The New Roma Ghettos

Slovakia's Ongoing Segregation Nightmare

By Aaron Lake Smith


Children playing on a broken wall in the Vel'ka Ida Roma settlement, in eastern Slovakia. The massive US Steel factory is visible in the background. Photos by Matt Lutton.

Throughout history, sometimes events seem perfectly aligned to spark racial violence. On March 10 of last year, the residents of the small village of Krásnohorské Podhradie, in the mountains of eastern Slovakia, looked up to the hilltop at the center of town to see their beloved 14th-century Krásna Hôrka Castle being engulfed in flames. By the time firefighters made it up the hill, the roof was gone and three bells had melted down into the tower. 

The next day, a police spokesman announced that the fire had been caused by two Roma boys, aged 11 and 12, who lived in a ghetto on the edge of the village. They had allegedly been trying to light a cigarette at the bottom of the hill when an unusually strong gust of wind carried a piece of smoldering ash up the mountain, where it ignited wood strewn on the castle grounds. Whether or not they were responsible, the accused and their families were terrified—perhaps because, in the last two years, according to data from the European Roma Rights Center, there have been dozens of violent attacks on Roma in Slovakia—the ethnic group better known as Gypsies. Fearing reprisal, the boys were quickly spirited out of town to stay with relatives, while Roma men prepared throughout the night to defend their community. Ultimately, the boys weren’t charged with any crime because they’re minors, but the damage was done: the image of Gypsy kids setting fire to a hallmark of Slovak national heritage seemed to only reinforce the prejudices many white ethnic Slovaks have toward their country’s poorest citizens. With the burning of Krásna Hôrka Castle, the far right in Slovakia had their equivalent of 1933’s Reichstag fire—the symbolic event needed to justify a crackdown. 

In mid-March, I flew to Slovakia and drove out to Krásnohorské Podhradie for a rally to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the burning of Krásna Hôrka. Marian Kotleba, a former teacher and leader of the far right People’s Party-Our Slovakia—named in honor of the clerical-fascist party that ran the Slovak Republic during World War II—had pegged his dim electoral prospects on Krásna Hôrka and his stand against “Gypsy criminality.” 

On arrival, I entered a lot beside the municipal offices. A crowd of about 150 people—skinheads, tough-looking townspeople, and about 12 of Marian’s green-clad officer corps—stood around listening to Marian’s speech. My translator suggested parking away from the crowd so that there would be less of a chance of anyone noticing the Hungarian plates on our rental car. “If there’s one thing the neo-Nazis like less than Roma, it’s Hungarians,” he said, only half joking, referring to Slovak resentment of their former imperial neighbor.


A Roma boy with an infected gash who was playing around a trash fire in a feces-strewn field on the edge of the segregated Roma settlement outside the village of Huncovce, Slovakia.

A short, mustached man in black fatigues, Marian Kotleba stood in front of his blue zebra-striped Hummer flanked by two skinheads waving the party’s massive green flags. “We don’t like the way this government deprives polite people in order to improve the position of parasites,” he said in a stern, steady voice. An enormous yellow crane loomed above the castle on the hilltop, making repairs on the castle’s roof. “This burned castle is a symbol of the way it will go if the government doesn’t do anything with this growing and increasing menace,” Marian continued. “If we don’t do anything about it, the situation will continue getting worse… If the state wasn’t creating surprisingly good conditions for these Gypsy extremists, what do you think would happen? They would all go to England. They can go anywhere; they have freedom to move. If they suffer so much in Slovakia, no one is keeping them here. No one will miss them. I don’t have to tell you that I wouldn’t miss them at all.”

Enthusiastic applause rose up from the crowd. For another 20 minutes, Marian railed against the European Union and advocated for the rights of “polite people”—a code term for white ethnic Slovaks. The rally ended with Marian urging the townspeople to “open their eyes and do something.” 

After the speech, I spoke with some of the skinheads. One, named Marek, suggested that Roma be put on reservations, “like the ones you all have for Native Americans.” A teenager in gray camo with a patch that read all cops are bastards snarled, “All the Gypsies should be gassed,” before being pulled away by elder neo-Nazis.

Later that evening, in what would be the climax of the day’s events, Marian drove his Hummer into the poor Roma settlement at the edge of the village and threatened the residents. Using a plot of land he had been given by a local sympathizer as leverage, he attempted to evict the Roma and demolish their homes. The residents responded by throwing stones and attacking his Hummer with hammers. In a statement released in the wake of the incident, Marian wrote, “We had only two options. Deal with the situation radically in the style of Milan Juhász [an off-duty police officer in western Slovakia who killed and wounded five Roma men last summer, claiming that he had to “restore order”]. We had four short ball guns and about 250 rounds of ammunition; however, we decided to give one last chance to the police.”


Marian Kotleba, leader of the far right People's Party, speaking at a rally against "Gypsy criminality" in Krasnhorske Podhradie, Slovakia, for the one-year anniversary of a fire that damaged Krasna Horka Castle.

As the Eurozone crisis worsens and Slovakia considers austerity, moderates, left-wing politicians, and average Slovaks all seem to be colluding, if accidentally, to scapegoat the country’s most precarious minority. According to recent estimates, there are around 440,000 Roma in Slovakia, representing about 8 percent of the population—one of the highest concentrations in Europe. According to monitoring and reports provided by the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), racist violence, evictions, threats, and more subtle forms of discrimination and prejudice have reached a crescendo over the past two years in Slovakia. The ERRC considers the situation in Slovakia to be one of the worst in Europe. In the past two years, 11 Slovak municipalities have erected walls to separate the residents of Roma ghettos from their white neighbors. On New Year’s Eve 2012, the mayor of the small village Zlaté Moravce (who, reportedly, was drunk) gave a speech in the town square to over 1,000 residents where he called on members of the “white race” to fight “unemployed parasites,” which prompted packs of skinheads to chase Roma teenagers out of bars throughout the town.

The issue is not only neo-Nazis but also the deep-seated prejudices of white Slovaks. In December, the decapitated body of a Roma man—beheaded by the town butcher—was found in a sewer in a nearby village. Last April, in the Czech village of Chotěbuz, a man used a crossbow to shoot and kill a Roma man who was looking for scrap metal. The shooter allegedly shouted, “You black whores! I’ll kill you!” And over the past year, the Slovak Spectator has reported at least four cases of racially motivated violence against black and brown foreigners by neo-Nazis in Slovakia, including an American basketball player signed by a Slovak team. 

The Roma are a heterogeneous ethnic group historians believe migrated from India around the 9th century into what is now Iraq, ending up in the Balkans and Eastern Europe by the 14th century. They have always been persecuted. According to Isabel Fonseca’s book Bury Me Standing, laws passed in 15th-century Europe permitted the execution of Roma without any evidence of a crime. In medieval Wallachia and Moldavia, Roma were traded as slaves. One Roma slave could be traded for a pig. Up until the 17th and 18th centuries, aristocrats held “heathen hunts” and set forests on fire to drive Roma out of hiding and kill them. Today, there are approximately 13 million Roma in the world, the vast majority of them in Europe. 


Roma children huddle together in the segregated Roma settlement in the village of Vel'ka Ida, Slovakia. The settlement is only given access to water for two hours a day.

After the collapse of Communism and its separation from the Czech Republic in 1993, democratic Slovakia gave minority rights to Roma citizens, which in practice has resulted in their widespread marginalization by the white Slovak and Hungarian majority. In a speech made this February, the prime minister of Slovakia, Robert Fico, accused the Roma of trying to blackmail the Slovak state on the issue. “We did not establish our independent state for minorities, although we respect them, but mainly for the Slovak state-forming nation,” he said, going on to complain about the “strange tendency to put forward the position of minorities.” The topsy-turvy political constellation of the former Eastern bloc is such that Prime Minister Fico, a pragmatic, social-democratic politician, is also known for mocking human rights observers and indulging in nationalist rhetoric.

In 2005, an initiative co-sponsored by the EU, the European Commission, and the World Bank, among other organizations, was undertaken with the intention of making this the Decade of Roma Inclusion for Slovakia and 11 other countries. The European Social Fund committed a billion euros to helping Roma in Slovakia meet predetermined benchmarks in employment, education, and social inclusion. Today there is little to show for those funds spent in Slovakia. A recent UN Development Program report painted a grim picture: of the 43 percent of contracts and funds designated to be relevant to marginalized Roma by Slovakian municipalities, only 18 percent have actually reached marginalized Roma communities. In my interviews with Roma, there was a widespread perception that white municipalities were funding self-serving development projects with funds that had been earmarked for Roma communities. 

On the other side, there is a persistent theory among white Slovaks that the EU architects are funneling money into Slovakia to turn it into a giant ghetto, thus preventing Roma from migrating to countries like Great Britain and France.

Both of these perceptions may not be entirely implausible. A source who was party to high-level European Commission and World Bank meetings (and who did not wished to be named) told me that she got the sense that the underlying reason for pushing social programs was to curtail Roma immigration from Eastern to Western Europe. There are also reports that the European Commission has threatened to nullify the Balkans visa-liberalization program—which allows Balkan residents to move fluidly between their borders and those of the EU—if they don’t do something to stabilize their Roma population. Western Europe doesn’t want the Roma, and Slovakia doesn’t want them either. 


Boys stand on a hill by the wall separating the Roma settlement of Ostrovany, Slovakia, from its non-Roma neighbors. From left to right: Ferko, 12, Lukas, 9, Lubomir Kaleja, 12, and David Kotler, 12.

A few days before the neo-Nazi rally, I visited a Roma ghetto. I drove past skeletal trees, black muddy fields, World War II monuments, and gothic, bleeding crucifixes on middle-of-nowhere country roads to Košice, a grim industrial city in eastern Slovakia that seemed little changed since the collapse of Communism. Earlier this year Košice was given the EU’s “2013 European Capital of Culture” award, alongside Marseille, France. It seemed like a strange choice. The cobblestone streets of the historic Old Town emptied out completely around ten at night, giving the place a vaguely Stasi feel. The selection seemed conveniently timed to stoke enthusiasm for the EU in a country facing austerity and a 33 percent youth unemployment rate. 

There are at least 14 informal Roma settlements scattered around Košice, in addition to massive social-housing projects like Luník IX, a cellblock for thousands of Roma that has become a kind of Epcot exhibition of devastating poverty. In late February, several hundred white Slovak activists—unaffiliated with the neo-Nazis—marched through the streets of Košice. The organizers told the media, “Gypsy criminality has destroyed many lives.”

On the outskirts of Košice, under a dystopian Eastern bloc skyline of steel factories, pods, and towers spewing smoke, we came to the exurban village of Vel’ká Ida. In August, Vel’ká Ida’s moderate-right mayor erected a six-foot concrete wall in front of the Roma settlement (ostensibly to keep Roma children from being struck by passing cars). Around the same time, the mayor cut access to the water supply for the community of 800 people to two hours a day, citing overuse.

At Vel’ká Ida, I met Carlo, the unofficial leader of the Roma settlement. Behind the wall that separates the community from the road, houses collapsed in on themselves, dogs perched on the edges of massive trash containers, and smoke wafted in from the industrial skyline. Carlo’s wife, a hardscrabble woman in her 50s, led us through the crowd and into their shack. 

Carlo, a short and tough middle-aged man, held court from his bed, which was situated in the kitchen. Out of the 800 Roma living in the settlement, he was one of the few who had been able to secure employment and proudly displayed his ID from US Steel, where he did manual labor for 350 euros a month. “Slovakia is the worst nation for Roma. The government is a bunch of racists,” he said. When I asked about the new wall he shrugged. “I know it’s racism, I know it’s segregation. But we’ve got bigger problems we’re dealing with at the moment, like the water; and the unemployment.” 

A Roma guy in his 20s sitting silently in the kitchen suddenly spoke up and disagreed with Carlo. “If the mayor was right about the wall being built to protect children, why did he build it up so high?” he asked. “It’s to make us invisible.” Carlo shook his head and said that drunk, local whites routinely drove into the settlement at night to harass them and shoot off guns. “Look, you can see poverty on us,” Carlo said. “Now with the far right people with their rhetoric against the Roma, what do they want from us? What do they want to take from us? We have nothing.”

Under Communism, the Roma had no official minority rights (the concept of minority rights ran counter to the uncompromising unity required to maintain the vast Soviet system). There was, however, guaranteed housing in the city centers and plenty of industrial jobs; integration was enforced and discrimination could be punished. The authorities relocated Roma around Czechoslovakia as needed, attempting to mold the ethnic group into a kind of malleable industrial workforce.

Over the past 20 years, through a process that could be viewed as coordinated gentrification, the Roma were pushed out of Slovakia’s city centers and into segregated settlements at the fringes of cities and villages. The number of informal Roma settlements and ghettos in Slovakia grew from 278 in 1988 to 620 in 2000. According to recent UN Development Program reports, Roma unemployment currently hovers around 70 percent—compared to 33 percent for non-Roma. Nearly all the Roma I interviewed were unemployed. Many white Slovaks I spoke with tended to attribute the Roma’s “work-shy” disposition, while human rights groups blame it on widespread discrimination and prejudice. 


The mayor of the village of Vel'ka Ida, Julius Beluscscak, in his office.

Two days after my time with Carlo, I sat in a municipal office in a 17th-century castle across the street from the Roma settlement, speaking with Vel’ká Ida’s mayor, Július Beluscsák. He struck me as a vain and priggish man, from his limp handshake to his pointy, zip-up snakeskin boots. I felt embarrassed that I had walked into his spotlessly clean office with dirty shoes, caked in the mud of the settlement. The mayor, a former physician and a coalition candidate from Slovakia’s center-right and center-left parties, rattled off the relevant statistics: there were 1,300 Roma in his town, 75 of whom were employed, “and somewhere around 200 stray dogs.” Ninety percent of the Roma, he claimed, didn’t understand basic hygiene. When asked about administering a district with these kinds of social problems, he sighed and said, “I’m envious of those mayors who have no Roma in their municipalities. The Roma settlement out here in Vel’ká Ida is probably one of the worst in all of Slovakia. The women are having children starting from age 13 to 33. We have a case of a 33-year-old woman who has 11 kids. They’re having children to get social benefits. They have no obligations or duties. The children don’t get vaccinated.”

One aspect of the prejudice toward Roma centers on notions of hygiene. While in the United States, the word Gypsy arguably doesn’t carry an explicitly negative connotation, the Slovak word Cigáni does—it roughly translates to “filthy Gypsy.” In 2011, ethnic Slovaks started a movement called Zobudme sa (“Let’s Wake Up”), collecting the signatures of the mayors of around 400 cities and towns in an attempt to coordinate demolitions of Roma shanty settlements. The signatories are attempting to use environmental law to reclassify informal settlements as dumping grounds, and evict their residents on the grounds of trash being strewn about and other unhygienic conditions. But the mayors behind the Let’s Wake Up movement aren’t proposing Roma integration into white communities or improved social housing. They just want them out of sight and out of mind. In October, the mayor of Košice evicted 156 people from a settlement and bought them one-way bus tickets out of town. The mayor of the village they were sent to—also a signatory of Let’s Wake Up—then bought them one-way bus tickets back to Košice. According to a recent ERRC monitor report, those who were evicted were squatting in the forest.

By exacerbating the conditions that made it difficult for the Roma to get work, vaccinations, and decent housing—by treating them as undesirables—weren’t the municipalities contributing to the conditions the Roma were being blamed for creating? The mayor’s explanations, like the ideology of Let’s Wake Up, seemed like a catch-22: according to him, the Roma are unhygienic because they are poor; but the Roma are poor because they’re unhygienic. Let’s just do away with them all, the logic seemed to be, and history has shown us where this thinking ultimately leads. 

When I asked the mayor how the situation of the town’s Roma could be improved, he said, “They need to be dealt with in a dictatorial fashion.” I pressed him on what exactly that meant, and he explained, “No, no. Dictatorial like under Communism. Back then, having a job was compulsory. If the children didn’t go to school, the police would come and beat the parents up.” 

The mayor then abruptly walked over to his cabinet and pulled out some village gift bags and a soccer pennant. The bags contained a towel and a badge, each adorned with Vel’ká Ida’s village crest—a castle turret guarded by two lancers. “Vel’ká Ida is very famous,” he gloated. “There actually used to be a Gypsy castle here in the 15th century. When the Czechs attacked, these Gypsy lancers helped to defend us.”

“This was a real castle? The Roma helped defend it?” I said, completely confused. 

“No,” the mayor replied, rubbing his chin. “It was only a myth.”


The wall and iron gate separating a Roma social-housing complex from the rest of the city, on the edge of Presov, Slovakia. The lock on the gate was recently broken open by Roma residents.

In recent Slovakian laws and the comments of elected officials, a word that is cropping up with disturbing frequency is inadaptable. The perception is that there are two types of Roma: those who can integrate into white society and those who choose to live in filthy, segregated settlements. 

In 2001, Prime Minister Fico said, “The great mass of Roma want to just lie in bed on social support and family benefit. These people have discovered that, because of family benefit, it is advantageous to have children.” Shockingly, forced and coerced sterilization of Roma women occurred in Slovakian hospitals as recently as 2004, when strategic litigation resulted in an informed consent requirement being written into the country’s health-care laws. Testimonies compiled by the Center for Civil and Human Rights in 2003 showed an egregious pattern of abuse perpetrated by white Slovak doctors in hospitals. They were reportedly telling Roma women that they were having too many children—and sometimes mentally disabled children—in order to receive increased child-support benefits. The testimonies are a collection of horrors: the attempted rape of a Roma woman by an ambulance driver as she was going into labor, women raped by their gynecologists, women saying they were not given painkillers during birth, and, in one particularly horrifying instance, a woman being forced to give birth on the hospital floor with a doctor screaming, “You are a pig, so you should give birth like a pig!” 

In my interviews and interactions with white Slovaks, many seemed to regard Roma as welfare queens bent on abusing government programs. Last April, Peter Pollak became the first Roma elected to Slovakia’s parliament. As Plenipotentiary for Roma Communities, he is also in charge of advising the government on Roma issues. While there are a few glimmers of hope, such as an amended antidiscrimination law that will take effect in April, enthusiasm for Pollak has somewhat dimmed with the perception that he is being used by the prime minister and ministry of interior to push a paternalistic set of reforms called the “Right Way,” written to address the children of “socially inadaptable citizens.” The laws, many of which have yet to be implemented, make it so that criminal records and children’s school attendance affect the social benefits Roma families can collect. For his part, Prime Minister Fico stated earlier this year that the best hope for Roma was to separate the children from their families and place them in boarding schools. “Someone should show these children they can live in a different way,” he said. 


Milan Dano, 52, the unofficial leader of a segregated Roma social-housing complex called the Old Brick-Kiln, which is home to 2,000 people. Milan was fired from his job for speaking out against the wall.

An hour north of Košice, at the edge of the city of Prešov, we visited another Roma ghetto—the Old Brick-Kiln, an enormous social-housing complex wedged beside the highway. Constructed 13 years ago with EU funds, this crumbling structure provides housing for 2,000 Roma and looks like something out of Robert Moses’s wet dreams. In 2010, the city built a wall and an iron gate on the hill behind the complex, closing off the easiest and safest access to the town. Keys were doled out to the non-Roma neighbors so that they could access their garden plots, but not the Roma residents. The 15-minute walk to school for Roma children became a 45-minute walk along a highway. And, of course, the municipality does not provide school buses. 

Slovakian schools still have segregated classrooms for Roma and whites. Many Roma children are diagnosed with disabilities and, according to ERRC reports, make up 60 percent of special-education schools. Although a historic 2012 verdict by a Slovak court ended overt segregation and was praised by human rights watchdogs, a de facto segregation persists much as after Brown v. Board of Education. Some Roma parents told me the only change is that Roma and white students now eat lunch together. Roma NGOs and media organizations report that white Slovaks are moving from villages into the cities to avoid having their children share classrooms with Roma children, in what constitutes a sort of reverse “white flight.”

In the Old Brick-Kiln, we were guided to the apartment of the unofficial leader of the complex, Milan Daňo. Milan, a stocky 50-year-old Roma man covered in tattoos from neck to knuckles, worked as a community coordinator for a Roma nonprofit until he was dismissed in November. Of the 2,000 residents who live in the Old Brick-Kiln, he was one of the few who had been able to secure employment. Milan said his dismissal was related to a statement he made to a journalist over the summer: “First they tore down the Berlin Wall, then they built up the Roma wall!” He had also signed a petition against the barrier. “I hear that the mayor says he doesn’t want to see me anymore,” he said, looking downcast.

In the 90s, the majority of Prešov’s Roma still lived on two streets in the city center. Their apartments were declared uninhabitable, they were evicted, and the Old Brick-Kiln was offered up as an alternative. “While they were building this place, they told us that it would be a military barracks, so we wouldn’t get frightened that they were going to relocate us.”

Milan and all the Old Brick-Kiln’s other residents pay rent and have leases at the complex. But, I wondered, why couldn’t people find other accommodations after they were evicted from the city center? Both the translator and Milan shook their heads balefully, indicating that I just didn’t understand. “It’s not possible—the non-Roma in the city would never rent to us.”

The ledger book still didn’t seem to add up. How did 2,000 unemployed Roma afford to pay 300 euros each, per month, for their apartments? “Some people use their child support to pay rent, others use social benefit or have informal jobs. We’re taking out loans,” Milan said. He explained that there had been a few “activation schemes”—work-stimulus programs financed by the EU and Slovakian municipalities—but that these temp gigs sweeping streets, cleaning gutters, and shoveling snow were only assigned to 15 or 20 people and sometimes didn’t even pay. 

Milan’s wife Zlata, a non-Roma but also unemployed, said, “The whole non-Roma public is criticizing us for being ‘work-shy.’ The thing is, being Roma keeps you from getting a job. If I can’t get a job, how can I expect him to with all this discrimination?” 

Milan and Zlata perceived these activation schemes to be less about providing sustainable employment than providing a modicum of busywork for habitually “work-shy” Roma communities. 


This industrial pig farm was built over a World War II-era Roma concentration camp, just outside the village of Lety, Czech Republic. An estimated 326 people died in the camp, and more than 500 were deported to Auschwitz.

The Czechoslovak Republic was the first country in 20th-century Europe to initiate a “solution” for the Roma. The 1927 Law of Migrating Gypsies required all gypsies to be filed, registered, and classified with the authorities. Austria and Weimar, Germany, followed suit with their Central Office for the Fight Against the Gypsies. They were banned from public baths, forced to carry ID cards, and their civil rights were impeded. The legislation intensified with Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, the Reich Citizenship Law, and a Gypsy version of Kristallnacht, called Gypsy Clean-Up Week. The “final solution to the Gypsy question” was first mentioned by Himmler in 1938. 

Most historians estimate that between 500,000 and 1.5 million Roma perished during the Nazi era. In the postwar reckoning and memorialization, the Roma were largely excluded and forgotten. They were not present during the score-settling Nuremberg trials and received no reparations. The view was that Roma were murdered by the Nazis and the Axis countries not for racial reasons, but for their persistently asocial and criminal behavior—the same reasons given for their persecution today. The Roma holocaust didn’t even receive a proper name until the 1990s, when it was dubbed Porajmos—the “Devouring.” 

As early as 1939, adult male Gypsies could be sent to disciplinary labor camps in the Czech Protectorate. In 1942, SS commander Horst Böhme in Prague issued an order to “fight against the Gypsy plague.” At least 1,039 Roma had their property confiscated and were deported to Lety, a former disciplinary camp an hour from Prague, which was operated not by the SS, but by Czechs. Today, a functioning, industrial pig farm sits on the site of the former camp.

On a cold night at a pub near the center of Prague, I met Markus Pape, an investigative journalist who authored the 1997 book Nobody Will Believe You: A Document of the Lety Concentration Camp. “The title,” he told me, “came from what the Roma survivors were told when they came out of Lety and tried to tell their story. People said, ‘No one will ever believe you.’” A chain-smoking German émigré to the Czech Republic, Markus has a haunted and disheveled demeanor that middle-aged investigative journalists so often seem to possess.

Markus’s book drew on archives and first-person testimonies of Roma survivors. It’s unfortunate that when we talk about the Nazi era, we deal with people as statistics—much in the same way the Nazis reduced humans to numbers. In the Europe-wide schema of extermination, the Lety camp was comparatively small. Three hundred and twenty-six people died in Lety, 241 of them children. The Czech historians who knew of Lety wrote it off as relatively benign, similar to the Japanese interment camps in the US during World War II. It was their view that the children who perished there had suffered from an unfortunate typhus outbreak in the Stalingrad winter of 1943. 

Markus’s book was the first to suggest that a grievous crime had been committed. In his research, he found that deaths occurred before the typhus outbreak of 1943. He argued that Lety should be reclassified as a concentration camp. This caused an uproar among Czech historians and the Czech government, and it didn’t help that Markus was German. “The view from the Czechs was, ‘This is not nice,’” he sighed. “It didn’t fit into this Czech self-perception as victims of World War II. Their view of themselves is, ‘Occasionally we broke the rules, but we were not like Germany or any imperial nation.’” Even if Lety was just used as an internment camp, more than 500 Roma were transported from there to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. 


Someone had written "Gypsies to the Gas!" in the guestbook at the information center about the Lety Concentration Camp.

The camp at Lety was demolished after the typhus outbreak, and none of the Czechs responsible were ever convicted of any crime. The camp remained forgotten until the early 90s when an American businessman and amateur genealogist named Paul Polansky rediscovered it in the Czech archives and informed the US Congress. In response, Václav Havel, the first president of the democratic Czech Republic, commissioned a small memorial to be erected near the pig farm in 1995 but didn’t solicit any Roma input during the design phase. “Can you imagine building a Holocaust memorial without consulting any Jewish people?” Markus asked rhetorically. The current Czech prime minister visited the memorial last summer but insisted there was no way to evict the owners of the pig farm. 

Markus, who now works part-time as a human rights monitor, mentioned that he watched the American film Mississippi Burning the night before. “I was shocked by how many things in the movie were the same kind of things that happen here with Roma,” he said, describing how in 2009, he had investigated an attack on a Roma apartment building by neo-Nazis that left a young girl permanently burned. “When I talk to my Czech friends about the Roma, they think it is a problem that will never be solved. Maybe it’s something like the Israel and Palestine issue. For Israel, there is no solution.” 

The next morning, Markus and I drove out to the funereal, empty Czech village of Lety and up over a hill to the site of the former camp. “The camp was built on the other side of a hill so no one could see what was going on,” he explained. We turned down a two-lane rural road that soon turned from pavement to dirt. In the gray afternoon, the pig farm, with its rusted barbed-wire fence and lines of gray barracks with foul-smelling smoke rising from the chimneys, looked like a textbook photograph of a concentration camp. We stood atop the cold hill, examining a historical placard that showed the location of the former site. “Survivors said they were tortured here,” Markus said. “One survivor who had been in both Auschwitz and Lety said that Lety was worse because it was the Czechs, their own people doing it. Auschwitz was very bad, but you could see the gas chambers coming. In Lety you never knew what would happen from day to day.”

Havel’s memorial, situated in a copse of snow-dusted trees, looked like the kind of outdoor Baptist amphitheater you might find in suburban Houston. “The problem is that visitors come here and they see the pig farm from the road, and they say, ‘Is that the memorial? It looks like a concentration camp,’” Markus said. Across a small pond, the pig farm continued to belch gray smoke. Markus pointed at the pond and said, “Survivors said that children were drowned in there.”

Back in the village, we visited an information center about the Lety camp. The small, unheated room smelled like wet cigarette butts, and strange funhouse mirrors hung on the walls. On the way out, after looking over the historical placards, we checked the guestbook. Someone had scrawled “Gypsies to the gas!” across a full page.

On the drive back to Prague, Markus and I discussed the future. “Today, any government that supports Roma will lose the next election,” he said. “Democracy is supposed to be the protection of minorities. Without that protection, the minorities will be suppressed by what the majority decides. I think people in post-Communist countries are having difficulty adjusting to this. After ’89, we lost a major part of our identity, being part of this international Communist bloc. And where are we now? What do we have to be proud of? We needed to revive our nationalistic approach to fill the void. And the Roma don’t fit into this approach.”

This artilce was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.

More stories from Aaron Lake Smith:

The Czechs of Montauk

Death of the American Hobo

Peeling Oniontown

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