communities the lede COMMUNITIES

Shifting Impressions

What the preservation of a Roma identity entails

By alexander hurst | 1 February 2018

Miroslav Brož, holding a can of Krušovice beer, greeted me and Eli Naegele, a Czech reporter, one April afternoon last year. We had just arrived at Předlice, a neighbourhood 15 minutes by bus from the desolate centre of Ústí nad Labem, a visibly poor industrial town near the Czech-German border. Gesturing at the graffiti, grime and abandoned buildings that bordered the open field in front of us, Brož, the 38-year-old president of Konexe, a Prague-based Roma-rights NGO, described Předlice and its dilapidated housing as “the worst Roma ghetto in the country.”

The conditions under which the Roma or Romani—a traditionally itinerant group, comprising between 10 and 12 million people in Europe—live in the Czech Republic are particularly dire. According to a survey conducted in 2015 by the European Commission, respondents in the Czech Republic reported the most negative views towards the Roma out of all respondents in countries of  the European Union. The Czech Roma—48 percent of whom live below the poverty line—are three times more likely than the general population to have gone no further than primary school, and face unemployment rates as high as 90 percent in some communities.

The Roma experience hostility across the European continent. A 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, an American think tank, found that 48 percent of respondents, largely from western European countries, had an “unfavourable” view of the Roma. This included respondents in Italy, France and Germany. France began deportations of Roma in 2009, under the then president Nicolas Sarkozy. Despite the European Parliament’s objections, expulsions continued during the remaining three years of Sarkozy’s term, and intensified under his successor, François Hollande, with more than 56,000 Romani deported between 2012 and 2017.

Studies suggest that roughly 1,500 years ago, the Roma left the mountains of northern India and began to settle on the steppes of the Caucuses, before starting to arrive in Eastern Europe in the 1100s. From there, Roma groups took disparate paths, but there have been attempts at organising them under a cohesive identity in the past two centuries. In 1933, for instance, the first Congress of the “United Gypsies of Europe” adopted green and blue horizontal bars as the Roma flag; in 1971, a 16-spoked chakra was overlaid on that design; in 2016, the Indian minister of external affairs declared that the Roma were “children of India.” Although some Roma groups are enthusiastic about creating a shared identity, discourse on the Roma has pointed out the difficulty in a non-territorial, traditionally itinerant group seeing itself as unified.

On the evening of 30 April 2017, Brož joined dozens of Roma families in a field at the eastern corner of the Roma neighbourhood. It was Carodejnice, Walpurgis Night, or “the Night of Witches,” when vast crowds across the Czech Republic gather around fires and consume sausages and beer in a night-long celebration. Children chased each other around a scarecrow witch on the field, while a few women roasted pork sausages over an open fire and clusters of men stood around drinking beer. In the middle of the clearing, a Catholic priest prepared for a mass that would later be celebrated on the soft grass, in the shadow of the scarecrow witch, circled by empty cans.

At one edge of the field, Veronika Kmetzová stencilled big letters onto a blank white banner to spell out “Amare Předlice”—Our Předlice. She stood in front of another banner with a picture of what appeared to be a pig farm called Lety. A farm of that name was a concentration camp for Roma people during the Second World War. Kmetzová’s great-grandmother had lived, worked and died there. “My grandmother told me once about a pile of dead bodies in the camp, and how weak my grandfather was,” she said. It is a history she was both aware of but also distant from while growing up, as it was rarely brought up by her family. Kmetzová said she first visited the camp several years ago. “We definitely left with heavy hearts,” she said. She thought it was her duty to see the place, learn the history and teach it to her children. She felt that it is important for the Roma to recognise what happened to them collectively, and to ensure that the memory of it stays alive.

The history of Lety was recovered from obscurity in Black Silence, a controversial 1998 book by Paul Polansky, an American author researching the Czech Roma. Polansky told me over the phone that in 1939, just weeks before the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, the country’s government decided to build a labour camp in the quiet southern Bohemian village of Lety u Písku. When the original population of inmates—local, white-collar Jewish people—proved to be inefficient manual labourers, they were replaced by around 1,300 Roma people. After the war, the camp was largely forgotten, as Czechslovakia’s decimated Roma population could not memorialise it. The state subsequently banned nomadic behaviour, dispersed settlements and moved people into state housing blocks. Once again viewing them as ready unskilled labour, it also brought in Roma from Slovakia and forcibly settled communities in areas close to the German border. In 1973, the Czech government transferred the land to a local agriculture firm, AGPI, which installed a pig farm on the property.

“Around 300 Czech Roma survived World War II,” Polansky told me. “And only 100 were left by the mid 1990s.” In the 1990s, Polansky began gathering as many interviews from the Roma as he could, collecting over 400 oral histories. Eventually, he uncovered documents from a regional library in Bohemia as well as testimonies from elderly people in and around the village of Lety, which indicated that the camp was a fully Czech operation. In 1995, the Czech government erected a memorial to Lety next to the former camp, and held an inaugural memorial service attended by the president at the time, Václav Havel.

Human-rights groups such as Konexe and the European Grassroots Anti-Racism Movement, or EGAM, have mobilised around the image of the pig farm. After years of pressure, in October 2017 the Czech government agreed to pay AGPI 17.5 million euros to purchase the pig farm, and to replace it with a memorial to the victims. “The construction of a dignified memorial will have an impact for all Roma in the Czech Republic,” Benjamin Abtan, the president of EGAM, told me. His group is planning to cooperate with the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno to make the site “a place of dignity and transmission.”

There are those, however, who refute the idea of a single Roma identity. In his writings, Slawomir Kapralski—a professor at the University of Kraków—suggests one possible path to the creation of a common identity. Kapralski argues that it is through memorialising the shared history of suffering and persecution, with the Holocaust as ground zero, that the Roma identity might be preserved. Polansky went as far as to say that academic projects to construct a unified Roma identity are “pure hogwash.” He alluded to the 1995 ceremony for the memorial in Lety, and told me that he and other organisers had invited Roma people, who had refused to participate because, as a Slovakian man told him, “they”—referring to the Roma in Lety—“weren’t our Roma.”

Polansky added that conditions for Czech Roma are worsening. “It’s very, very difficult to get Czechs to be in favour of Roma issues,” he said. Over the course of his interviews, he found that nearly every Roma person he spoke with felt that life was better under Communism, and that conditions have declined since 1989. Abtan echoed Polansky’s views. “Apart from poverty,” he said, “the educational system doesn’t allow Roma individuals to build a future because of lack of access, lack of quality, and discrimination.”

Andrej Babiš, a far-right billionaire and the Czech Republic’s second-richest man, was sworn in as prime minister in early December 2017. Soon afterwards, I asked Brož, via email, if things had gotten worse for the Roma since the far right’s ascension to government. He responded with a terse line—“Not yet.”   

Eli Naegele contributed additional reportage.

Alexander Hurst is a journalist based in Paris. He has previously written for the New Republic, The Daily Beast and France 24.


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