In the Czech village of Lety a pig-farm exists upon the site of a concentration camp where hundreds of the country's Roma and Sinti minority - men, women and children - were murdered. It was established in 1939 by the Czechoslovak government shortly before the country was occupied by Nazi Germany. Initially, it served as a forced labour camp for so-called 'unadaptable', 'anti-social' citizens, both ethnic Roma and Czech men. But by 1942, it had become a concentration camp exclusively for the Roma. Apart from a small, forlorn memorial opened by former President Vaclav Havel in 1995, there is little else to hint at the atrocities that took place here.
326 Roma who died from abuse, neglect and hunger, 241 were children. Countless others were deported to Auschwitz or other extermination camps. In 1973, the Communist Party regime constructed a pig farm here and all talk of the horrors of war were hushed up, leaving the survivors and their families alone with their memories. Lety was not merely a "transit camp", nor did people just simply die from disease, and that it was staffed not by Germans, but by Czechoslovaks. For years the country maintained that the prisoners of the camp were victims of Nazi aggression. But, the Czech people were agents in this tragedy is a truth uncomfortable for many to confront
Cenek Ruzicka is the chairman of the Committee for the Compensation of the Romani Holocaust in the Czech Republic. Ruzicka's mother was interned at Lety for three years, one of the few from his family to survive, despite suffering a miscarriage while in the camp. She kept her internment a secret from her son until the 1990s when the grim truth began to seep back into public consciousness.
"It was the worst day of my life. I went to Lety, stood in front of the gates then went home and asked my mother why she never told me. She replied that she was worried that the communists would kill me because she knew I would speak up and try to get justice," Ruzicka told Al Jazeera. Ruzicka proposes establishing a Roma-led foundation that decides on the site's future, respecting the wishes of the victims' families. "To have a pig farm on the site of a concentration camp is a symbol of how Roma are treated in the Czech Republic and all of Europe. When I speak to some Czech people about what happened at Lety, they are unable to look me in the eye," he said.
The far-right Dawn of Direct Democracy party led by Tomio Okamura denied that anyone was killed at Lety but rather the victims died of diseases caused by their "travelling lifestyle". Other politicians have made similar statements. The belittling or denial of the Roma holocaust, which the Roma call 'porajmos' - the devouring - is symptomatic of the wretched human rights situation for the country's minority. The scapegoating of Roma provides a useful valve to release uncertainty and tension for the population. Many Roma and Sinti children are put into schools for the mentally disabled and this de facto segregation further perpetuates their inability to integrate.
The United Nations and the European Parliament have called on the Czech government to close the farm. Jarmila Balazova, spokeswoman for the Czech Ministry of Human Rights and Equal Opportunities says “The farm in Lety is privately owned and the government has no chance to force them to do something." However, the Czech Republic has signed and ratified an OSCE agreement to "preserve and protect … sites of remembrance, most notably extermination camps". The Czech Parliament can decide by legislative measures that Lety is a place of public interest, thus it could be expropriated in case the current owner is not willing to sell it.