For 29 years American human rights activist, journalist, historian, poet and cultural anthropologist Paul Polansky has worked to bring to public attention the continuing genocide faced by the Roma especially, but not exclusively, in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Recognized as a tenacious and vocal human rights advocate, Polansky is the author of more than 40 books and numerous reports on human rights violations for such international organizations as the Society for Threatened Peoples, Voice of Roma, and the Kosovo Roma Refugee Foundation.
Most Important Works
Included among his books are two important collections of oral histories of Romany Holocaust survivors.
The first collection was gathered from survivors of the Romany death camp at Lety in the present-day Czech Republic. At Lety thousands of Romany men, women and children were murdered or sent to Auschwitz. In 1994 the Czech government told Polansky that there were no survivors, claiming that everyone in the camp had died of typhus and that no guards or administrators were still alive. The determined Polansky, however, discovered over 60,000 documents stored in sealed boxes in the Czech state archives. The discovery led him to locating and interviewing more than 100 Lety survivors, several former guards and eyewitnesses. The records and interviews revealed that the administration and guards at Lety had not been German as claimed by the Czech government, but were actually Czech. Today the site of the camp where men, women and children died is a pig farm built in the 1970s by the Czechoslovakian government.
See Polansky’s 10-minute Film “Pig Sick”:
Also see Polansky’s book Black Silence, The Lety Survivors Speak; and two collections of poetry: The River Killed My Brother and Living Through It Twice.
The second oral history collection is a three-volume 1,500-page transcription of over 150 videotaped interviews made by Polansky with Balkan Roma survivors of the WWII genocide. In November 2016, the collection of original videotapes and transcriptions was acquired from Polansky by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
See: Polansky. One Blood, One Flame: the Oral Histories of the Yugoslav Gypsies before, during and after WWII. A three-volume collection.
Polansky has also authored more than 20 books of poetry primarily about Romany human rights issues and a novel based on the Lety death camp.
Awards and Recognitions
Among his numerous awards and recognitions are:
2004 Recipient of Weimar Human Rights Award for which he was unanimously selected following his nomination by Nobel Laureate for Literature Günter Grass.
2005 Finalist for the prestigious Canadian John Humphrey Freedom Award.
2013 Nominated for a CNN Hero Award.
2014 Recipient of the Italian Flussidiversi Poetry Festival Award of Caorle, Venice, resulting in one of his poems being permanently inscribed onto the city’s seawall in honor of his human rights work.
2015 Recipient of both the Alfonso Gatto National Italian Poetry Award, (Salerno, Italy); and The Italian National Human Rights Award by the Fondazione Romani Italia for his work with Roma in Italy and Kosovo.
Polansky has lived and worked with Roma for three decades in 19 countries. During that time he has documented their lives in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Albania, Turkey, Israel, Spain, Italy and the U.S. He has also made two extended research trips to India to study Roma origins and migrations. Not simply an observer, however, he is a concerned and forceful activist who has also organized and led marches for asylum rights and a wide range of human rights issues for American homeless and Syrian asylum seekers.
Because of his experience with Roma and his books about them, in 1999 the UN High Commissioner for Refugees asked Polansky to serve as the UN advisor on Roma who had been displaced in Kosovo by the war there. He soon discovered that the location chosen by the UN for the “temporary” housing for a large number of Roma families was located on a deadly, toxic wasteland, the residue of the largest lead mine in Europe. The result was the total contamination of water, land and air of the location upon which the displaced Roma were forced to live.
Polansky protested to the UN and reports by doctors of the UN medical team and The World Health Organization confirmed that initial tests showed lead levels in the Romany children’s blood were the highest levels ever recorded in medical literature. Upon confrontation, in 1999 the UN promised to close the location and relocate the families within 45 days. Despite this, however, it was kept open for the next 12 years!! During that time, every child who was born and lived there suffered from irreversible brain damage.
See Polansky’s 15-minute Award-Winning Documentary “Gypsy Blood“:
Polansky fought the UN for more than ten years, seeking the resettlement of the Roma from the lethal toxic lead waste. During that time The World Health Organization called these lead-poisoned settlements the worst medical tragedy in Europe in the last decade, and the EU Commissioner for Human Rights called it
“the worst human rights tragedy in Europe in the past decade”.
In 2016, after a 10 year legal battle against the UN in Kosovo, the UN’s own Kosovo human rights panel finally declared that the UN in Kosovo was responsible for the tragedy. It issued a judgment that the UN in Kosovo should both apologize and pay compensation to the victims. The UN has refused to do either.
For an update on the UN’s continuing refusal see:
– the April 18, 2017, NYT article Roma Sickened in U.N. Camps Are Still Waiting for Redress
– the May 26, 2017, NYT article U.N. Offers Regret but No Compensation for Kosovo Poisoning Victims.
The examples of the continuing Czech denials surrounding Lety and the deadly neglect and shameful refusal by the UN are only tips of the iceberg regarding the ongoing treatment of Roma in many forms and in many countries. It includes the often unpublicized individual attacks by skinheads, the ongoing harassment of Roma girls in the street, the fear of elderly Roma to leave their homes and the organized nighttime burnings of Roma camps and family homes in many countries in Europe. Institutional examples exist in the continuing ignoring or denial of health benefits, the refusal of governments to accept Roma as asylum seekers, and the removal of families from their established homes to make room for highways, gentrified apartments and shopping centers.
Lecturing for Awareness
As a historian and activist Polansky knows the value of education and understands that before problems can be corrected they must be recognized. Through his writing, lectures, discussions and frontline advocacy he continues to educate about what is actually happening and to raise awareness, increase understanding and confront stereotypes.
He has lectured and talked about Romany history and culture, and about confronting and combating the racism and other issues at more than 50 colleges, high schools, human rights and civic/religious organizations across Europe and the U.S. Among these are: Brown Univ., Univ. of California Berkeley, Univ. of Minnesota, Univ. di Siena (Italy), University of Nish, the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Kings College, Cambridge (UK) and to members of the European, UK and Irish parliaments.
Biography written by William McRae, Ph. D.
The Center for Cultural Studies
Istanbul, Dallas, Baltimore