Czech memorial finally honours Roma victims of Nazis


A man takes a photo of the sculpture at the Roma memorial placed on the site of the former concentration camp in Lety, Czech Republic, on April 23, 2024, near the village of Lety, South Bohemia. [AFP]

A memorial to hundreds of Roma killed at a World War II concentration camp on Tuesday opened in the Czech Republic at the site of the camp that became a pig farm during communist rule when the slaughter was nearly forgotten.

Czech leaders gathered at a ceremony acknowledged that the country had taken too long to commemorate the suffering to its estimated 250,000 Roma citizens.

"We are paying a societal debt that we have owed for decades to the victims of the Romani Holocaust and to all survivors," President Petr Pavel said at the memorial near the village of Lety.

Targeted by the Nazis, some 1,300 Roma were imprisoned in the Lety camp, south of Prague, during World War II. Some 327 died there, including 241 children aged under 14.

More than 500 others were sent on to Nazi Germany's most notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in occupied southern Poland.

A concrete wall separates the memorial from the outside world.

The sprawling memorial comprises a visitor centre presenting the Roma community's history, a memory path and a large circular concrete pathway with metal stripes bearing the names of the camp's victims  and survivors.

"At last we can pay a dignified tribute to the victims of the monstrous... ideology that gripped Europe in the 1930s and 1940s," said Prime Minister Petr Fiala.

"And we must openly admit that it has taken us too long," he added.

The communist government, which ruled former Czechoslovakia from 1948, built a farm for 13,000 pigs on the site in the 1970s.

The regime was toppled in 1989, four years before Czechoslovakia split into two states.

Even then, successive Czech governments took decades to act, while the Roma minority remained marginalised.

Former president Vaclav Havel unveiled a memorial near the farm in 1995, but the farm by then been been taken over by a private company. It only agreed to sell the farm in 2018.

Work to take down the farm finally started in 2022.

'A warning'

The authors of the memorial have left the front walls of one of the farm's buildings on the site as a reminder.

Historians believe the Nazis exterminated over half of the roughly one million Roma who had lived in Europe prior to World War II. Of the 9,500 Czech Roma registered before the war, fewer than 600 survived.

The Czech Republic, an EU country of 10.9 million people, now has a Roma community estimated at about 250,000. The European Union estimates there are about 10-12 million Roma in Europe.

"Today it is necessary to remember this tragic period in our history and to learn from it," said Pavel.

"It is a warning of how far humanity can go and what we people are capable of doing to one another."