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Teach about the Genocide of Roma

  • Hon. Alcee L. Hastings

House of Representative

110th Congress, Second Session

Madam Speaker, as Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I closely monitor incidents of racism and intolerance in the OSCE region. Today, rise to address the need to foster greater knowledge of the genocide of Roma. I am moved to do so by some recent developments in the Czech Republic.

Too little is known, and too little is understood, about the genocide of Roma during World War II–and that ignorance manifests itself in many ways.

Last year, a tape recording emerged of a local housing committee meeting in the town of Ostrava in the eastern part of the Czech Republic, On this tape recording was the voice of Senator Liana Janackova, who was serving as a local mayor at the time the recording was made. And on this tape recording, Senator Janackova is heard to say: “Unfortunately, I am a racist. I disagree with the integration of Gypsies so that they would live across the area. Unfortunately, we have chosen the Bedriska (colony) and so they will stay there, with a high fence and with electricity.” She was also heard to saythat she had no place to move the Roma and would therefore like to dynamite them away.

News reports say that the Senator has since apologized and called her remarks “silly” and explained that they were not directed against all Roma, just some Roma.

Last week, this case was back in the news because the Czech Senate declined to lift Senator Janackova’s immunity, a necessary step for prosecutors to charge her under the Czech Republic’s laws that make defamation of a nation, ethnic group, race or faith a crime. There has already been considerable criticism of the Czech Senate’s 54 to 13 vote. According to news reports, those who voted against lifting Senator Janackova’s immunity argued that she didn’t make those remarks with a racist intent. Senator Janackova declared herself to be a racist and talked about dynamiting members of the Czech Republic’s most persecuted minority, but they didn’t think she had a racist intent. Frankly, I’m having a little trouble following that logic.

The fact is, this case illustrates one of the many ways in which hate speech laws stray from their original purpose and, often, don’t work the way they were intended.

Now, I am not an advocate of hate speech laws as a means to address racism and intolerance. It is perhaps worth recalling that just a few years ago in the Czech Republic, a Romani woman cursed the wall that had been built in Usti nad Labem to separate Roma from non-Roma. In an extraordinary miscarriage of justice, she was convicted of hate speech for doing so. If not pardoned by Vaclav Havel, she would’ve gone to prison. And Romani activist Ondrej Gina was threatened with hate speech charges for saying his town was racist.

From where I stand, there are just too many cases where people are charged under hate speech laws not because they have fomented racial hatred, but because they have offended the national or local government’s political sensitivities.

So I am not here to make the case for prosecuting people for the content of their speech, or to argue that Senator Janackova should go to jail for what she said. Instead, I rise today to recommend that Senator Janackova visit the Romani camp at Auschwitz.

During World War II, Roma were targeted for death by the Nazis based on their ethnicity. At least 23,000 Roma were brought to Auschwitz– including many from the concentrations camps at Lety and Hodonin. Almost all of them perished in the gas chambers or from starvation, exhaustion, or disease. Some Roma also died at the hands of sadistic SS doctors, like Joseph Mengele. In fact, a young Czech woman, Dina Babbitt-Gottlieb, also interned at Auschwitz, was forced to paint portraits of Roma for Mengele, who particularly liked to conduct gruesome medical experiments on Roma.

On the night of August 2nd and 3rd, 1944, the order was given to liquidate the Romani camp at Auschwitz. In a single evening, 2,897 Romani men, women and children were killed in gas chambers. In the end, almost the entire Romani population of the Czech lands was exterminated during the Nazi occupation.

I don’t know Senator Janackova. But I’d bet she has not been to the Romani camp at Auschwitz. Maybe she has not even been to the Museum of Roma Culture in Brno. Maybe she could view the collection of photographs of Czech Romani Holocaust victims that have been displayed in Prague. Maybe she could even help secure the resources to remove the pig farm from the site of the Lety concentration camp, as called for by many Romani activists and some government officials.

So I’m not calling for Senator Janackova go to jail. But I would like it if she could visit the Romani camp at Auschwitz. I think she would learn a lot there–she might even learn that words can have real 

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