Interview with Paul Polansky
By Carrie Haber
From Vol. 3 No. 1, 2004
The present site of the AGPI, a pig farm in Lety, Czech Republic, was once occupied by a concentration camp for Roma in which hundreds, maybe thousands of people were raped, beaten, starved, tortured, shot and worked to death. The height of this brutal activity occurred between 1940 and 1943. Archival records of numbers of victims are inconsistent.
Every May 13, scores of Gypsies return to the pig farm to commemorate the dead and to demonstrate their need for change in the current Czech system that still acknowledges them as second-class citizens. Romany children are still sent to schools for the mentally handicapped. There is a wall built in the town of Usti nad Labem, erected to separate a Roma community from the nearby houses of white Czechs. And the pig farm desecrating a Holocaust site continues to process 14,000 pigs annually.
But the kinds of historical details below are not particularly constructive. We already know that governments cover things up. What we don’t consider is that the horrors seep and seep, from Iraq to the Congo and back, and never dry out of our species. That most of the planet is traumatized by a foreign power at least every 50 years. That a prison in Cuba, Pristina or Darfur can turn into a concentration camp overnight and that unless we air this – the fear, the knowledge, the real and imagined and inherited suffering, from our collective unconscious, it will never dry out.
Despite strict provisional rules for the country’s accession into the EU, the Czech Republic won its membership on May 1, 2004 without addressing its institutionally racist practices against the Roma who have been living there for 700 years.
Paul Polansky is a Czech-American native of Iowa and a former boxer. After stumbling upon the Lety camp archives in the early 90s, he set out on a door-to-door search across the Czech countryside for Lety survivors because he strongly suspected the Czech government of covering up the crimes of former Czech policemen. He was right.
The following is a partial transcript of his testimony in the documentary Pig Farm, currently in post-production.
Carrie Haber: How did you come across the concentration camp at Lety…and why do you think there’s been a cover-up?
P. Polansky: Well, I’d been working in the Czech archives, looking up family history. The more Czech genealogy I did, the more I found that it was chain migration that brought Czechs to America. I tried to find out who was the first Czech to Cleveland after the 1848 revolution. It was a Jew by the name of Josef Levy and he’d come over in 1848, bought a piece of property, wrote back to his Jewish family in a small town in South Bohemia– Lety– that there were great opportunities in America, and all his Catholic neighbours followed him. So for me, Lety was really the cradle of Czech emigration to America, after the 1848 revolution. So I went to Lety and began to collect the oral histories of the oldest people in the village, asking them if they had ancestors in America (most did), if any letters or photos had been saved, and some had. And these led me to the main archive in South Bohemia (Trebon) and I started to check the records there.
And while I working there (around 1991), the director of the reading-room asked me if I knew what had happened in Lety during WWII, and I said no, that I’d interviewed everyone in the village and nobody had said anything about WWII. And she said that there had been a concentration camp there during WWII exclusively for Gypsies, and everyone had died of typhus. Well, immediately my ears perked up because I had read a lot about the Holocaust, and I knew that typhus was an excuse the Germans used for saying that everybody had died. And so if this was a camp where everybody’d died of typhus, I felt something else had probably happened there.
I asked the reading-room director if they had any records on the Gypsy camp, and she said yes, that they had enough [to fill] at least five meters of shelf space, which she estimated contained about 40,000 documents. I asked if I could see these documents, and she said no, that there was a 50-year restraining order on them. However, there was a book that had been published in the 80s by a Czech historian1 about Lety. I read this book and discovered that [the historian] had seen the Lety archives, to write his book. So I asked why I couldn’t see these records if this historian already seen them.
It wasn’t until three years later that I finally got permission to see the archives in January of 1994. I went in there with three other people to help me go through the 40,000 documents. Each page of these documents passed through all eight of our hands– and we found everything– but none of it was catalogued. That was what we did the first week. We made an inventory of all the records.