Lety novel implicates foreign affairs minister

Author Polansky says Schwarzenberg’s family solicited labor camp

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By Markéta Hulpachová

Staff Writer, The Prague Post

May 21st, 2008 issue

Polansky learned of the atrocities of Lety while tracing his roots. What does the foreign affairs minister have in common with a hunchback who died 40 years ago? American writer and historian Paul Polansky says both men’s families’ lives were affected by Lety, a south Bohemian concentration camp where undreds of Romany prisoners perished during World War II.

In his recently republished novel The Storm, Polansky accuses the aristocratic parents of Foreign Affairs Minister Karel Schwarzenberg of soliciting the camp’s construction near their estate and using the risoners as a cheap labor source.  Narrated through the eyes of the hunchback Václav Lùzum, a south Bohemian farmer whose Romany wife and children died in Auschwitz after being transported there from Lety in 1943, the novel uses fictional names to depict the stories of real-life characters. While the 1999 first edition shields the Schwarzenbergs under a pseudonym, the new edition purposely reveals the family’s identity in the epilogue.”I want the book to be a personal challenge to Schwarzenberg,” Polansky said. “His father used Jewish slave labor prior to forced administration. He can sue me if it’s not true.”According to Polansky, the story of the concentration camp begins in 1939, months before Hitler occupied the Czech lands. That December, a blizzard decimated more than 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) of forest owned by Karel Schwarzenberg VI – the father of the current minister.”That snowstorm in 1939 would have bankrupted Schwarzenberg,” Polansky said. “He was the poor man of all the Schwarzenbergs – he had nothing except those woods.”In the early years of the war, the German-controlled Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia remained under Czech administration, while, based on German directives, the construction of local labor camps was administered by the Czech government. “At one point, there were 197 work camps in the Czech lands,” Polansky said. To obtain cheap laborers to clear the forest of destroyed trees, the Schwarzenbergs contacted the Interior Ministry and requested that one of the camps be built near their estate, said Polansky.Initially, the men who worked in the Lety camp were “petty criminals and work-shy men” overseen by guards and housed in nearby villages.

By fall 1940 – nearly two years before the Schwarzenberg estate came under forced administration by the Nazis – the government began transporting Jewish prisoners to the camp. “The Czech government was following the instructions of the Germans, who wanted the Jews worked to death,” Polansky said. Because most of the imprisoned Jews were doctors, lawyers and other members of the intelligentsia, they proved ineffective as laborers. “Eventually, the Jews were sent to the Terezín ghetto, then to Auschwitz,” Polansky said.  To attain a more effective labor source, the Schwarzenbergs requested that Romany workers be sent to Lety, he added.In the following years, Czech police rounded up thousands of Roma and sent them to Lety, where they were overseen by what he described as sadistic guards and housed in inhumane conditions. In 1943, a typhus epidemic struck the Lety camp, claiming hundreds of lives. Under German orders, the camp was shut down, the remaining prisoners transported to Auschwitz.  Even before the typhus outbreak, however, hundreds of Romany prisoners – including children – were drowned, starved or beaten to death, Polansky said.Unearthing the truthThe dark history of the Lety camp first came to Polansky’s attention in 1991, when he visited the area to trace his family history. While searching in the archive in the south Bohemian town of Trebon, he came across a bombshell. “The documents showed that there had been a concentration camp in Lety, and that everyone there died of typhus,” he said. “This immediately raised a red flag, because this is the excuse the Germans used when they sent prisoners to death camps. I immediately wondered if there were any survivors.”Polansky says his first steps led to President Václav Havel’s office, where he was told there were no living survivors. Unsatisfied with this response, Polansky initiated his own search.

 

“I hired a Gypsy driver, and we visited all the [Romany] ghettos in the Czech Republic,” he said. “We found hundreds of survivors, and nearly all of them said they had been corresponding with [the president’s] office, unsuccessfully seeking compensation.”According to Polansky, the path to disclosing the truth about Lety was full of such anomalies.Cool reception when the first edition of The Storm appeared in Prague bookstores in 1999, the novel disappeared from the shelves in a matter of weeks.

“Although all my previous books had been well reviewed by the Prague press, no Czech newspaper or literary magazine reviewed The Storm,” said Polansky. “Weeks after publication, it was difficult to obtain a copy.

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Rumor has it that a Czech nobleman bought up all the books in both Czech and English.”The minister distances himself from Polansky’s allegations.”Schwarzenberg read the original version of Polansky’s book. The first edition contained several basic errors and false information.  This information about Lety is just another example,” says Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Zuzana Opletalová.

“Schwarzenberg understands that Polansky probably needs to make himself visible, but he will not take part in it.”Other politicians, including Senator Petr Pithart, who expressed interest in Polansky’s research of the Lety case in the 1990s, are less dismissive.Standing at the mass graves near the Lety camp during a recent commemoration, Pithart said Polansky’s allegations were to be taken seriously. “[Polansky] discovered the whole thing when he was researching his genealogy. He’s not just some scandal-monger,” he said. “I have great respect for Karel Schwarzenberg, and I know he loved and idolized his father very much.  But, if what Polansky says is true, [Schwarzenberg] will have to come up with a way to make peace with his past.”

Markéta Hulpachová can be reached at

mhulpachova@praguepost.com