Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Gun Rampage in Slovakia Sends a Shock Wave of Fear through Central Europe

On August 30, the day after I left the Czech Republic, mass murder, the largest in Czech and Slovak history since World War II, was committed by a machine gun-wielding man on a rampage in the Slovak capital of Bratislava. The armed man killed seven and wounded fifteen, including a small child, before fatally shooting himself. Six of those murdered were members of a Romani family.

As the New York Times reports, "the killings shook the country and resonated with Europe’s growing xenophobia against Roma, or Gypsies."

The motives behind the tragedy will take some time to investigate, but how the events continue unfolding, in particular the public discourse taking place, is as deeply troubling as was the attack itself.

Countless contributors to public forums argue the horrific act was justified and "worthy of repetition." This is in line with the tone I have commonly found present in discussions of Roma-related news coverage on the internet where members of the majority often claim only negative experiences with the Roma and throw around racist stereotypes and slurs, sometimes even violent suggestions for how to deal with the "Romani problem."

Some online discussion contributors have even expressed empathy for the murderer, "diagnosing" him as a man whose "nerves were shot" by too many bad experiences with his Romani neighbors.

On the Slovak website, People Against Racism, Gregory Fabian, a New York-based human rights lawyer, writes:

Everybody in Slovakia should check his or her own reaction to yesterday's incident. Everyone should ask himself: Am I convinced that this attack can be justified? Do I think that it was not a case of a racially motivated attack without weighing all the evidence first? If the majority of non-Roma answer yes to one or both questions, the future for the Romani communities in Slovakia looks very bleak and the chance of reoccurrence of similar situations thus increases.

According to Peter Pollak, chief of staff of the Slovak Commission on Romani Affairs, the danger of violence between the majority and Romani minority looms large. "All responsible people must do everything in their power to make sure the situation does not worsen in the future," he said.

Another blogger on Rasizmus.sk warns about the larger and dangerous societal aftermath of the massacre:

Whether the attack was racially motivated will be decided based on a thorough police investigation. In this moment, racially motivated are namely the discussions taking place at Slovak computers. Ethnicity has become literally the justification for the murder, legitimizing any and all hateful or excessively and senselessly violent attacks against the Romani community. We thereby express our deep sympathy to all the victims regardless of their lifestyle or color of their skin.

Slovakia. I was just there recently, visiting with the residents of a so-called "socially excluded" Romani community. Slovakia, where most of the Roma in the Czech Republic have their roots. Slovakia, which used to be part of Czechoslovakia until 1993. The shock wave, caused by this crime as well as the disturbing reaction of a portion of the public, knows no borders.

September 3, 2010 update: Apparently, it has just surfaced that only two of the victims of the massacre were Romani. However, that still does not change the fact that the initial reaction to the mass murder, when most of the victims were assumed to be Romani, on public forums was so often that of empathy for the murderer & justification of violence against the Roma. Such responses should serve as impetus to remain vigilant about future violence and press for more proactive ways to combat poverty, social exclusion, segregation, unemployment, racism and extremism in the region.


[Originally published on Tereza Bottman's Advocacy Project blog.]

Monday, August 30, 2010

Speaking Truth to Power: A Conversation with Karel Holomek, a Vital Voice in the Roma Rights Movement

Earlier this month, following the Roma Holocaust commemoration ceremony at the site of the former "Gypsy" concentration camp near the town of Hodonín u Kunštátu, I had the chance to sit down and talk with Karel Holomek, one of the most esteemed Czech Romani community leaders.

He shared with me his concern about the recent political developments and their impact on his future cooperation with the Czech government as a human rights activist.

"I will speak about politics now, because politics for me is a fundamental thing. Everything stems from there," said Mr. Holomek, sharing a table with me in the breezy, contemporary, urban, yet relaxed setting of the cafe at the Museum of Romani Culture, an institution he co-founded nearly twenty years ago in the Czech city of Brno.

Mr. Holomek is the son of the first Czech Romani university graduate and the father of the historian and Museum of Romani Culture director Dr. Jana Horváthová. He is a celebrated international human rights advocate, chairman of the Society of Roma in Moravia and current Ambassador of the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005 - 2015, an initiative that brings together the governments of twelve European countries and NGOs “to accelerate progress toward improving the welfare of Roma.“

[Ing. Karel Holomek, photo by Chad Evans Wyatt]

"I reject the attitude politicians display toward the people who challenge them," Holomek continued, "in the vein of 'don't meddle in our dealings; we are now discussing culture, we are discussing language, we are discussing literature.' Politics doesn't belong in these types of conversations, they say. But, unfortunately, it does belong there, and in a very significant way."

"My big topic at this time is this," said Holomek. "The government, after the (May Parliamentary) elections came out with its new policy outline. The administration announced, to the satisfaction of everyone with common sense, that it is an administration whose priority is a balanced budget."

"We accept that," Mr. Holomek elaborated. "But I always add that government savings measures do not have to mean going broke."

Holomek went on to criticize Prime MInister Petr Nečas' choices of staff: "The new administration took the next step of making changes in staffing. It nominated the ministers. Pavel Drobil, who was named the Minister of Environment, is a man who is dedicated to the industrial lobby. He does not even hide that fact. He says such nonsense as 'nature is there for the people, not people for nature,' which is a completely primitive slogan, almost as if meant for simpletons. The Minister of Environment is only proof of what the government plans to do regarding the environment. They don't have to play the charade that they will work for the people."

"The second concern I have is the new advisor on human rights to the Prime Minister," Holomek went on. "I consider Roman Joch to be on the borderline of acceptability. I would go as far as to say, and many would agree with me, that, opinion-wise, he is a neo-Nazi. His opinions include: the constitution is the only force needed to protect human rights; everyone is equal in the court of law; the courts should decide."

Holomek asserted that Czech courts are often incapable of carrying out just judgements, because they are corrupt, a sentiment I have heard echoed from many activists, even a long-time human rights lawyer in this country.

Regarding the lack of legitimacy of Czech courts, Holomek said: "In reality, we have a judicial mafia here. Some people do not realize this, but most of the nation understands that the highest posts are occupied by a judicial mafia."

"All the people the Prime Minister has selected come from the Václav Klaus administration," observed Holomek. "And that epoch had a very negative effect on the cultivation of the society, morale, but even in economics. Nečas is probably, with these staffing choices, making deals or amends with Klaus's political party. That is his problem. But there is no reason we should tolerate this."

Holomek was referring to the years, specifically the early to mid-90s, following the Velvet Revolution when the regime shifted practically over night from a centrally-planned socialist economy to "free-market" capitalism. The Czech government relatively quickly privatized the majority of state-run business, selling disproportionately large amounts of assets to foreign-owned entities. This transition resulted in significant job losses (in the Czech Republic namely in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors) and wage depression. What followed was a societal reorientation towards rampant consumerism and the general weakening of social safety nets.

"My dilemma is now with this," confided Holomek. "On July 1, the Czech government took over the presidency of the Decade for Roma Inclusion. I was there in a meeting with still the previous Prime Minister and I was selected to be, so to speak, the face of the Decade. They even call me the Ambassador."

Holomek's reaction was mixed. He said that he would be happy to represent the Decade if it had the power to bring about concrete change: "It makes me smile, because it is a highly honorable, but unfortunate function and, of course, without a crown. If I were an ambassador who could do something, who could be the person who receives and allocates the funds dedicated to the initiative, it would be a whole different thing."

"There are two problems here," Holomek explained. "The decade is a completely 'sterile' project, which has so far taken only the form of international conferences. These are completely insignificant events, during which twenty, thirty or forty like-minded people get together and complain about how things are not working and how something should be done, and during which not a single government official ever participates, let alone to say: I acknowledge you and what should we do about it on our part?"

"When I accepted my role as Ambassador," explained Holomek, "I said we have to do something concrete. There needs to be a shift forward. I don't think I will continue being the face of the initiative, if no development happens. I went to the administration and proposed some measures to be taken (toward Romani integration), but I was told immediately by the Office of the Government that there is no money for those efforts."

Holomek said that the combination of a having a person in office with whom it is impossible to cooperate, and the prospect of no expected progress in sight, makes it so that he cannot possibly continue being the face of the Decade: "I would accept it all and continue to risk and move forward if there were at least someone in the administration who would be supportive."

"With my years of experience," Holomek contended, "I am a trusted person and I am willing to do anything (to improve the situation for the Roma), but not with these people in the government."

"Now I just have to wait and see whether the PM will grant me a meeting with him," Holomek concluded, "so I can tell him eye-to-eye, bluntly as is my style, how I see the situation and how angry he has made me."

Karel Holomek is one of the signatories of ProAlt, a grassroots initiative opposing the new Czech government's priorities. I, too, have signed the initiative, which I hope will constitute a vital force that keeps in check the new conservative administration who, so far, seems deaf to the concerns of human rights and minority advocates.

[Originally posted on Tereza Bottman's Advocacy Project blog.]

Friday, August 27, 2010

Museum of Romani Culture: Paving the Way Toward Opportunity and Understanding

“We are a space where different cultures meet. We preserve examples of Romani cultural history as part of Europe´s heritage. We educate the younger generation to be tolerant and to appreciate other cultures,” proclaims the motto of the Museum of Romani Culture, based in the Czech city of Brno. “We are committed to fighting xenophobia and racism. We are paving the way to a new understanding of the roots of Romani identity. All this we do in the name of mutual understanding. For a dialogue of cultures. For us.”

“A Romani museum of our scope does not exist anywhere else in the world,” explains Museum of Romani Culture director Dr. Jana Horváthová, who co-founded the institution in 1991 along with a group of scholars and community leaders, including the prominent Romani activist, current Ambassador of the Decade of Roma Inclusion, and Horváthová’s father Karel Holomek.

[Museum of Romani Culture. Photo credit: wikipedia]

The permanent exhibition traces Romani culture and history from the time of the Romani migration from India centuries ago up until present-day life in the Czech Republic.

“Our goal is to create the broadest possible collection of original documentation for the presentation of Romani history and culture,” says Horváthová.

Particularly well-documented and moving is the section on the Roma Holocaust, which comprises scores of photographs, testimonies, newspaper articles, official documents and original correspondence.

[Museum of Romani Culture Director. Photo by Tereza Bottman]

Other sections include artwork by Romani artists, cultural artifacts and descriptions of traditional customs and music. The exhibit also shows the history of Romani political activism in the Czech Republic as well as a collage of Roma-related press headlines collected over time and together forming a complex picture of the media coverage of Roma-related issues.

“Our museum is really an exemplar and a first of its kind,” Horváthová continues, “a fact which the Czech Republic perhaps does not value as much as it should.”

“There aren’t many Romani museums, ” Horváthová says, listing all other Roma-themed museums and permanent exhibits around Europe, including the Museum of Romani Culture in Slovakia, part of the Slovakian National Museum, and the Tarnów Ethnographic Museum, which now houses Poland‘s first permanent Roma-themed exhibition. She also mentions The Interpretation Centre and Ethnographic Museum in Granada, Spain, where an original Romani cave dwelling complex can be viewed.

[Museum of Romani Culture. Photo by Tereza Bottman]

In addition to the permanent exhibition, the Czech Museum of Romani Culture periodically presents temporary exhibitions of art and photography. The museum is also a Romani studies research center for all of Central Europe. It houses a Roma-themed library and bookstore as well as organizes lectures, concerts, panel debates and Romani language courses.

“We always say that it is important for people to come the first time and then visitors tend to return,” says Horváthová. “There are many people who hear about us and think that it is terrible here, that we are located in a slum. They are afraid of coming to a Romani neighborhood, so this type of prejudice deters many potential customers.”

“My wish,” Horváthová continues when asked about her vision for the future, “is for us, after so many years of effort, to be able to break the society-wide aversion toward the Roma.”

The museum has worked intently to make this vision a reality. The institution’s scope extends to helping to give Romani children a fair chance at adequate and academically challenging education.

In conjunction with the museum’s extensive afterschool education offerings for the neighborhood children, which include art, sports and performance classes as well as tutoring, a new program centered around integration of the chronically segregated Czech school system is underway.

As part of the program, a number of children have been identified by the museum’s educators for extra academic support and integration into schools with predominantly majority-population children in other areas of the city outside “the ghetto.” During the upcoming school year, the Romani children participating in this program will be accompanied by staff and bussed to new schools in order to improve their chances for a better education and future.

[Dr. Jana Horváthová, Museum of Romani Culture Director.
Photo by Tereza Bottman]

“The segregated schools in this neighborhood,” explains Horváthová, “have a population of 90 to 100 percent Romani children. There the teachers cannot give extra attention to the more gifted students and the curricula are not the same as in mainstream schools. These students, even when gifted, have no chance of getting into secondary schools. We have already confirmed this over the years of running educational programs. And it makes us very sad when children that would do well in secondary school, even college, do not make it because their schools are so behind mainstream programs and the children find it impossible to catch up to the level required for entrance exams and education at the secondary level.”

“These children will be pioneers,” says Horváthová. “The transition will be very difficult. The children are used to going to an all-Roma school, where it is, in a way an easier and more pleasant environment, because there they know the communication style and behavior of their classmates. When they begin in a classroom that is mostly non-Roma, it will be enormously stressful for them. They will need professional assistance. Without that, the transition is impossible to manage.”

When asked whether the teachers in the mostly majority population schools are prepared for the integration efforts, Horváthová explains: “What is needed to make integration successful are smaller class sizes and an educational assistant, preferably a Roma from the community, in the room, together with the teacher.”

She adds: “Very few teachers and classmates are aware of the reality of the child living in a ghetto and all the things the child has to deal with when entering the surrounding world.”

“Teachers from the majority population have gaps in this area. One of the programs we provide are educational seminars for teachers, which acquaint them with Romani history and culture,” she continues. “We often advise teachers who write us and ask us what they should do, how they should work with their Romani students.”

"I like the afterschool programs a lot," says a fifth-grader who attends English language lessons and tutoring sessions at the museum in the afternoons. She says she likes learning languages and would like to also study Latin. In school, her favorite subject is Math. She wants to be a nurse or police officer when she grows up.

When asked whether she would be participating in the school integration program, she said she would very much like to, but that her mother is afraid: "My mom is scared because the other school is too far, that a tram could hit me or that I could get lost."

"Family support is a substantial, if not key ingredient, along with the child's internal motivation, in determining which of the children are chosen for the program. If the parents did not understand or agree with the placement, it would be almost impossible to retain the child at a prestigious school," explains Horváthová.

As far as a systemic change which would ensure all-around success on the school integration front, Horváthová believes much work has yet to be done.

“Ever since the revolution in 1989,” says Horváthová, "our organization has been calling for systemic change in the arena of education, but each time a government is replaced following an election cycle, a new minister is put in place who must familiarize himself with the situation, which makes systemic reform very difficult.”

Horváthová calls the museum’s school integration program daring and adventurous and says that even with all their effort, success is not guaranteed.

[Museum of Romani Culture, photo by Tereza Bottman]

“We have been observing a trend that shows that many Roma who do leave ‘the ghetto’ and do obtain higher education often have an interest in communicating with Roma from different groups inside the community which is very diverse, and in working in the non-profit sector and helping their community toward a common goal of uplifting our ethnic group.”

Horváthová confides that the economic downturn has been difficult for her organization: “Today’s economic situation has been troubling for us and other museums, I am sure. Culture is probably, so to speak, our society’s Cinderella. So, we are afraid of how the future will pan out. I can imagine that currently even mainstream museums are having a difficult time sustaining themselves, but when we approach sponsors, they usually turn us down. The will to support any Roma-related activities is just not there.”

[Dr. Jana Horváthová, photo credit: iDnes]

Horváthová’s vision for the museum is to grow and to continue expanding its collections.

“Next year will mark twenty years of our museum's existence,” she concludes. “We have the spirit of a warrior, and we hope no one breaks that in us.”

[Originally published on Tereza Bottman's Advocacy Project blog.]

Monday, August 23, 2010

Oh, You Black Bird, Carry My Letter: Czech Roma Holocaust Remembered

"Tensions in society are heightening. Perhaps the time will come again when we are sent away to designated areas. That is why during hardships we all must help one another."

Such was the sentiment that resounded during Catholic Mass, which was part the commemoration of Roma Holocaust on August 22, held at the site of a former concentration camp for Roma near the Czech town of Hodonín u Kunštátu.

Approximately 1300 Roma were imprisoned in the Hodonín camp between the years of 1942 and 1944. More than 200 prisoners, many of them children, died at the camp of disease and malnutrition. The majority were deported to Auschwitz, where more than 90 percent of all Czech Roma died at the hands of the Nazis.

"For the Roma gathered here, we ask for the strength to fight the evil marching along the same old tracks today," Father František Lízna said in his sermon. "We ask for blessings for the new generation."

"For the non-Roma here," the priest continued, "we ask that they are able to accept those different from them, and that they be willing to die for them, thus repaying the debt of the hatred they have harbored against their neighbors."

About 80 people attended the event, which consisted of a mass, commemoration ceremony at the mass gravesite of the Roma victims, and an opening of a Museum of Roma Culture exhibition entitled Roma Genocide, displayed inside the only original building left standing.

"We share the pain, injustice, and arbitrary treatment as well as the feeling of being excluded from society, occurring still today," said Pavel Fried, head of the Jewish Community in the city of Brno during his speech, drawing a parallel between the experience of the Roma in Czech society and that of the Jews.

Fried said he hoped that the presence of the members of the Jewish community would help encourage the Romani community "to continue to find the strength to persevere in fighting discrimination."

"The suffering that occurred seventy years ago is continuing today," said Jan Munk, director of the Terezín concentration camp. "It connects us and creates for us a joint responsibility for things to come."

Activist Karel Holomek of the Society of Roma in Moravia, who is the Ambassador for the Czech Presidency of the Decade of Roma Inclusion, expressed his disapproval and dismay at the political situation today.

"I always speak at this ceremony about the present situation in relation to the past, and I am troubled by what is currently happening," Holomek said, criticizing the Prime Minister's new human rights advisor appointee, calling the choice "a danger to the development of democracy."

Jana Horváthová, director of the Museum of Roma Culture, told the press at the event that very few people are aware of the Roma Holocaust. For that reason, the Czech Ministry of Education plans to build an educational center at the former camp where researchers and schools can study the Roma Holocaust. Šimon Mastný of the ministry said that the project is important for the ministry and that he hoped the ministry will continue its support for the project.

Before the candles, flowers and, in the Jewish tradition, stones were ceremoniously laid on the mass grave memorial, moving many of those present to tears, singer Zlata Pouličková performed a song, In Auschwitz there is a Great House, written by Růžena Danielová, a Czech Romani Holocaust survivor. The first two stanza of the song are as follows:

In Auschwitz there is a great house
And there my husband is imprisoned
He sits and sits and laments
And thinks about me

Oh, you black bird! 

Carry my letter! 

Carry it to my wife 

For I am jailed in Auschwitz


[Originally published on Tereza Bottman's Advocacy Project blog]

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

American Neocon-Christian Right Ideology Makes Inroads into Czech Politics with PM’s Advisor Choice

He opposes affirmative action because it unfairly privileges those from "special" groups over others, and because, as he says, there is no need to rehash things for which we, alive today, are not responsible. He claims there is no systemic discrimination, and thus no need for corrective measures improving the lives of the marginalized, including the Roma, in the Czech Republic, even though scores of international studies have shown otherwise. He is not happy anti-discrimination legislation was instituted in this country, because it essentially "dictates how people in their private spheres should conduct themselves." He deems homosexuality abnormal, likening gay people to pedophlies, zoophiles and necrophiles. He defends the use of torture, including waterboarding, and is not opposed to the installment of a right-wing, authoritarian regime if Western civilization and liberty are under threat.

Meet Roman Joch, director of the conservative think-tank Civic Institute (Občanský institut), and new advisor selected by Prime Minister Nečas for the area of human rights and foreign relations.

What Joch's post as an advisor to the Prime Minister means is that, come September when he is slated to start, the American Neoconservative-Christian Right alliance, through its long-cultivated mouthpiece in the Czech Republic, will have a direct say in the formation of both, foreign and domestic policy.

This is not a new phenomenon, as other CI personalities have been in advisory positions in the government before. It is nonetheless an alarming turn of events for those concerned with the dire human rights situation of the marginalized groups, especially the Roma who face systemic discrimination in nearly every sector, including housing, labor, and education.

This information is taken from Joch’s 2007 bio for his fellowship at the California-based Claremont Institute, a conservative think-tank whose mission is “to restore the principles of the American founding fathers to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life," and to establish a limited and accountable government that respects private property, promotes stable family life, and maintains a strong national defense:

Joch lectures and writes on political philosophy, international relations, and national security issues in Czech and Slovak newspapers, magazines and electronic media. From 1994-1998, he was International Secretary of the Civic Democratic Alliance, a conservative political party in the Czech Republic. Joch was a member of the student movement during the Velvet Revolution in 1989, an international visitor to the Republican National Convention in 1996, and a delegate to the First International Conservative Congress in 1997.

He is the author of two books, Why Iraq? Causes and Consequences of the Conflict and The Revolt Against the Revolution of the Twentieth Century, an intellectual biography of American conservative. He holds an M.D. from Charles University in Prague.

Evidently, Joch and his Civic Institute team have taken it upon themselves to, in concert with their ideological allies from abroad, cultivate contemporary Western society, to save it from ignorance, poor taste and vulgarity.

He is a cultural warrior, fighting to bring back traditional family values and “objective“ morality rooted in Christian values. At the same time, his mission is to ensure the Czech Republic aligns itself completely with pro-US interests in the region. After all, his institute and publishing house are being bankrolled largely by American neo-conservative and Christian Right foundations such as Earhart Foundation a William H. Donner Foundation in conjunction with right-wing Czech industrialists. The American defense contractor Lockheed Martin even financed the Civic Institute, where Joch is director, during the time the US was negotiating a sale of F16 fighter jets to the Czech Republic.

The CI Advisory Board boasts such personalities as neoconservative Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute, who served as general counsel for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under the Reagan Administration. Also on the Board is Michael Novak of the conservative think-tank American Enterprise Institute, whose scholars were considered to be some of the leading architects of George W. Bush administration's public policy.

According to the European Conservative:

The roots of the CI can be traced back to the late 1970s and early 1980s when the dissidents met in their homes to discuss politics, philosophy, economics, theology, culture and international relations. After the fall of Communism, they decided to found an institute to carry on those discussions. (...)

The founders of the CI intended it to be an institution dedicated to the advocacy and vindication of the moral conditions and philosophical foundations necessary for a free society. (...)

Its first publication was a Czech translation of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. (...)

The CI began cooperating and networking with many other pro-family and pro-life institutions around the world, publishing studies and policy papers. (...)

After 11 September 2001, the CI preserved its pro-family orientation, though in less explicitly religious terms and added international relations, foreign affairs, security issues, Islamic terrorism and existential threats to the West to its portfolio of issues.

The CI has published studies and organized dozens of conferences and seminars around issues like U.S. foreign policy, the role of America in the world, the war against Islamic terrorism, missile defense, Islam in Europe and demographic challenges in the West.

Joch and his colleagues have clearly set up a mini training laboratory from which they send out ordained warriors to spread their gospel-flavored cocktail of traditional Christian values and right-wing pro-American political agenda.

The European Conservative continues:

CI fellows serve as commentators in Czech media, contributing op-eds to newspapers and magazines or speaking out on political issues on radio and television.

CI fellows serve as advisors to several Czech statesmen. The director of CI (was) a member of the Academic Council of the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served as advisor to the former Czech deputy prime minister for European affairs. (...)

Many alumni of CI events have gone on to careers in media as columnists; in politics as aspiring politicians or staffers to senior politicians; or in academia as assistant professors or professors.

(CI members) enjoy their position as a ‘happy warrior,' pushing the public and intellectual discourse – and the whole society – as far to the right as is reasonably possible. Born out of the resistance to Communist totalitarianism and having opposed socialism and moral relativism, the CI now fights against the ideologies of multiculturalism, radical feminism and political correctness. They fight for Western traditions and values and, above all, for ordered liberty.

Approximately a hundred protesters gathered this morning in front of the Office of the Government in Prague to protest the appointment of Joch on the Prime Minister’s advisory team. The appointment has been criticized by leading Czech scholars and human rights activists, including Students Against Racism and the newly formed government opposition initiative, ProAlt.

"We are here to say we reject Mr. Joch, whose concept of human rights is, according to us gathered here, unfortunate,“ said one of the protesters.

During the demonstration, a contest was held for the most ridiculous quote by Joch. The winner was this quote, endorsing the possibility of installing “a right-wing authoritative regime,“ if “Western civilization were threatened with destruction caused by the political and intellectual impotence of the Left,“ or “by the inner disintegration, or abandonment of civilized values and virtues in favor of the freely flourishing venting of lust and passion.“

The intent and the connection between CI’s activities and those of their American counterparts are clear. It is up to the Prime Minister to decide whether he wants to continue to endorse this type of anti-democratic, bigoted, hegemonistic agenda despite the protests from human rights advocates and minority leaders.


A petition against Joch's appointment as advisor to the Prime Minister has been initiated and can be found here.

Also, to read about how neoconservatives secretly forged an alliance with the Christian Right during the Bush presidency, go to this 2007 interview with investigative journalist Craig Unger by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now.


[This article originally appeared on Tereza Bottman's Advocacy Project blog.]

Friday, August 13, 2010

When You Write About Us: A Dispatch from a Village on the Margins

"Me, me! Now it's my turn!" the local kids clamor to try my cell phone camera, taking pictures of each other, of me, of their fingers in front of the lens.

"What's your name? Do you have kids? Is he your husband?" they ask, surrounding me and gesturing toward the man with whom I arrived here.

[children who greeted us upon our arrival in Letanovce]

It's drizzling. The muddy ground throughout the village doesn't bother me. I have traveled more than ten hours to this place from Prague by bus and car, prepared, wearing my reliable pair of enclosed leather shoes. Meanwhile, the mud splatters all over my colleague's feet in sandals, reaching up between his toes. He mutters, admonishing himself for dressing as if this were his first time here.

"To understand the Roma in the Czech Republic, you have to visit a Romani settlement in Slovakia," my fellowship colleague told me when he invited me along on his annual pilgrimage to the settlement of Letanovce to visit a family he befriended ten years ago when he began working in the arena of Roma rights.

Many, if not the majority, of Romani families who live in the Czech Republic now, migrated there from rural Slovakia sometime between World War II and the present day.

According to Czech Radio's article on the history of the Roma minority, after the war, during which more than 90 percent of Czech Roma were killed by the Nazis, "Roma from settlements in Eastern Slovakia started to migrate to the evacuated Czech frontier regions and were dispersed as a light work force throughout the industrial areas of Bohemia and Moravia," the two regions that make up the Czech Republic.

A 1958 law, the Czech Radio article continues, mandated migrating peoples to settle down permanently "where they were assigned as a work force, without regard to the separation of families. In 1965, another law was passed concerning the procedure of dispersing the gypsy population, through which Roma from eastern Slovakian Romani villages had to move to Bohemia to work."

The migration to the Czech Republic continues today, tied to people's search for work, better living conditions, and reunification with families.

[Letanovce panorama]

There are between 700 and 800 socially isolated Romani settlements in Slovakia, which, together with the Czech Republic, made up Czechoslovakia until the peaceful split in 1993. These settlements tend to have disproportionately high unemployment rates of 90 to 100%, and lack basic services such as running water, sewers, electricity, gas or garbage collection. Letanovce, where I am visiting, fits this profile to a tee.

The approximately 700 local residents live in one-room log cabins, burn wood for heat, carry their water in buckets from a well at the bottom of the hill, and use a latrine or the adjacent tall green weeds as bathrooms.

We are invited in to the larger-than-the-local-norm two-room cabin of the family with whom we will be staying. They did not expect us. We had no way of contacting them, although several residents do have cell phones, some even with internet service. The challenge, I learn, is charging electronic items, as there is no electricity in this community. A few residents have small, six-inch televisions, which run on car batteries charged for a fee in town.

We bring in our gifts: food, second-hand clothes, toys and some odd household items like wash basins and dishes. We sit and crack open the pear brandy we had brought, toasting with shot glasses. Then it is quiet.

I feel awkward, my privilege so blatant here, wondering how to bridge the chasm between my life experience and that of the locals'.

The family slowly begins to unravel old stories from my colleague's past visits, updating us on the changes in the community.

[Magda's family and neighbors. We stayed at her sister's and mother's house.]

Many families migrated to the UK for work, then after two or three years returned back, because even there, work was hard to come by.

"After two years in England I honestly did not want to come back," one of the women whose house we are in tells me. True, her husband worked twelve-hour shifts six days a week at a sausage factory for very little pay, but it was work. And they had electricity and plumbing. But the bills kept coming and the work slowly dried up due to the recession.

Before it gets dark, we decide to take a walk around the village.

The residents come out into the rain to take a look at us. We greet everyone, the children forming our entourage.

I ask the children what they do for fun. Some shrug their shoulders, others say they play with toys or go swimming in the nearby river. Some try out the English they learned while living abroad: "Do you speak English?" and "How are you?"

Although Slovak and Czech are mutually intelligible, with some children there is a bit of a language barrier. The children all speak Romani at home, some of the younger ones don't even understand Slovak when they first start school, our host tells me. That is why bilingual Romani educational assistants are key to helping the students transition and be successful in school. However, these children have no such assistants where they go to school.

Our host worked as a teacher's assistant for several months, but got paid very little, and still of her own initiative did extra work outside her working hours. For instance, she gathered the children in the village and personally walked them to school 3 kilometers from the settlement. Unfortunately, her contract was never signed, and, in the end, her social benefits were cut because she'd had an income, no matter how inadequate to sustain the family.

"I would be so happy working as a classroom assistant. That work speaks to me," she said. "But when I have approached the school, which currently does not have any Roma working there, they have always told me they do not have any positions open."

"The walk to town is about a half-hour and most mothers do not have money for the bus or for lunch. We don't have fridges here, so it is hard for us to give our kids snacks early in the morning because over night, the food would spoil," she says, describing the barriers that parents here face when it comes to their children's education.

Most Romani children in the community attend a "practical," formerly special education school. Placement of Romani children, whether special needs or not, in such schools is common practice across Europe. Romani children, based on a psychological evaluation, are many more times likely to be placed in "practical schools" than white children and are overrepresented in such institutions, sometimes comprising the entire population of such schools. The results are segregation, lower-quality education and less opportunity for success in further schooling or employment.

In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that this pattern of segregation violated nondiscrimination protections in the European Convention on Human Rights. However, Roma continue to be assigned to these schools in disproportionate numbers.

"What subjects do you like in school?" I ask. The children shout over each other with excitement: "Reading! Writing! Math! Social Studies!"

As we chat while walking outside, I hear growling and yapping. Out of the corner of my eye I see a small dog charging at me, and before I know it, I feel it sinking its needly claws and teeth into the back of my thigh, ripping a large hole in my pants. The dog retreats as fast as it came.

I'm bleeding, but no one seems concerned. Only my travel partner from my fellowship organization Dženo half-jokes: "Hope the dog wasn't rabid."

The girls tell me the dog bites them too sometimes. Later that night, I sneakily dip my fingers into my shot glass and spread some pear brandy we are drinking onto the bite wound to disinfect it.

"I am ashamed," our host confesses, half-whispering, when she shows me where I will be sleeping. It is the family bed, big enough for four or five people. I tell her she has nothing to be ashamed of, but her sentiment deepens the discomfort I already feel about invading the family's privacy.

The bedroom is beautifully decorated with flowers, tapestries and chachkis lining the shelves. I will be sharing the big bed with the children, the parents unfold a mattress and place it on the floor where they will sleep.

In 2003, construction on a new apartment complex, financed by the town, state and European Union, began several kilometers from the current location of the settlement. The idea was moving the families to another location and leveling the place which many consider an eyesore in such a picturesque area favored by tourists. Families with permanent residency would be able to apply to relocate to the new apartment complex even more distant from the center of the town. No worries, the apartment complex would also have a school and a store on location.

The protests from the neighboring majority community that this project unleashed ranged from petitions to threats to the mayor that if he proceeds with the plan, an anonymous, angry local would poison the pristine rivers in the area with mercury. A skull was even found on the construction site with a letter threatening the mayor would be murdered for going through with this plan.

As of today, new buildings have not yet been completed. When they are ready, the problem is that many of those in the settlement will not qualify to move in, because they lack permanent residency status in Letanovce. Also, the new living conditions will require paying for rent, electricity and water bills, a practice many families are not used to and for which they have very limited means, considering their prohibitively high unemployment rate.

When the village wakes up the next day, we are all more comfortable with each other. I play and joke with the children, who teach me card games and sing, accompanied by a boy on a drum set in the wood shed.

We take a walk in Slovakian Paradise, a mountainous, forested nature reserve nearby. The kids go swimming there. They pick wild raspberries along the way for me.

"Do you ever fish in this river?" I ask the nine-year-old girl who has become my constant companion.

"No, we are rich," she replies. "We have been to England. We buy smoked fish at the store."

When we return, a dozen men from the settlement have their bags packed and are headed for the train. They found work all the way in Prague, ten hours away. Ten days in a row they will work construction, not knowing whether they will get paid. Temporary workers like these men, employed under the table so as not to lose their social benefits, are easy targets for companies that profit from their cheap labor. If the boss doesn't pay them, the laborers have almost no leverage to demand their salary.

"We get visitors once in a while, from Brussels and such places. Whoever comes, always needs to write something about us, it seems," says the host as we gather in her kitchen.

My colleague and I freeze up for a bit. We, too, are those visitors the woman had just described. Here one day, gone the next, and what remains are perhaps a few toys or items of clothing and an article about this community, floating about somewhere in ether.

"When you write about us," our host tells me softly, "say that we want help. We don't want to live like this anymore." So I pass on her words, thankful for the locals' generosity and richer for all that they had taught me, so essential for the work still ahead.

[a picture the kids took during one of our cell phone photo sessions]


[Originally published on Tereza Bottman's Advocacy Project blog.]

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Czechs ban together to oppose incoming government's priorities, condemning planned social spending cuts

"The biggest assault on the rights of the working people in the last twenty years." That is what the Czecho-Moravian Confederation of Labor Unions (ČMKOS) has called the policies the incoming Czech government plans to implement in its continuation of the neo-liberal reforms of the early 90s.

The money saved on the outlined social spending cuts is "blood money, taken from the poorest people," says ČMKOS economist Martin Fassmann.

In addition to labor unions, the newly elected right-wing government's priorities have been criticized by a host of journalists, social critics, academics as well as activists. Many of them are now signatories of the newly formed citizen initiative, ProAlt Initiative for the Critique of Reforms and Support for Alternatives, which opposes the steps the government plans to implement in the areas of education, environmental protections, health care, retirement and social policy. One of the initial 100 signatories is the prominent Roma rights activist Karel Holomek, President of the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015.

According to the press release, ProAlt strives to "bring citizens together across professional and social groups and inspire the general public to defend their own interests more thoroughly. It will also organize protests against the prepared reforms with the aim of preventing them from taking effect."

The main argument is that it is unacceptable for the state to "abandon responsibility for vital areas of public life, in particular education, health care and retirement insurance."

"We do not consider the privatization of public services and public space to be the solution – on the contrary, we consider privatization to be the source of most of our current environmental and socioeconomic problems,” says ProAlt spokesperson Tereza Stöckelová.

It was in September 1990, only ten months after the fall of communism, that the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly approved the "Scenario of the Economic Reform," the blueprint for trade liberalization and a massive-privatization scheme of state-owned enterprises.

At the time of the vote, 97 percent of businesses were state-owned, the highest percentage of any Warsaw Pact country. Today, twenty years later, 87 percent of all the state-owned enterprises have been privatized. Free trade enthusiasts laud the Czech Republic for making fine progress, though the more radical Friedmanite types would have preferred a more rapid process.

The government, encouraged by its mandate from right-leaning voters who determined the right to be the winners in the May Parliamentary election by a narrow margin, is trying to shake off as many expenditures as it can, as quickly as possible, while playing into the hands of (largely foreign-owned) big business, in the form of outsourcing, tax breaks, etc. The Czech government is now focusing on the last and most guarded and controversial aspects of privatization: health care, education, worker benefits and protections, and social services.

The ProAlt press release continues:

“Under the slogan of ‘fiscal responsibility’, the government is preparing to be environmentally and socially irresponsible. The initiative intends to offer principled alternatives to this government policy,” says movement initiator and one of ProAlt's spokespeople Jana Glivická.

The overemphasis on economic growth and parameters creates the impression that other factors influencing quality of life are inconsequential. This leads to an under-appreciation of those areas of social life that are not easily quantifiable, such as culture, education and the environment. ProAlt considers evaluating any state purely through financial parameters to be unacceptable.

ProAlt stresses that the current position of the Czech Republic with respect to its deficit is one of the best in Europe, propagandistic slogans about the “Greek threat” notwithstanding. Today the percentage of the Czech budget allocated for social expenditure is below the EU average. ProAlt believes the desirable goal of a balanced state budget must be achieved through re-evaluating the tax system in favor of significantly progressive taxation, transparent public administration, and the total elimination of corruption. “The aim of the planned reforms is not to pay off the debt, but to shift it from the public budget to individual households. People will be forced to go into debt for health care and tuition. For many, debt will become a necessary part of paying for their basic needs,” the declaration reads.

My hope is that this movement will become well-organized and powerful. It is about time that the Czechs across the spectrum come together to demand the state shift its priorities, putting people's social welfare and the environment first, well before megaprofits from which only a few can benefit.

[Originally appeared on Tereza Bottman's Advocacy Project blog.]

Monday, August 9, 2010

In the face of racial tensions, a community finds strength in unity

It's dusk. An unknown car pulls in to the neighborhood and slowly approaches our small group talking on a tree-lined street in a neighborhood of modest wooden family homes and neatly kept picket-fenced yards. The atmosphere tenses.

"Why are they coming here?" one of the local men asks under his breath, his eyes never leaving the car coming toward us.

Suddenly I remember a reality I had forgotten while drinking tea and visiting with the locals in one of the resident family's backyards. We are in Bedřiška, a "socially excluded community" in northeastern Czech Republic, not far from a place where last year a molotov cocktail, thrown by neo-Nazis out of a car into an open bedroom window, almost killed a two-year-old Romani girl in her sleep.

The racially motivated attack left three of the house inhabitants injured and caused the little girl severe burns on 80 percent of her body. The attackers are currently on trial for attempted murder.

The car stops not more than five feet from us, the lights stay on, the engine idles for some time, clearly putting some in the group on alert.

"They must be lost," guesses one of the men.

Soon, a woman no one seems to know opens the car door and hurries past us without a greeting into a house a few doors down. The car drives away. Sense of relief.

The evening sky has a pleasant, summer glow, the birds chirp. A small dog accompanies us, playing with a toy. A group of teens walking toward us greets community activist Sri Kumar Vishwanathan, whom I am accompanying on his trip to Bedřiška today, with smiles.

They linger and exchange a few words about how they have been doing. Vishwanathan asks the youth if they would like a soccer field in their neighborhood, pointing at a large, lush green space on the other side of the road that could potentially be used for a field. The boys reply enthusiastically.

Vishwanathan asks the girls if they would play soccer, or what they prefer to do in their free time. The girls are much more shy than the boys and don't provide any answers readily. But in less than a year's time, the neighborhood should have a community center, for which they have pressed the city, completed.

The plans for the center are multifold. It would house afterschool activities for children, tutoring sessions, a meeting and performance space, and more.

[community activists in Bedřiška]

As we continue our way down the street, the locals tell of a recent case when someone in the neighborhood got hurt and the police were phoned, however the phone call from "that notorious location" was dismissed as a prank call and help was not dispatched until multiple calls were placed. The ambulance did arrive on the scene, but was very delayed.

My mind is still buzzing from the neighborhood association meeting I had just attended in Bedřiška. The group had been meeting for some time to advocate for the needs of the community's residents, but because they were not taken seriously by city hall, they decided to form an official association in May. Since then, their influence has grown, one of the members had told me.

"Now that we are official, they can't just brush us aside. They have to listen to us," he said.

"Bedřiška is an example of how a community can come together following a tragedy," Vishwanathan observed. "What happened could have taken on a negative path toward destruction, or gone in a positive direction toward cooperation."

Clearly, the latter is the case.

"We talk things through here," explains one of the association's leaders. "If there is a dispute among the neighbors, we try to sit down, talk and resolve it."

"Not everyone is on board yet. But we're working on it," she adds.

Deescalating conflict through mediation is a key strategy the association uses to build unity and prevent dangerous situations. The efforts are made all the more urgent, considering the wounds of racist violence in this community are still fresh.

Last March, an arson attack on a Romani family's home occurred in this very neighborhood. The perpetrator was a white neighbor from across the street.

As we make our way down the road, we cross paths with a family leaving their home. "Four months ago a molotov cocktail was thrown inside this family's house," Vishwanathan relates. "Their teenage daughter put out the fire and saved her relatives' lives."

"How is your daughter sleeping these days? Is she able to sleep?" Vishwanathan asks the mother.

The mother looks down and timidly shakes her head from side to side. The truth is clear. The family is still experiencing trauma, months after the incident.

"If the fire had spread, it could have burned a big part of the neighborhood down," says one of the local leaders. "People realized that what affects one family, affects us all. So we started working together."

In addition to mediating conflicts and advocating for space, funding, staff and supplies for tutoring and afterschool children's activities, the association organizes weekly clean-ups of the neighborhood. The group plans community-wide events such as movie screenings, games for children and performances that bring the neighborhood together.

The association also acts as a link between the residents and city hall when rental agreements or other legal documents and proceedings must be attended to. Sometimes archives have to be searched, letters written, errors exposed and fair treatment demanded.

In one case, for example, the association helped when a resident, who had paid all his back rent in full, was later unexpectedly alerted that he had an exorbitant outstanding debt to the city with no clear explanation of why these charges had been incurred.

The locals with whom I spent my evening also shared a story about taking a stand against a local drug dealer who ran a methamphetamine (or pervitin in Czech) lab in the neighborhood. As a result of their actions, the police arrested the drug dealer, making the neighborhood safer for the kids.

The community has a vision of creating a historical display explicating and simultaneously commemorating the neighborhood's history, closely tied to the region's steel mill industry. Bedřiška's wooden homes were built in the 1950s for the steel mill workers who had moved to the area for work.

Today, the unemployment rate among the Roma in the region is high, veering between 90 and 100 percent. One of the association's goals is to push for ways to employ the neighborhood's residents, for instance as construction workers or street cleaners, and while we were visiting Bedřiška, an arrangement was made to begin the process with an organization which Vishwanathan recommended.

"I started activism because I have children and grandchildren here, and I want everyone here to have a good future," a white woman, who is one of the leaders in the neighborhood tells me. "I like the Roma. We are different culturally, but as long as we can accept our differences and talk with each other openly, we get along."

Fighting for fair treatment and opportunity, however, does not come without a price, she says.

"I have lost old friends of twenty-five to thirty years over this," the activist tells me, describing how explosive associating across racial lines in the Czech Republic can be.

"When they said things like, 'You are betraying the white race,'" she continues, "that had to be the end of our friendship."

By the time our visit wraps up, it is late and the sun has long gone down. I am full of impressions. Images of resigned, dark-skinned "ghetto" inhabitants in graffiti-covered, bleak city landscapes of half-dilapidated buildings flash through my mind. Mainstream media are the modern-day myth-makers. Over selectively crafted, cliched, mass-produced myths, I prefer true stories, told by the people in the real world and in their own words.


[This article originally appeared on Tereza Bottman's Advocacy Project blog.]

Saturday, August 7, 2010

For Romani families in poverty, threat of forced removal of children by the state looms large

Members of nineteen families facing eviction file in to a small conference room. The multigenerational group listens intently as LifeTogether director Sri Kumar Vishwanathan describes the situation: his organization, in partnership with several private firms, was, at the last minute, able to secure eighteen apartments on the outskirts of town for families who have defaulted on rent, and are thus being forced to move out of a building in one of the city's "socially excluded Romani locations." The apartments offered to those present contain only bare walls, no appliances and insufficient facilities--a sink, but no shower or tub.

[Sri Kumar Vishwanathan, head of LifeTogether, meets with families facing eviction]

This particular community's unemployment rate stands at a shocking 100 percent, a phenomenon that is common in many of the poor Czech Romani enclaves. In order to survive, families often rely on money lenders who use unethical practices, charging exorbitant amounts of interest, thus forcing families into vicious cycles of poverty which are difficult to break.

As a result of their dire economic situation and deeply entrenched systemic discrimination, several families at the meeting have already had some of their children taken away by the state and at least four others are in danger of having their children placed into state care.

"The mothers were ashamed to say their children are under the threat of being removed from the family," Vishwanathan, who founded LifeTogether in the northeastern Czech town of Ostrava thirteen years ago, related to me in private after the meeting. "They feel they have failed. But it's not their fault."

"Czech Republic is number one in Europe," he continues, "in terms of having the highest rate of forced removal of children from Romani families and placed in state-run institutions."

Indeed, Human Rights Watch has found that the Czech Republic has the highest number of infants under the age of three forced into institutional care of all EU countries.

Vishwanathan's organization works to help prevent such practices, which have been criticized by the European Roma Rights Center and Amnesty International, among other human rights watchdogs. LifeTogether provides many services for the Romani community, including legal aid, counseling as well as help for children who run away from state foster care institutions.

[Sri Kumar Vishwanathan]

To truly remediate the situation, however, a systemic overhaul is long overdue. In its Survey on Children in Alternative Care, Eurochild, a network of organizations and individuals working across Europe to improve the quality of life of children, outlines seven steps by which European governments could prevent forced removal of children from families in poverty. Eurochild states:

EU member states should invest more in moving away from a child care system based on large institutions and move towards the provision of a range of integrated, family-based and community-based services.

Another Eurochild recommendation suggests that "the involvement of children, young people and their families is crucial, both in the decision- making processes affecting them directly and in the development of alternative care policies and services. They should therefore be empowered to participate in all stages of the care process and the EU should encourage the development of peer led groups of children, young people and parents with experience of care."

The European Roma Rights Center identifies the role of the social worker as key in addressing systemic discrimination, as social workers are those who determine whether a family is "definitively incapable of caring for a child." This decision is often driven by preconceived conceptions and a social worker's view of the Romani community. The Bratinka Report, a study discussed in the ERRC document, found this to be the case:

This report found that 38% of social workers felt that the main obstacle to better relationships were the "unsavoury characteristics of the Roma", that the Romani minority should attempt to adapt to the majority, that affirmative action programmes for the Roma were a waste of money and their influence negligible, and that it would be good to strike hard at Romany criminality and disregard for generally accepted norms. Forty-two percent of social workers felt that pro-active programmes for the Roma were an unfair privilege for one group of citizens. The ramifications of these perceptions may indeed correlate with the disproportionate representation of Roma children in institutions and necessarily question whether Romani families are given a just assessment of their rightful capacity to raise their own children.

Because social workers' prejudices can ultimately lead to the break-up of a family, it is crucial that, as the organization Eurochild asserts, "all professionals working with and for children, including those in the education, health care, child protection and social work sectors, need high quality on-going training and supervision."

Furthermore, Eurochild advocates that risks of social exclusion associated with poverty must be reduced:

The fight against child poverty must remain a key political priority of the EU. Social inequality denies children equal access to services and perpetuates the cycle of poverty. A strong political framework is required at EU level to ensure all member states put in place the necessary structural reforms to ensure all families have access to a minimum income and adequate services.

This year happens to be the EU Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion, and in that regard, the Czech Republic has far to go. Considering the critical situation of the Romani population living in poverty, it is an abomination that the newly elected Czech government plans to cut social spending rather than invest in uplifting marginalized communities so they can live fearless, dignified lives.

"That's very big of you. You are noble people," Vishwanathan responds to one mother's offer to forgo her chance to move into the apartment offered by LifeTogether before the meeting with the families concludes. The mother wants to give a preference to a family in danger of having its children removed by the state. She says, "There are nineteen families and eighteen apartments. Of course I will give a family that needs it more a chance first. We, who have kids, know how it is."

Fortunately, following the eviction from an already long-neglected building for the poor, she and her children will be able to stay at her aunt's for now.

[This article originally appeared on Tereza Bottman's Advocacy Project bloge]

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Honoring Pain and Loss, Urging Vigilance and Change on International Roma Holocaust Remembrance Day

On August 2nd, representatives and friends of the Romani and Sinti communities from Germany, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic gathered at Auschwitz to commemorate the International Roma Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The ceremony took place at the site of the so-called Zigeunerlager, or "Gypsy" Camp, where more than 23,000 Roma were imprisoned. The date marked the 66th anniversary of the liquidation of the "Gypsy Family Camp" at Auschwitz II-Birkenau on the night of August 2, 1944 when the Nazis killed 2,897 men, women, and children in the gas chambers. International Roma Holocaust (or, in Romani, Porajamos) Remembrance Day has been observed since 1994.

[Family at the International Roma Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration at Auschwitz, photo by Tereza Bottman]

"I was a child when I visited this place for the first time," recalled Roman Kwiatkowski, Chairman of the Association of the Roma in Poland in his speech to the audience, which, aside from activists and Romani as well as majority community members, included religious figures and government officials.

"I came here with my mother," continued Kwiatkowski, "and I can still remember two things: the crumbling monument and my mother sobbing uncontrollably. I understood very little back then, I could not comprehend the symbolism of this place and the magnitude of the tragedy and suffering connected with it. However, I subconsciously felt how important it was, and concluding from its condition, how forgotten it must have been. A sense of mission was born in me then. From the beginning of my activity as a grown-up man and an activist for the Romani community, my aim has been to refill this place with proper meaning and importance."

The Monument of Roma and Sinti at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum was built in 1973 and renovated in 1994. The plaque on the granite obelisk reads:

“Memorial place of Roma of the concentration camp in Auschwitz - Birkenau. Thousands of men, women and children imprisoned, tortured victims of German Fascism, died in this concentration camp in Birkenau – cruelly tormented, murdered and gassed. Funded by the Roma Association in Germany 1973 Rose O. Bamberger”

[Monument of Roma and Sinti at Auschwitz-Birkenau, photo credit Czech Radio]

The exact number of Roma who perished in the Holocaust is unknown, but historians estimate it to be between half- and 1.5 million people. More than 90% of Czech Roma died at the hand of the Nazis. Over 62% of Romani prisoners at Auschwitz came from Germany and Austria, 22% were brought from the Czech Republic, and the rest came from Poland.

To this day, Romani activists have been struggling to attain recognition and redress for the crimes committed by the Nazis against their community during WWII.

"Unfortunately our organization has come to understand that the Roma are not honored equally to other victims of the Nazi era in compensation efforts," said Čeněk Růžička, Chairman of the Committee for Compensation of Romani Holocaust in the Czech Republic. "It seems unbelievable that up to the present moment, compensations have not been completed, and, in contrast to the redress process regarding the property claims of Jews, compensations for Romani properties have not yet been started."

Růžička's organization is committed to continuing to advocate for Romani Holocaust victims. He says: "We will continue to ask for compensation of Romani assets and for the Roma to be present as equal partners in the dealings. The victims who remain alive have selected us to represent their rightful interests, and we want nothing more than to right this injustice."

The community representatives and Polish government officials who spoke at the event urged everyone present to remain vigilant and to continue to support the plight of the Roma who, as Gejza Adam of the Slovak Roma Coalition Party said, "have been striving to become equal members" of societies across Europe.

"Despite the fact that sixty years have passed since the tragedy," Adam said, "Romani communities in Europe have been suffering from the same negligence as always."

[Auschwitz Gate, photo by Tereza Bottman]

Poverty, alarming environmental and social conditions, as well as low social status are just some of the issues the Roma face, Adam said, taking a moment to criticize the current situation: "Financial aid distributed by the European resources that is aimed at helping the Roma improve their social status hardly ever gets to its addressees, meaning the Romani people themselves."

Drawing parallels between the importance of remembering the victims and the relevance of those memories today was a theme throughout the ceremony.

"Sixty-five years ago the Nazi ideology was conquered," said Růžička. "But, unfortunately, not its ideas. They appear again and again. So let us be watchful and uncompromising so that we do not lose control over them."

"It is our duty not only to inform and to spread the knowledge of these places and about the unimaginable crime committed on the Romani nation, a nation that was so categorically sentenced to death because of its race and ethnicity," said Kwiatkowski. "It would be tragic to belittle and forget the fact that Roma and Sinti were exterminated. We cannot allow such a situation to arise, because it is only one step from the consent for the repetition of the brutal practices that marked the history of Europe and the whole world in such a painful manner."

["Haunted" -- Auschwitz-Birkenau, photo by Tereza Bottman]

Adam concluded his speech with these powerful words:

"I am truly sorry to dare raise your awareness (about the problems today) at this particular place, but I hope the ashes and unmarked graves of the Holocaust victims can become the sacred ground from which human hope, tolerance and moral courage will rise in order to help us--Romani people--become valid members of societies that value human rights and equality above all."

[flowers to honor the victims, photo by Tereza Bottman]


A slide show of the August 2, 2010 ceremony can be seen here.

Those who understand Romani or Slovak can watch a short documentary by the Romani Press Agency about the Romani Holocaust here.

[Romani boys at the commemoration, photo by Tereza Bottman]

More photos from the ceremony:


[This article originally appeared on Tereza Bottman's Advocacy Project blog]