Death Camp Lety – an upcoming book by American writer describing the cover-up of documents about WW2 Roma death camp
There are stories which should have never been brought into the open. Accounts of Czech people who actively participated in the Holocaust machinery. The torturing and killing of Roma that should have been forgotten. And most importantly, there are stories of those who have spent a lot of effort to silence the history of Lety even 50 years after WW2. This is what the book Death Camp Lety, written by American writer and activist Paul Polansky, is all about. In Polansky’s diary entries we follow his archive research during which, by accident, he found the complete archive of the concentration camp in Lety. Death Camp Lety is a book about a history which has not been part of any education curriculum. It is about a history which has been silenced for decades, not only due to missing evidence, but also as a politically uncomfortable issue: it has disrupted the image of Czech people as mere victims of the war.
More than a year ago the Antifascist Action in the Czech Republic invited Paul Polansky to Prague to talk about the crimes that took place in Lety. The Czech Republic was at that time shaken by racist marches through Roma neighborhoods. During our interviews Polansky outlined why the history of Lety is so little known. According to him, the cause is not only a simple lack of interest but also an active cover-up by the Czech state. We found out that Polansky kept a diary during his research and that it contains a lot of interesting information that offers a new perspective on the whole history of Lety.
In the dramatic story we can see how Polansky fought for the truth to be known by the public. He found evidence and testimonies which were not only politically uncomfortable, but also personally dangerous for many individuals. It was necessary to hide both the evidence and the testimonies. Nobody was, for instance, ever punished for the murders committed by Czech policemen. They were omitted from official history. Several decades later a pig farm was built on the place of the concentration camp. Polansky decided to search for survivors of the camp to find out what had really happened there. In spite of the reluctance of the Czech authorities he found almost hundred survivors and published their testimonies in the book Black Silence. Many of these testimonies are about the process of erasing part of Czech history:
The last time I gave a statement about Lety I was arrested. A few years after the war, two men came to our apartment to investigate what happened in Lety. My mother was afraid to talk, but I told these detectives the truth. A year later some 14 policemen came to arrest me because they said I had told lies about Lety. They took me to police headquarters in Prague 1. From there they took me into police custody in Prague 6. They kept me there for ten months trying to get me to change my statement. They wanted me to say that Lety was run by the Germans, not by the Czechs. (František Janošovský)
The horrors of Lety went in fact far beyond what was admitted by the official interpretation of history. Lety was not merely a work camp, as a former president of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus, would have us believe. One of the survivors located by Polansky, Barbara Richter, described the conditions in Lety:
I went through many concentration camps (Lety, Auschwitz, Ravensbruck, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald) but the Czech guards at Lety were the worst, much worse than the German guards in all the other camps. Lety was worse than Auschwitz because you could be beaten to death at any moment, for any reason. In Auschwitz you only had one bad moment in the morning, to hear if your turn had come for the crematorium. The German guards weren’t bad, they didn’t push you, they didn’t hit you. At Lety you had to be careful all day long looking out for a guard that could hit you at any moment, beat you to death for no reason at all. In Bergen-Belsen I was weak, sick, and my fellow prisoners held me up for roll call. The German guards said nothing. If that had happened in Lety I would have been beaten to death and so would the people holding me. I was in many death camps but Lety was the worst. (Barbara Richter)
The Czech translation of Death Camp Lety will be published in November 2014, not long after the country was recently shaken by racist marches and crowds of decent citizens were heard shouting “Gypsies into the gas chambers!”. And on the place where for several years the Holocaust machinery was murdering under purely Czech management, a pig farm still stands defiling the tragedy and the graves of innocent people who were killed by their neighbours. Yet another machinery followed in a different direction, covertly, slowly and over a long period of time. It was the machinery put in place to cover up the evidence and the book Death Camp Lety reveals its modus operandi.
The proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the campaign for the closure of the pig farm in Lety.
Excerpt from the book:
I’ll never forget when I opened the third carton of documents on the Gypsy camp in the state archive of Třeboň. The first two cartons containing mainly camp accounts had bored me to death for over an hour.
The first file in the third carton was about an 18 year-old Gypsy girl, Františka Petržílková, who had been sent to Lety in June 1941 and given prison number 208. She had been arrested when she applied for her Gypsy identity card. On her application she had signed her name with three crosses, instead of three X as was normal for illiterate people in Bohemia.
Two police mug shots of her were in the file. The side photo showed the metal rod behind her head to keep it straight. She was dark, with long black hair, high cheek bones, and a thin face. Although my sixteen year old daughter was blond, this Gypsy girl had the same inquisitive eyes, bright and full of life.
As I read the Gypsy girl’s file, I discovered that on November 28th, 1942, she had escaped. The next notation on her record said she had been recaptured on December 3rd. Her file contained no more information.
Over the next month as we poured over the books and cartons, I uncovered hundreds of files with photos, signatures, lists of belongings, receipts for gold earrings that were later auctioned off to camp staff, snapshots from family albums, and letters from relatives seeking the whereabouts of their arrested relatives. Then in carton number 7 we found long lists of names, names without files. These were the arrival lists, methodically prepared, noting name, birth date and place of arrest. There were thousands of them which Vlasta put into my computer database program. Patrick also became serious for the first time on the trip and worked long hours checking the names of all arrivals against the official camp books. His work enabled me to realize that the camp had held thousands of prisoners. Although the official inmate book claimed only 695 prisoners, the cover-up was easy to decipher. The inmate book listed one name for each number, but on the arrival lists found in carton 7 whole families, even several families, were listed under the same number, under one individual name. After working through all the arrival lists, Patrick and I calculated that an average of eight prisoners were allocated to the same inmate number. But sometimes we found as many as 17 people listed under one number, under one individual name.
After only a month’s research we had discovered that Lety really was a death camp. Everyday inmates died during the three year duration of the camp. As the deaths occurred new prisoners would be brought to the camp and given the vacant numbers, but in the official book the name was seldom changed.
After Josef’s call, we went back to telephoning more families in Prague. It was useless.
“There has got to be an easier way to track these men down,” Alena said.
“There is, but the government won’t cooperate. On the police computer in Prague we only have to type in the guard’s name and his birth date, which I have, and bingo, we know where he’s living today, if he’s alive. But the government doesn’t want me to find them.”
“I presume they don’t want me to interview them.”
“I doubt if the guards would tell you the truth anyway.”
“Some would,” I said. “I once interviewed a man who was a guard at a German extermination camp. He was in the Ukrainian SS. He told me everything. He wanted to get it off his chest before he died.”
“Who was he?”
“Unfortunately, a relative of mine.”
“But you’re American.”
“He came to America after the war. He lied about his past and got in. When I set about looking for all my maternal grandmother’s relatives she had left back in Ukraine I found his name. I tracked him back to Germany and from there to Connecticut. He never answered my letters so one day I called from New York to tell him I would be there in two hours. When I arrived, he had his bags packed, ready to leave with me. He thought I was from the FBI. He told me he had been waiting for this moment for thirty years. All his family was there, crying. It took me a long time to convince him I was a relative and that I had not come to arrest him.”
“I don’t think a Lety guard would confess to you like that.”
“You’d be surprised how people change when you show up on their doorstep. If I had a handful of Lety documents with names, I bet they would say ‘so and so did the killing, not me.’ Soon we’d have them all implicated.”
“Now I understand why the government doesn’t want to help you. You would terrorize those poor old men.”
I nodded. Yes I would, I silently said to myself. I would terrorize those poor old men who had been the guards at Lety until they told me the truth; told me why so many Gypsy children died in the camp.