From a forced labour camp to the so-called Gypsy camp

You are now looking at the first stop of an educational trail that will take you through places connected to the tragic story of the so-called Gypsy camp Lety u Písku. The camp was a tool of racially motivated Nazi persecution and genocide of the Roma and Sinti peoples during the Second World War. On your journey, you will have the chance to read authentic testimonies of survivors who lived through the camp.

The camp was opened on the 8th of August 1940 as a forced labour camp. The prisoners were healthy men over 18, classified as “persons adverse to working”.

In the beginning of 1942, the camp’s purpose changed into a concentration camp. Between 1940 and 1942, 700 prisoners went through the Lety forced labour camp and later concentration camp. 68 of them were registered with the letter “G” in front of their names, signifying “Gypsy”.

The so-called Gypsy camp was opened on the 2nd of August 1942, based on a decree “On Combating the Gypsy Nuisance”. The camp was meant for “Gypsies, Gypsies of mixed race, and persons leading a Gypsy way of life”. Entire families were interned at the camp, including the sick and the elderly and small children. The Lety camp was officially labelled Zigeunerlager I. Another similar facility, labelled Zigeunerlager II, was founded in Moravia in Hodonín u Kunštátu.

View of GC Lety from the main road; Lipeš Pond in the foreground. Author unknown, from the collections of Museum of Romani Culture.

View of GC Lety from the main road; Lipeš Pond in the foreground. Author unknown, from the collections of Museum of Romani Culture.

View of the sleeping barracks in the so-called Gypsy camp Lety u Písku, 1942-1943. Author unknown, National Archive of the Czech Republic, Prague.

View of the sleeping barracks in the so-called Gypsy camp Lety u Písku, 1942-1943. Author unknown, National Archive of the Czech Republic, Prague.

 

Other places connected to the story of the so-called Gypsy camp I – Lety

1. Mirovice Cemetery
People who died in the camp between August 1942 and January 1943 were buried at the Mirovice Cemetery. Ca 174 prisoners were buried here; these were mostly children. Several large memorial plaques bearing the names of the Roma victims of the camp can be found here, alongside a sculpture commemorating the victims.

The memorial at the Mirovice Cemetery was co-funded by the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany. It was commissioned by relatives of the camp's victims. Photo from the collections of Museum of Romani Culture.

The memorial at the Mirovice Cemetery was co-funded by the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany. It was commissioned by relatives of the camp’s victims. Photo from the collections of Museum of Romani Culture.

 

2. Mirovice train station
The Roma were transported into the camp from Bohemia by train, cars or they came in their own cars. Many of them came to Mirovice by train. Later, trains used to transport the prisoners to almost certain death in the Auschwitz II-Birkenau concentration camp also departed from here.

Link to points on the map: https://mapy.cz/s/2ZI2A

Link to points on the map: https://mapy.cz/s/2ZI2A

 

3. The so-called Gypsy camp I – Lety
The camp was composed of roughly fifty small wooden barracks used as sleeping quarters, 3.5 m x 3.5 m in size, as well as a kitchen barrack, cellars, sheds, and other buildings. One sleeping barrack was originally meant to house six people, but while the so-called Gypsy camp was in operation, more than ten people were sometimes assigned to them. Workshops, a laundry barrack, latrines, warehouses, and a delousing station were also constructed at this time. A two-storey barrack for the headquarters and houses for the staff were behind the fence.

4. Lipeš Pond
Lipeš Pond was right next to the camp. The guards would force any incoming prisoners to wash themselves in the pond, naked and all together in front of the guards.

5. Temporary burial site
After a typhoid epidemic started in the beginning of 1943, burials at the Mirovice Cemetery were no longer allowed. A temporary mass grave was dug in the woods behind the camp. 120 prisoners were buried here, including 77 children under 14.

6. Quarry
All prisoners, including children over ten years old, were forced to work. Work meant 10 to 12 hours of hard labour per day, seven days a week. Women and children worked in the camp or in the nearby quarry, breaking up gravel. Labour teams composed of men and women were also sent out for field work with nearby farmers or for logging. Male prisoners also worked building roads or in the quarry.

Arrival into the camp

In the August of 1942, over 1159 Roma men, women, and children, including the elderly and infants, were brought into the camp. Four infants were born in the camp by the end of the month. After the arrival of the prisoners, all their belongings and valuables were taken. Men were given discarded army uniforms that were dyed black; women and children were allowed to keep their clothes. The new arrivals’ hair was shorn and their whole bodies were shaved. The entire procedure was performed in front of everybody. Then they were divided into sleeping quarters and men and women were separated. Children were isolated in the children’s barrack.

We arrived and we looked around and they took us right away and cut all our hair. The director had us line up and told us: “The gate opened before you; the gate closed behind you and there is no returning from here.” He shouted that there were just two ways for us – one to Lety and the other one to heaven.
Božena Růžičková (eighteen years old when imprisoned)
(transcription of a video interview; stored at the MRC)

View on the barracks of prisoners in the so-called Gypsy camp Lety u Písku. Author unknown, National Archive of the Czech Republic, Prague.

View on the barracks of prisoners in the so-called Gypsy camp Lety u Písku. Author unknown, National Archive of the Czech Republic, Prague.

Prisoners in the so-called Gypsy camp Lety u Písku. Author unknown, National Archive of the Czech Republic, Prague.

Prisoners in the so-called Gypsy camp Lety u Písku. Author unknown, National Archive of the Czech Republic, Prague.

Conditions in the so-called Gypsy camp

The prisoners were housed in uninsulated barracks, which were impossible to heat properly. The barracks were infested with vermin and the prisoners only had rotten straw mats to sleep on. There was not enough food and water, both potable and non-potable, and medical care was insufficient. These conditions caused a typhoid outbreak between 1942 and 1943. The epidemic had a great number of casualties and the imposition of quarantine and the establishment of a temporary burial ground near the camp.

The forced labour camp had the capacity to house 200 people in the summer and ca. 150 to 160 people in other seasons. After additional construction once the so-called Gypsy camp was opened, this number increased to ca. 300 adults. However, from the first days after its opening, the so-called Gypsy camp has to operate at four times its capacity.

1309 people went through the camp and 326 did not survive the cruel conditions of the camp.

29 out of the 35 children born in the camp died during the internment. The harsh conditions meant extremely high child mortality. Many children were left to fend for themselves when their relatives died or were transported into the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. The youngest children often didn’t even know their names, meaning the date of death and the identity of many of them remain unknown.

(…) or I saw an example where a boy ate a rat, this little humpback, (…) we were horribly hungry. But I’m telling you, you cannot blame this on the Germans or anybody; the Czechs did that.
Ladislav Stockinger (twelve years old when imprisoned)
(transcription of a video interview; stored at the MRC)

The list of all victims can be found in a book by Ctibor Nečas: Pamětní seznam I – Lety (2012).

View on the so-called Gypsy camp Lety u Písku with the barracks of the prisoners. From the inheritance of František Kánský, from the collections of Museum of Romani Culture.

View on the so-called Gypsy camp Lety u Písku with the barracks of the prisoners. From the inheritance of František Kánský, from the collections of Museum of Romani Culture.

Children prisoners in front of the barrack for children in the so-called Gypsy camp Lety u Písku. Author unknown, National Archive of the Czech Republic, Prague.

Children prisoners in front of the barrack for children in the so-called Gypsy camp Lety u Písku. Author unknown, National Archive of the Czech Republic, Prague.

Punishments

The service in the camp was carried out by former gendarmes. Part of the supervision and most of the penalties for offenses against the camp regulations were carried out by members of the so-called camp self-government selected by the camp management. These “Kapos” – so-called lance corporals and sergeants – were either prisoners from Lety or criminal prisoners transferred here from Auschwitz or other prisons.
They were in charge of distributing corporal punishments to the prisoners, which they did daily.

My cousin had his brothers and sisters there, but they were so hungry, and so they, there was this big stake and they tied his hands to it like this and dragged him up there and left him hanging there for two days. I saw that with my own eyes.
Antonín Vintr (nineteen years old when imprisoned)
(transcription of a video interview; stored at the MRC)

You went to work, and they told you you’d be the guard, guarding them in the woods, and if they ran away, you were beaten. I got twenty-five lashes because two crazy boys ran away from me. They beat me over the back and the butt with a stick. In front of my mum, in front of everybody. And they put me into this Gypsy wagon that the corpses were in. Three days without food. I shouted and cried: “Mama, mama, there are corpses here, mama, I am scared!”
Jana Marhoulová (ten years old when imprisoned)
(transcription of a video interview; stored at the MRC)

Drawing of punishments in the so-called Gypsy Camp Lety. From the archives of the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust.

Drawing of punishments in the so-called Gypsy Camp Lety. From the archives of the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust.

The last page from the domestic order of the so-called Gypsy Camp Lety.

The last page from the domestic order of the so-called Gypsy Camp Lety.

 

Transports to the Auschwitz II-Birkenau concentration camp

Two mass transports of prisoners from the so-called Gypsy camp into the concentration camp Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau were organized. Over 500 people were transported.

The first transport left on the 2nd of December 1942. 16 men and 77 women labelled “asocial” were dragged away to almost certain death. The transported prisoners were mostly elderly people.

The second transport on the 4th of May 1943 consisted of 215 Roma men and 205 women. This transport was organized because of a decree by Heinrich Himmler, the chief of German police and the SS (the so-called Auschwitz Decree from the 16th of December 1942) ordering the deportation of “Gypsies and Gypsies of mixed race” to Auschwitz. It was intended as a final solution to the so-called Gypsy issue, on a purely racial basis.

Two smaller groups of prisoners from Lety joined the mass deportations on the 11th of March 1943 (twenty people) and 19th of October 1943 (six people).

A wooden barrack. They built it and then they drove all of them, they called these families names and put them there at night. At the end it was crazy. So much shouting. When I remember it, it was crazy. They put them into Auschwitz. With transports, you know, so that these others who were there didn’t see it. So they always took them at night. To Auschwitz and out of Lety. That was an experience that I also remember a bit.
Jana Marhoulová (ten years old when imprisoned)
(transcription of a video interview; stored at the MRC)

The oldest prisoner dragged away to Auschwitz II-Birkenau – František Richter (87 years old).

The youngest prisoner dragged away to Auschwitz II-Birkenau – Jiří Růžička (1 month old).

The list of all victims can be found in a book by Ctibor Nečas: Pamětní seznam I – Lety (2012).

Concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Photo by Adam Holubovský, from the collections of the Museum of Romani Culture.

Concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Photo by Adam Holubovský, from the collections of the Museum of Romani Culture.

Concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Photo by Adam Holubovský, from the collections of the Museum of Romani Culture.

Concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Photo by Adam Holubovský, from the collections of the Museum of Romani Culture.

 

The Genocide of the Roma and Sinti during the Second World War

The number of Roma and Sinti who fell victim to the Nazis in Europe is currently estimated at 300,000–500,000 people.

Based on mandatory registration, we know that in 1942, roughly 6,500 Roma and Sinti lived in the Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia. After the liberation, fewer than 600 Roma and Sinti men and women returned from concentration camps and similar internment and labour facilities.

Out of the total 22,000 European Roma men, women, and children imprisoned in the so-called Gypsy family camp in a part of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, almost 20,000 were murdered. In total, 4,542 Roma and Sinti from the Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia went through the Auschwitz camps.

The mass murder of Bohemian and Moravian Roma and Sinti is seen by experts as one of the most thorough genocides of the Second World War.

Family of Vlasta Danielová, nee Kýrová, before the deportation to the concentration camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Only three children survived the deportation. Author unknown, from the collections of the Museum of the Romani Culture.

Family of Vlasta Danielová, nee Kýrová, before the deportation to the concentration camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Only three children survived the deportation. Author unknown, from the collections of the Museum of the Romani Culture.

Berta Berousková, survivor of the so-called gypsy camp Lety, photo from the post-war era, probably 1945. Author unknown, from the collections of the Museum of Romani Culture.

Berta Berousková, survivor of the so-called gypsy camp Lety, photo from the post-war era, probably 1945. Author unknown, from the collections of the Museum of Romani Culture.

 

After the Second World War

The camp

The camp was abolished on the 9th of August 1943. The prisoners’ barracks were burned and the whole place was razed to the ground. For many years after, it was used as communal pasture.

In the 1970s, a large-scale pig farm was founded in the camp’s immediate vicinity. As the farm grew and added more buildings, it covered most of the former camp. The pig farm was in operation until the spring of 2018, despite frequent protests by the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust and other activists, and critique from the Czech Republic and abroad. On the 23rd of November 2017, the state signed a contract on buying the pig farm. The Museum of Romani Culture took over the farm area in the April of 2018 and the Czech state charged it with managing the location, with the prospect of building a memorial there.

In the post-war period, the estimated mass burial site close to the camp was marked by a wooden cross bearing a crown of thorns made from barbed wire.

An official site of commemoration was founded there thanks to the Office of the President during Václav Havel’s presidency. The President personally uncovered the memorial, made by an academic sculptor Zdeněk Hůla, during a commemoration service on the 13th of May 1995. The commemoration site was managed by the Lidice Memorial from 2009 and the Museum of Romani Culture took it over in 2018.

The entryway into the pig farm area, 2018. Photo by Adam Holubovský, from the collections of the Museum of the Romani Culture.

The entryway into the pig farm area, 2018. Photo by Adam Holubovský, from the collections of the Museum of the Romani Culture.

Flowers on the fence of the pig farm, 2018. Photo by Adam Holubovský, from the collections of the Museum of the Romani Culture.

Flowers on the fence of the pig farm, 2018. Photo by Adam Holubovský, from the collections of the Museum of the Romani Culture.

Commemorative site

The commemoration service for the victims of the so-called Gypsy camp in Leta u Písku takes place every year on the 13th of May. From 1998, the commemoration services have been organized by the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust, led by Čeněk Růžička, who is descendant of surviving camp prisoners.

“The Nazi totalitarian regime almost wiped out the Roma. The Communist totalitarian regime then made sure the memory of Roma victims was forgotten, going so far as to cover the site of the tragedy in Lety by a pig farm. However, the memory of Roma victims was not destroyed; it was commemorated by a cross, which did not survive, and graves. And of course, also by the living memory of those who know that the tragedy of the Roma can never be forgotten.
Václav Havel’s speech at the unveiling ceremony on the 13th of May 1995.

Václav Havel at the commemoration service in Lety 1995. Author unknown, archive of the Czech News Agency.

Václav Havel at the commemoration service in Lety 1995. Author unknown, archive of the Czech News Agency.

Commemoration service in Lety, 2017. Photo by Adam Holubovský, from the collections of the Museum of Romani Culture.

Commemoration service in Lety, 2017. Photo by Adam Holubovský, from the collections of the Museum of Romani Culture.