Czech minister under fire for questioning existence of Roma concentration camp

PRAGUE (JTA) — Czech Republic Deputy Prime Minister Andrej Babis has come under criticism for questioning aspects of the wartime genocide of the Roma people.

Speaking in the northern Czech town of Varnsdorf on Thursday, Babis, who also serves as the country’s finance minister, disputed the existence of a concentration camp where hundreds of Roma, or Gypsies, died during WWII.

“There used to be times when all the Romani people worked. What they now say in the papers that the camp in Lety was a concentration camp, that’s a lie, it was a labor camp. Whoever avoided work was sent there,” Andrej Babiš said during a stop on his campaign trail ahead of October’s regional election.

The camp in Lety, located some 45 miles south of Prague, was set up in 1939 as a labor camp for people deemed to be avoiding work. But in August 1942, the Nazi authorities turned it into a concentration camp for the Roma people where more than 1,300 people were interned, including families with children.

Over 320 people died in the Lety camp. Most of the inmates were deported to the Auschwitz extermination camp, and the Lety camp was closed down in 1943. In total, some 5,500 Czech Roma people were deported to Auschwitz, with around 600 them having survived the Holocaust.

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Andrej Babis, a billionaire leader of the populist ANO party, has denied intention to question the Roma Holocaust. In a Facebook post, he said he had been quoting someone else’s opinion, and that his words had been taken out of context.

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka as well as several other government ministers and opposition leaders have meanwhile denounced Babis’ remarks. “He should be ashamed, and he should apologize and stop spreading such stupid things,” Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka told the news website

The head of the Czech Republic’s federation of Jewish communities, Petr Papoušek, told JTA Babis should apologize for his statements.

“It’s astounding that a government minister would say something like this. It was an ignorant and populist comment. And I don’t think his Facebook comment helped clear things out – it’s phrased in such a way that should still allow him to gain political support,” Petr Papousek said.