Sylvie Lauder’s article describing the near-complete genocide of the Roma of what is now the Czech Republic, published at Transitions Online, makes for chilling reading.
Seventy years ago Czech and Slovak Roma embarked on a grim path to nearly complete annihilation. In the spring and summer of 1943, 4,500 Roma were shipped off to the so-called Gypsy camp in Auschwitz: one-third were from camps in Lety and Hodonin, in the south and southwest of the country, and two-thirds were taken from their homes. The fates of local Roma remain one of the least investigated chapters of the war, and one part of this story is completely unknown – that some Roma survived the Nazi attempt at extermination thanks to the help of “white people.”
Even after decades 87-year-old Emilie Machalkova’s voice shakes and tears fill her eyes when she recalls those scenes. The spring sun was not yet very warm when one Monday afternoon she stood, a 16-year-old girl, at the railway station in Nesovice, a village 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Brno. She, her parents, two brothers, grandmother, and 3-year-old cousin were waiting for a train to take them to the stables of the protectorate police in Masna Street in Brno, where they had been told to report. Nearly all their neighbors accompanied them to the station, Machalkova recalls: all her childhood friends and family friends came. Someone brought a traditional Czech pork dish, others bread. “All of us were crying a lot because we thought that we wouldn’t come back.”
They were right to be afraid. A few weeks earlier much of Machalkova’s extended family in Moravia had been summoned to Masna Street. Lugging a suitcase, her grandfather Pavel had left, along with three of her uncles, some cousins, and other relatives – all together 33 members of the large Holomek family, a known clan of Moravian Roma. Even though it was not until after the war that they found out the whole truth, at the time everyone suspected that Roma, just like Jews, were being sent to their deaths. “In ’42 they took away the entire Jewish Fischer family, who had an estate and a restaurant in Nesovice. We knew our time was coming too,” Machalkova says.
Last year Machalkova and her husband, Jan, celebrated their 50th anniversary in a comfortable apartment in Brno. On the walls and shelves is a flood of smiling photographs of their three daughters, son, grandchildren, and great grandchildren – reminders that thanks to the bravery of some, they were among the few protectorate Roma who escaped the extermination machine.