We interviewed Mr Čeněk Růžička, chair of the Committee for the Redress of the Romani Victims of the Holocaust (Výbor pro odškodnění romských obětí holocaustu) about this sensitive topic and about today’s relations between the majority part of Czech society and the Romani minority. We also asked him about Romani pride and what he believes that involves. The interview was conducted at the recent Roma Pride event in the Czech Republic, which involved a march through the streets of Prague and a discussion in the St. Salvator Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren (Českobratrská církev evangelická).
“I’m awfully glad there are so many children at Roma Pride, but I am a bit sorry there are not more Romani adults. This is a sign of their apathy. They are already so zonked out by everything going on around them that they don’t believe in anything anymore. That’s a big problem. We want to rouse them from their lethargy through various events, of course,” Růžička told the magazine Romano voďi.
Růžička’s parents, who met each other after WWII, each spent time in several concentration camps during that war. Almost all of the members of their extended families, a total of about 25 people, perished in the camps. “They included my mother’s first son, my half-brother. Mom remained completely alone, she was the only one who escaped, which was a great trauma for her, one she bore like a heavy cross until her death. She complained of having no one, of having no one to stand up for her, which touched me as her eldest son,” Růžička said.
His mother returned from the concentration camps with tuberculosis. Her first husband had been arrested for collaborating with a resistance group. “The Nazis took him away and it was as if the earth swallowed him up. It was not until after the war that she learned he had been taken to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald, and then to another camp, where he perished,” Růžička said.
On his father’s side, the entire extended family was in the concentration camps as well. Only four men escaped, including Růžička’s father and uncle.
Q: How do you like the name of this event, “Roma Pride”?
A: I don’t think it should be called a Roma Pride parade. It would be more accurate to call it a “March for Romani Pride” – for reviving Romani pride.
Q: Do you have the feeling Romani people are not proud to be Romani today?
A: Not the way they should be. Romani pride involves something more than just dancing and singing, much more. I am concerned that not everyone knows this.
Q: Could you spell out what Romani pride means for you? Is it a relationship toward romipen and traditions in general, or is about something more?
A: I’ll put it like this: Some Romani people have preserved their pride, their traditional pride, in their family relationships, in the way in which Romani people express respect for one another – in their respect for elders, in the way they speak to one another, in their respect for the deceased, and generally in respect for women, in the pride they take in raising their children… Or perhaps even in the fact that if a poor Romani person asks for help, the others don’t leave him in the lurch… It involves a lot of things. However, there are also Romani people who don’t know this concept of Romani pride. How can I talk about pride if I allow nationalists, neo-Nazis, racists and xenophobes to humiliate me? If I allow my children to be educated in the “special schools”? If I sell my vote to the highest bidder? If I publicly smear another Romani person? Or if I am afraid to espouse my own identity during the census?
As a proud Romani man, I must behave appropriately with respect to what is happening to me. Romani pride has helped us survive for 600 years. I am 65 years old, and I cannot recall a time in my own life when Romani people were worse off than they are today. My concern is that the current pressure from part of society on Romani people will go so far that only an insignificant percentage of our people will even recognize Romani pride anymore. I would really be unhappy if that came to pass.
Q: Do you have the feeling that the societal atmosphere is heading in the wrong direction now, towards the same thing people lived through here during the 20th century and WWII, the occupation of Bohemia and Moravia by the Nazis, the Slovak nationalist state?
A: It started much earlier than that. You know what it was like during the First Republic, they didn’t exactly handle Romani people with kid gloves back then either. During the Second Republic that treatment continued through the so-called labor camps, and during the occupation it ended with the concentration camps at Lety by Písek and Hodonín by Kunštát. It is also sufficiently known how the Czech guards behaved towards our parents and forebears in those camps. This deserves extensive debate, it’s a big topic, you can’t just analyze it in couple of words if you want everyone to understand.
Q: I am asking whether you have the feeling that the situation in this country, in relation to Romani people, is deteriorating so rapidly that we might start approaching the situations that were here during the Second Republic and the occupation.
A: I don’t believe it would result in the situation that was here during Nazism. However, the Romani adults are talking about labor camps already today.
Q: In what sense? Are they concerned such camps might be set up?
A: They are discussing it as a future, but nevertheless possible, option given the kinds of laws that are being proposed here and in many instances, even adopted. I have in mind, for example, the bills put forward by Czech MP Ivana Řápková (Civic Democrats – ODS), such as the law making it possible for towns and villages to move anyone out of their territory who repeatedly commits certain kinds of misdemeanors. Or the municipal decrees like in Rotava, in which the town de facto attempted, through various bans, to restrict Romani people when they are outside in front of their own homes. If laws like that make it through the lower house, then someone might invent even harsher ones the year after that. The same goes for decrees adopted by towns and villages. That is where the great danger lies. MPs – and society in general – are not aware how far this all could go. They have not managed to learn from the historical relationship of this society toward Romani people, from what took place just before the occupation, during the Second Republic, and during the Nazi occupation. This is a fatal problem.
Q: Why do you think this is? Why, in a country that labels itself democratic, are we unable to make use of that tragic Nazi and communist-era experience with violent methods in relation to our life today? Why are we unable to address these matters amicably instead of repressively?
A: The repressive approach is the simplest way to turn something around. According to the way the majority part of our society views us [Romani people], it is the most acceptable way as well.
Q: Is this somehow related to a lack of respect for the Romani victims of Nazism? For example, with the fact that the state has not managed to remove the pig farm from the territory of the former concentration camp at Lety by Písek?
A: Now you’ve opened Pandora’s box. Czech society has not yet squared up to what happened during Nazism. It is known, and it was even mentioned at a commemoration by Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas, that at Lety the Czechs were wreaking havoc during the Nazi occupation even though they didn’t have to, no one called upon them to do it. The Czech guards and the Czech camp commander at Lety were responsible for people dying of a combination of hunger and violence, as well as from typhus and of other serious illnesses. The Czechs had been given one responsibility by the Nazis: To maintain the people in the camps so they would live until the transport to Auschwitz. The Nazis needed to get our forebears to the extermination camps so they could beat their teeth out of them (which were often gold), cut off their hair, and otherwise makes use of everything else they could, but the Czechs, out of their hatred for Romani people, raised hell with them already at Lety. Their actions were even worse because they knew the blame for their violent sprees would eventually fall on the Germans and that they would come out clean, at least during the immediate postwar period. They skillfully hid behind Nazism. Czech people have this in their subconscious and this is why they don’t like hearing about it, they don’t like admitting or analyzing it. During communism this could not be publicly discussed at all, it was forbidden. It was not until we, after November 1989, started discussing this out loud inside Romani organizations that some Czechs started to say there must be something to it, because what we were saying was logical. Then Czech President Václav Havel and Petr Uhl joined us. They were the first figures to publicly commemorate the fact that there were Czech guards at the Lety concentration camp, including the camp commander. After that, Pavel Rychetský said it too. All three of those men are recognized moral leaders. This year, it was also said by the current Prime Minister, Petr Nečas, when he said that what happened to Romani people was genocide. That has other connotations as well. If the Prime Minister declares that was the case, than we can demand moral redress, and I intend to keep working on this. That should consist first and foremost in the removal of the pig farm from the site where our forebears perished because of their race.
Q: You have been fighting for the removal of the pig farm for many years. Aren’t you tired of it?
A: The opinions of some members of the majority part of society really depress me. Sometimes I seriously do not know how to go on. This issue has touched me very deeply ever since I first learned of it. I didn’t know about Lety until a certain point in time. My father and mother didn’t tell me about it for a long time because they knew I would explode when I found out – and during communism they would have imprisoned me for it.
Q: A couple of politicians have aimed or are aiming, in relation to the past, at attempting to right some of these wrongs, but a large part of society disagrees with using money from the state budget to remove the pig farm. Can anything be done to change that?
A: I don’t know. It’s related to how the majority views Romani people today. It has to do with how our people behave and how majority people behave. It’s a big bunch of problems. The main problem is that the majority sees historical events, including the time of the occupation, through the lens of their current view of Romani people.
Q: How should the effort to improve coexistence between Romani people and “whites” begin? It seems that could shift people’s opinions of the past in a better direction, at least a bit, right?
A: I have been saying this for a long time, but no one listens. I keep insisting that work with Romani people must have, as its basis, Romani figures who live in a community and enjoy natural authority there. These people must be sought out and communication with them must begin. Instead, we sometimes witness the reverse approach – they’ve turned some Romani people into police assistants. Naturally, that works too, but concerns still remain that some of these assistants will start bossing the other Romani people around. There is also the problem that this type of cooperation is based, once again, on repression to a certain degree.
Q: What could Romani people themselves do to improve coexistence?
A: I am not one of those who view the previous regime nostalgically, but I have to tell you how it was then. Under the communists, we [Romani people] had a sort of reputation because we had jobs. We had our pride, and it was visible. Society respected us, in its own way. Today it’s going from bad to worse. A large part of society considers us a thorn in their side, no one is interested in our ideas. Unless we get the opportunity to show that we know how to work, i.e., until there is enough work for all unemployed people, we will have a hard time managing to do anything meaningful.