTA) — As Holocaust Memorial Day approaches next week, it is not only Jews who must confront those who wish to deny the horrors of the Holocaust. It was “just a labor camp” and “we didn’t do it” are two of the mantras voiced at former Holocaust victims by the fringe nationalist party in the Czech Republic known for its xenophobic platform. They are talking about Lety, the World War II Nazi concentration camp run exclusively by Czech guards where 300 Roma, mostly children, perished. Today, Roma, also called gypsies, are the main target of nationalist extremists and skinheads in the Czech Republic. The Nationalists, a very small party with no parliamentary seats, outraged many in the country when it announced at the end of December that it would unveil a memorial at Lety that would say the camp was run by Germans and that those who died there did so of natural causes. After politicians and Roma groups protested, the Nationalists changed their strategy, and now plan to unveil a giant stone inscribed with “To the victims” on Jan. 21. The move hasn’t gone over well with any public figure. Lety’s mayor said he would like to have the stone removed but is not sure that he has the legal authority to do so. Tomas Kraus, chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, said he and the Czech Council of Nazi Victims condemn the Nationalist memorial, which he said was clearly meant to provoke the Roma and gain attention for the party. “What the Nationalist Party does, and what others like them continue to do — just look at the Iranian president — is play with words. This concerns Jews very much,” he said. Trying to diminish the Holocaust by calling a concentration camp a labor camp is the first step toward Holocaust denial, he added. Katerina Jacques of the government’s Human Rights Office agreed. “It must be analyzed whether” the National Party, in its original monument proposal “committed the crime of supporting and promoting fascism,” Jacques said. The myth that Lety was a German-run labor camp, created by the Communist authorities to instill patriotism and anti-German sentiment, has long been discredited, as was the illusion that Terezin, or Theresienstadt in German, was a camp used primarily to persecute Communists, not Jews, another idea propagated by the totalitarian regime. The parallel is not lost on Jake Roth, a leader of the Prague Jewish community. “People who go around putting forth denial, lies that Roma were not persecuted or were persecuted for their own faults, these are the same arguments that get used against Jews,” he said. “Any denial or false statements about our past have always led to evil things that hit the entire society. The Porrajmos, literally “the Devouring,” is the term that the Roma use to describe the Nazi regime’s attempt to wipe their people off the face of the earth. Between 200,000 to 600,000 Roma were murdered during World War II — only 5 percent of the Czech-born population of some 8,000 survived. Nearly all who lived through internment in the Czech-run labor camps in Hodonin and Lety — the site of a pig farm since the 1970s — later perished in the “Gypsy family camp” at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Last year the European Parliament chastised the Czech government for not removing the pig farm, as Roma activists and their allies have been requesting for the last decade. The government had previously said such a move would be too expensive but earlier this week the Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek announced that the Finance Ministry had allocated funds to purchase the farm so that a memorial could finally be constructed. Even former President Vaclav Havel, usually quiet on political affairs since his departure from office in 2003, entered the Lety debate Tuesday, blaming current President Vaclav Klaus’ reaction to the European Parliament criticism for the Nationalist Party’s recent activities. “Vaclav Klaus has opened the door to the current events around Lety as he said that it was not a concentration camp in the proper sense of the word,” Havel told the Czech News Agency on Tuesday. In May, reacting to E.U. pressure, Klaus remarked about Lety, “It was originally a labor camp for those who refused to work. Not only for Romanies. It is really not a concentration camp in the sense as we all subconsciously understand this word and imagine Auschwitz, Buchenwald and others.” Vladimir Spidla, former Czech prime minister and the current E.U.’s commissioner for social affairs, disagrees: “The Romany Holocaust existed, a Romany camp in Auschwitz existed, as well as the concentration camp in Lety. There are things that mustn’t be forgotten.”
Dinah Spritzer is JTA's correspondent in Prague. She has been covering the former Eastern European bloc since 1990 and currently serves as the news editor of The Prague Post. The former Europe editor for Travel Weekly, she also contributes to several other publications, including The Independent on Sunday, Conde Nast Traveler and several guidebooks on the Czech Republic.