1941 - 1945


They weren't just victims: Roma, forgotten heroes of the anti-Nazi resistance

21.5.2015 7:59
Josef Serinek (PHOTO: Post Bellum)
Josef Serinek (PHOTO: Post Bellum)



History has treated them just as unfairly as contemporary society often does. The brave Romani people who fought as partisans or as soldiers against the Nazis are heroes who are invisible today.

We remain deprived of their stories of courage. For decades no one took any interest in them, and today there is almost no one left to tell them.

"The Germans came to round the guys up, and Dad barely managed to grab his cap and flee into the forest. I remember it was raining," recalls Regina Dunková, now of the Czech town of Bílina.  

Her father's escape took place in Benkovce, in the east Slovakian district of Vranov nad Topľou, but she doesn't remember the exact date. She didn't see her father for many years after that - he joined the partisans, made it to the Soviet Union, joined Svoboda's army [Czechoslovak troops under Soviet military leadership - editors] and fought his way back to Slovakia with them.

Her father survived the war. He remained in the army for another two years after it ended, then started working in a factory.

You can read the Czech original of this article onthe website of iDNES.cz.

"I remember him hugging us children and saying 'How glad I am that you are living in calm times, in peacetime'," adds a distant relative, Michal David from the Czech town of Dubí. "I didn't understand at the time why he was saying that, but it was enormously powerful."

David goes on to say that this opposition to the Nazis never left his great-uncle:  "Once at some party the name of Hitler was mentioned. My great-uncle was a grey old man, but he blasted the whole room. Man, he was beside himself. He couldn't even hear that name without getting upset."

"Inadaptables" took up arms against the Nazis

Hodonín, Lety, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, beatings, epidemics, hunger, the gas chambers. Beatings in Slovakia from the Hlinka Guard, being chased out of the settlements into the forest, forced labor camps, malnutrition, disease, being burned alive by German soldiers.

These are the sufferings that the Nazis and the war visited upon the Roma, and we have almost agreed to recognize them now. The Romani Holocaust, which annihilated 90 % of the Romani population in Bohemia and Moravia, has its own name here - Romengro murdaripen.  

However, we still do not have enough knowledge, enough respect, or enough self-awareness to see that the Roma were not just helpless victims. Unlike many white Czechs, who collaborated with the Nazi era and regime, many of the Roma took up arms against the Nazis.  

It is true that in Bohemia and Moravia there were a few exceptions in which the Roma managed to avoid being interned in camps, or managed to flee the "Gypsy camps" after being imprisoned in them. In Slovakia the Roma had better options:  They either joined the partisans or joined Ludvík Svoboda's troops, either as deserters from the army of the Slovak State or as prisoners of war, and two of these Romani partisans even became legends in their own time, if only for those who have eyes to see.

Romani man served American intelligence

In the book After the Jews, the Gypsies (Po Židoch Cigáni), Anna Virágová recalls a local official telling her in 1944:   "Hanko, come, the poster is here". The region was full of 

posters with a photograph of her brother.

The authorities were looking for him and announcing a reward to whoever found him. They didn't say how much of a reward, but it was certainly of interest to the person who turned him in.

The Nazis were more than interested in Anton Facuna. He was a trained specialist with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of today's CIA, and was involved in specialOPERATIONS.

His wartime saga is worthy of a book. First, in 1941, as a soldier in the Slovak Army, he was deployed in the Soviet Union and then, in 1944, he was deployed in Italy.

After one month there, he managed to desert and joined the Rinaldo partisan group, ultimately reporting to the Czechoslovak military mission in Rome. When the OSS were seeking volunteers for a specialOPERATION, he applied and was welcomed with open arms.

He did not have wait long to see action:  On 7 October 1944, he and five American colleagues landed an American B-17 (a "Flying Fortress") at the Tri Duby airport as part of theOPERATION called "Day" to support the Slovak National Uprising. He then transferred to Bratislava, where he taught Slovak officers how to use American weapons.  

"Tony", as the Americans called him, carried false documents in the name of Anton Novak and worked as a guide, an interpreter, but mainly as a scout doing recon. The group ultimately settled in the area of Zvolenská Slatina–Piešť and "Tony" was sent to collect information from behind enemy lines a total of three times, traveling several kilometers deep into the area occupied by the Germans.  

He walked across the front lines, even when his identity had already been leaked, and his bold, self-confident exploits, performed in full view of the Nazis, were legendary. The "Day" group remained at Zvolenská Slatina even after the uprising was suppressed.

After the group's Slovak coworkers revealed the location of their hiding place during intense interrogations, the Nazis captured four members of theOPERATION. Facuna saved himself and his wartime saga continued.  

According to several sources, he made it to Budapest, where he began to play in a music group in order to conceal his identity, and where he is said to have carried out a bomb attack. Ultimately he traveled as a lone wolf to the OSS base in Yugoslavia, where he showed them the personal insignia of 25 German soldiers whom he claimed to have killed.

Later he gave the insignia to the American OSS base in the southern Italian city of Bari. After the end of the war he received the Medal of Honor from the American government.

He then worked as head of a construction department in Šamorín and as an approvals officer, a designer, and an engineer. He remained a fighter even after the war, this time for Romani people.  

Facuna became the first chair of the Gypsy-Roma Union in Slovakia. He worked on a Romani-Slovak dictionary but was not able to complete it before his death in 1980.

Partisan leader:  I didn't just want to hide, I wanted a fight

The forest group of partisans that got together in September of 1943 was never called anything other than "Black's Division" or "Black's Group" (Černý oddíl or Skupina Černého). A Romani man who was "black as asphalt" was its leader.

Josef Serinek, his wife, and their five children were deported to the Lety camp in August 1942, from which he managed to escape less than two months later. He hid in the forest and traveled to the Czech-Moravian Highlands, a feat at which he already had experience.  

Serinek's rational response to the wartime hysteria and the slaughterhouse of the First World War had been to flee the army and hide with a Romani group of deserters in the Czech forest. After fleeing Lety, however he wasn't just concerned with mere survival.  

He wanted to stand up to the Nazis and their Czech lackeys. "I wanted a fight, if had been just about hiding, I wouldn't have been there," he recalled.  

Serinek began to put together a partisan group comprised mainly of Soviet soldiers who had fled Nazi captivity. By June 1943 he was already in contact with one of the biggest Czech non-communist resistance organizations, Council Three, and by September 1943 his unit had 28 members.

He got himself a weapon and began to hide out in Vysočina in the network of dugouts in the Haklov Forest, Kutiny, near Daňkovice, below the village of Ubušínek, near Věcov and near Krásný. A total of 150 refugees passed through his unit.

In October 1944 he was entrusted with leading a punitive expedition against a police station in Přibyslav in response to the fact that one of the police officers there had shot dead a leader of Council Three, General Vojtěch Luža. The partisans occupied the station and, after an improvised interrogation, executed all of the gendarmes in its basement.      

The division then split up. The Soviet partisans became part of the Jermak group, while the Czech partisans joined the Doktor Miroslav Tyrš group.  

Serinek participated in the liberation of the military hospital in Bystřice pod Pernštejnem and in an attack on schools there. "Serinek was a fabulously good person," recalls his comrade-in-arms, Vincenc Koutník, in Bořivoj Nebojsa's book How it Was with the Partisans (Jak to bylo s partyzány).

In that same book, Božena Hartmanová tells the story of how Serinek saved her life. His superior in the resistance, the pastor Otokar Kadlec, ordered Serinek to shoot Hartmanová dead so she wouldn't be able to betray the partisans under interrogation, but he wouldn't do it - "I owe  him 47 years of my life", she says in the book.

Recommended reading

The Triáda publishing house issued the first volume of the book After the Jews, the Gypsies (Po Židoch Cigáni) in 2005, which includes interviews with Romani people from Slovakia about the years 1939-1945; the second volume is still being edited. Triáda is also planning to publish Josef Serinek's memoir, A Bohemian Gypsy Rhapsody (Česká cikánská rapsodie) which historian Jan Tesař helped the Romani hero put together.  

The first volume of that memoir will include Serinek's documents and recollections, while the second will include commentary and an epilogue. Several months ago a controversial book was published by the American author Paul Polansky about the Czech concentration camp of Lety, called Death Camp Lety:  The Investigation Begins (1992-1995), with a preface by former Czech Prime Minister Petr Pithart, which has disrupted the notion of Czechs as mere victims of the Second World War.

The historian Tesař, to whom Serinek dictated his memoirs in 1963 and who is now preparing them for publication by Triáda, had this to say about Serinek:  "He was an internally rich, wise person." Serinek is said to have been a communist, but he ridiculed the invocation of Stalin and was disappointed both by Soviet paternalism and by the position of Czechoslovak society and the state toward Romani people.

"However, he always made it clear that he considered his postwar marginalization to be a weakness of the majority society and its revolution, not a sign of his own weakness," Tesař said in an interview for the Nový prostor magazine. After the war, Serinek opened up the U černého partyzána ("At the Black Partisan's) pub in Svitavy; after the currency reform, he closed it and made his living as a warehouse worker in a brick factory before passing away in 1974.  

Svoboda went to my grandfather's funeral

"My grandpa spent his whole life running away from my grandmother, she was a terrible woman," laughs Jozef Miker in his apartment on a housing estate in the Czech town of Krupka. He doesn't want to paint the life of his granfather, Juraj Miker, in pathetic terms, even though his story is a very colorful epic of adventure, bravery, and humanity.

Juraj Miker went through three wars during his lifetime. He was conscripted into the First World War, enlisting together with the farmer whom he was working for, and went through hell at Piave, where he was injured in the leg.

He survived but did not make it back home to Velké Zalužice in eastern Slovakia until 1920. "He loved to wander around, he dragged it out, why would he have hurried home to grandma?" his grandson says.

Juraj Miker then joined the gendarmerie, but only for a brief time. He was unable to reconcile his police work with the fact that he was attempting to establish the Slovak Communist Party on the side.

More than 10 years later, his political position dragged him to Spain, where he fought with the antifascists against General Franco's Fascist forces. "He left with the conviction that it was a sure thing, but it also served his purpose of once again running away from grandma," Jozef Miker says of his grandfather's engagement with various brigades.

In Spain he was wounded again, and again he took his time coming home. Together with Ignác Spiegel, who would later fall in battle near Sokolov, Juraj Miker headed to Poland.

They were going to fight the Nazis. He met Ludvík Svoboda there and became, as his grandson says, his "personal servant", traveling as far as Buzuluk with him.

After that, he set out with Svoboda's army to win Czechoslovakia back from the Nazis. He was injured near Sokolov and walked with a limp after that, but evidently never lost a certain sense for bluster or the energy to bluster with.

At Dukla he is said to have stolen Svoboda's horse and the general's uniform and to have set out on a theatrical ride through the military camp, admiring how the Volhynian soldiers, who did not know what Svoboda looked like, were saluting him instead.   "That just put him in a good mood," Jozef Miker says today.

Naturally the prank was discovered and the Romani loudmouth got three days in prison from Svoboda for it. He survived Svoboda's campaign, though, and traveled with him to Prague -but even then he didn't rush home to the settlement.

"Svoboda was appointed Minister of Defense and kept grandpa with him," says Jozef Miker. "He remained with him in Prague for two years, but then something happened in the Army - he never wanted to say what it was - and he returned to Zalužice. He didn't want to have anything to do with the military anymore."

The ex-soldier made a living on a farm that included cattle, financially managing it. On top of that he cared for a boy whose father had fallen during the Spanish Civil War.  

"He had promised his fellow soldier he would take care of his boy, he supported him financially and in his studies because he was good at them," Jozef Miker says. The boy, Ignác Janák, really did do well, eventually becoming an MP in the normalization-era Czechoslovak legislature and the last head of the Slovak Communist Party (as if there weren't already enough famous names in this story).  

In his village, Juraj Miker is said to have been an unavoidable figure. His nickname was Surta, which means "mayor" in Romani.

"Both the gadje and the Roma in the village loved granpa, he knew how toGET A JOB done," says Jozef Miker, giving an example of how Romani stories come about. "He was enormously strong. A farmer once paid him by giving him a foal. He tied the foal to his own back and carried him home, two kilometers. When people were building their cabins, he would hold up the rafters and the guys would pour the clay on them. No one had ever seen anyone with such atrocious strength."  

Juraj Miker passed away in 1960 and his funeral was an event. Ludvík Svoboda himself traveled to eastern Slovakia to attend it.

He was not the only Miker family member to stand up to the Nazis. "Grandpa's sons Jozef and Štefan both fell serving the partisans. They were young guys, not more than 20 years old. Štefan was betrayed by the Hlinka Guard, and when he was wounded, a wild boar smelled the blood and killed him in the forest. He was in the group of the famous partisan Pavel Boroš, they were active around Zalužice," says Jozef Miker, adding that Roma also fought in the partisan group in Vinná.  

Dangerous echoes of the past

Mr Authority

"The mine was my first love," he says. "The second is my activism." At the housing estate in Krupka Jozef Miker organizes events for adults and children and does his best to lead the youth to learning. The rap group De La Negra has formed out of his efforts, and he is fighting for the town council to permit the installation of outdoor benches at the housing estate - non-Romani residents don't want them because they don't want the Roma "mobbing" there. This is activism from below - it's not funded by EUMONEY, private grants or state subsidies. At the housing estate this "uncle" enjoys natural authority, but not just there, because he travels all over the country: He blockades antigypsy marches, lectures at debates, aids others and explains the situation to those who need his perspective. "We sleep on the floors of people who are so poor they can't even afford coffee - they just give you tea," he says.

Jozef Miker is continuing the family's antifascist tradition. He began in 1992 in the city of Ústí nad Labem when neo-Nazis were marching there.  

"I stood there against them back then with the anarchists and the antifascists, I have been cooperating with them ever since," says the 49-year-old, who is now on a disability pension after making a living for 31 years, like his father before him, in a mine as a technician on enormous mining machinery - until he contracted Ankylosing spondylitis (AS).

Ever since he has done his best to combat racism and to fight for the Romani cause however he can. He has traveled to the counter-protests against the anti-Romani demonstrations in Duchcov and Šluknov, and he has fought on behalf of the families evicted from the Předlice quarter of Ústí nad Labem.

This man, whose grandfather fought the Nazis in Spain and during the Second World War, has now had to face their successors at home in Krupka, where he lives, and where the neo-Nazis have held several marches. "Get out of here, this is our home," the racists have shouted at him during one of those local marches.

How did this man, whose grandfather fought the Nazis in Spain and during WWII, feel when their present-day successors were supposed to be marching beneath his own windows? "Grandpa's story gave me strength. He fought the Nazis and now it's my turn," he says, adding, "Here at the housing estate there is a street called the Heroes of Dukla [Dukelských hrdinů]. No Nazi feet are allowed to go there. That's why we stood there and blockaded it. That name! The Heroes of Dukla! It's as if those Nazi frauds were spitting on history."

Lost history

Michal David thinks about history too. He wants to leave something behind, which is why he has written his memoirs.

They begin in eastern Slovakia, where he was born in the settlement of Čičava, and continue in Bohemia, where he moved with his mother and sister. "History must be recorded," says the 67-year-old pensioner.

David made his living as a backhoe driver, a truck driver, and as the head of associated production for an agricultural cooperative during communism. He has put a great deal of effort into contacting his relatives and his Romani acquaintances in order to commemorate the Romani resistance and has organized meetings of those who can still remember it.

History as lived by Mr David

From an east Slovakian settlement to northern Bohemia, from the Slovak State to post-1989 Czech Republic. Three big notebooks faithfully record everything that life has brought to Mr David.

He remembers his father, who after the war organized work brigades of Romani settlement residents to work in Bohemia (where there was not a large enough workforce) in the Arnoltice brickworks, on a farm, and on construction sites in Prague, and he also recalls a nice gadjewoman named Gdovinka. The final page of his memoirs, set in the post-1989 era, are full of musings about democracy, neo-Nazi attacks, and racism.

"Man, I have to get these people together, everyone who might know something about those days, before they pass away," David says. His memoirs begin in the Slovak State, in an east Slovakian settlement, and end in the 1990s in the Czech Republic, with reflections on democracy and racism.

His first notebook includes a sketch of the settlement where he was born. "The Germans! The Germans! The Germans are coming... that warning was whispered in the quiet of the night around the settlement, but it was heard as clearly and comprehensibly as if the local radio had been announcing something to the village at high noon," his memoirs begin.

We were leaving the home of the grandson of Jan Huš, whom we mentioned at the start of this article, when Mr David suddenly grew quiet. He leaned on his cane and seemed to be fighting back tears.  

"I finally got it," he sighed. "I finally understood. Here, now. Everything is lost for good. There were years when there was no one who would listen, and now there is no one to tell these stories."  

We had hoped to find Mr Huš's military identity card at the home of Ms Dunková's grandson, and maybe a few more recollections of him. Our hopes were in vain.

Frequently, both before and after these visits, it seemed to us that we had failed to get the whole story. It is as if the complete stories of the Romani resistance have been removed from history.    

Our modest search has revealed only fragments of what the Romani resistance was. The people who might know more are no longer alive and the documents, medals, and photographs have been left behind during the moving of households or have been sold so that people might be able to eat, to pay the rent - or even for drugs, since that, too, is the reality of the Roma today.    

Many people today were too young for their relatives to tell them these stories, and sometimes their memories were repressed by their need to deal with present-day existential worries. Time has swallowed them up and taken with it a piece of our history.  

The Czech wartime history remains deprived of its Romani part. We know the Roma fought, but the complete stories of their bravery, courage, resilience and solidarity have escaped us - as have the stories of their concerns, their fears, and the horrors they witnessed.

Jozef Miker's neighbor from Krupka also has just a fragment, a shard of a story to share. A German soldier and Slovak gendarme came for his father and his uncle during the war in the village of Novosad in eastern Slovakia, just as they were coming for all the other men.

His father was 13 years old and his uncle was 15. "They took them somewhere, Dad said that he and his brother ambled away and attempted to lose them. When they had finally gotten away, the German returned for them. He had a machine gun. They beat him with a rock. They beat him, dug a hole with their hands, buried him with his gun and fled to Hungary," the neighbor says.

"It's terrible, but they probably saved their lives, the boys who were taken away never returned. It was said that they were shot to death behind the village, but no one really knows what happened to them. No one would try to find out - who wants to look for Gypsies?" he rhetorically asks.

We no longer even know the names of many Romani resistance fighters. "The next minute the guards jumped for their weapons. The most agile was the trumpeter, a Gypsy, who in one motion aimed at the figure and fired," a former soldier with the Czechoslovak Army describes a skirmish during the Nazi occupation of a barracks in the town of Frýdek–Místek on 14 March 1939.  

"The shot from the rifle was deafening, and yet almost simultaneously we heard the ringing of their steel helmets on the cobblestones. A cursory glance was all it took to confirm that the Gypsy had shot well - a German officer lay on the pavement with his arms flung apart," the former soldier recalls.  

This nimble Romani gunner is not completely presented in this history. The witness doesn't give his name; according to an article published by the Bulletin of the Museum of Romani Culture, the name "Sagan" is listed somewhere in connection with this incident.

Antonín Murka is one of the few Romani resistance fighters who had someone to tell his story to. In 1942 he was arrested while on his way to work by a gendarme and ended up in the camp at Hodonín, which he escaped nine months later, joining the partisans in September 1943.  

They called him "Tonda Cikán" (Tony the Gypsy). He got his firearms by robbing Hungarian soldiers together with a friend (he was armed with an axe at the time).

In March 1945 his group was surrounded by the Germans when they were inside a building in the little village of Lipina. "We made it out through the doors and windows, shooting ahead of us, and ran into a field. Before we could escape that encirclement, two partisans were dead and five injured," Murka is quoted as saying in a book by historian Ctibor Nečas Nemůžeme zapomenout – Našťi bisteras (We Cannot Forget).  

In May 1945 Murka participated in the liberation of Vizovice, later receiving a first grade badge of honor, a second grade medal and a medal for service to his country. His father, mother and eight siblings died in concentration camps, as did his four aunts, four uncles, 24 nephews and 21 nieces.

Through the author's eyes: A punishment for ignorance

Our search with Mr David and Mr Miker has only found fragments of the great stories that the Romani resistance contributed to history. Ours was an amateur, miniature effort, but its results indicate that what was a big chapter has most probably ended up in the dustbin of history.  

The ingratitude of an historical scholarship that has denied us an awareness of these Romani heroes of the anti-Nazi struggle will probably prevail. This is just asPAINFUL as the other displays of antigypsy racism here in which people who are not well off blame those who are even worse off.

We are paying the price for this now. We are paying the price that is always paid for ignorance and narrow-mindedness.  

In order to produce pork, we ignore the horrors and suffering of the Roma who were interned in the camps at Hodonín and Lety, depriving ourselves of an important confrontation that should warn us of how far racism can go and what it looks like, what it proclaims, in its specifically Czech form. Because of the decades of consistently ignoring the Romani resistance, we do not see examples of the bravery of those who participated and we deprive ourselves of inspiration for our own courage.  

Many of us, during these recent bold waves of antigypsy racism, need such inspiration in order not to succumb to those waves of racism and be infected by them.

Other fragments can be found in the book (Ne)bolí. Irena Tomášová recalls in it how her brother, her husband and her neighbors from the settlement joined the partisans.

Imrich Bílý had an uncle in the forest resistance and recalls:  "Once the Germans brought us a Gypsy from Prosačov, who also helped the partisans. He had to dig a hole in the garden, then they shot him dead and put him in it."  

Helena Bílá talks in the book about how 12 Romani men, including her uncle, from the Vagaš settlement joined a partisan unit. Dezider Daduč adds another Romani resistance fighter's name:  His relative Gejza Hoĺan fled the Slovak State army to join Svoboda's forces and, during the uprising, was deployed to Slovakia, where he suffered a spinal injury in the fighting.

One of the last records of the history of the Romani resistance is to be found in the book After the Jews, the Gypsies (Po Židoch Cigáni).

This mozaic of interviews about their years as partisans features the recollections of Ján Tumi, nicknamed "Koro", and Ladislav Petík. Ladislav Tancoš also participated in the resistance with his military unit during the uprising by shooting dead the German guard of a military warehouse, taking grenades and rifles, and then escaping.

"I was at Tri Duby, at Rožumberk, at Strečna, and at Dukla," Tancoš says, "I can say that many Romani men fought during the Slovak National Uprising. Many Roma!"

For the others all we have is their names - their stories have escaped us:  Lambert Berki was in the Jan Žižka of Trocnov partisan group, Michal Demetter fought his way to Czechoslovakia with Svoboda, and according to historian Bartoloměj Daniel, the resistance included fighters named Ladislav Bukaj of Brno, Vojtěch Fabián of Prague, Ludevít Daniel of Šaštín, and Mikuláš Daniel of Jaroměřice. Many others were killed in Slovakia for helping the partisans.  

We no longer have much of a chance at a more complete reconstruction of the Romani resistance in history. "These are irreplaceable losses that can never be redressed," agrees Michal Schuster, an historian with the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno. "During the 1950s and 1960s interviews were performed with the partisans, but no one asked them anything about the the Romani resistance fighters."

You can read the Czech original of this article on the website of iDNES.cz.

David Lorenc, Xman.cz, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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