Karel Holomek

* 1937  

  • “As far as Milotice is concerned, which is where my mother and my sister lived, I must say - and I always say it as an enormous positive - that it was universally known there that we were mixed-blood gipsies who were supposed to end up in concentration camp. It even went that far that, as we later found out, the SS headquarters in Zlín had my name and the name of my sister on a list of the ten most wanted gipsies and half-gipsies who were to be transported away. But that never happened. For one, because of the courage of my mother and of one gendarme, who always came to Mum and said: ‘Mrs Holomková, make yourself scarce, the SS will be making a raid here tomorrow.’ I remember how in those years 1942 and 1943 my mother travelled with us by train, by bike, by sledge, visiting various relatives or people completely unknown to me. But the most fantastic thing was - not one single person in that village told the Germans or the Czech gendarmes about us officially, they just took it that we belonged there. We just legged it with my mother, and in that way she actually saved our lives.”

  • “Romas were dying in concentration camps for racial reasons. In that way their fate was entwined with that of Jews - we Romas don’t have greater friends than the Jews now for exactly that reason. Surprisingly, the Czech Jewish Community doesn’t have any problems in the Czech Republic, unlike Romas and unlike Jews internationally. I think that Romas, albeit unwittingly, by dying, showed the naked truth of why these misguided theories are problematic, and that in that way they actually participated in the big fight for freedom, which included not only those who fought for freedom, but also those who died for it. Whether it was for reasons of racial persecution, for reasons of homosexuality, which was also persecuted. This all creates that joint opinion. I say it because the Roma holocaust is unknown, and it is considered to be a private matter of Romas, although it should be seen by the public in just as completely clear and unambiguous a way as the fate of the Jews, that is as the fate of freedom fighters.”

  • “You have to realise that until the war, Romas mostly lived in rural agglomerations. That means that they had good means of livelihood. Firstly, the countryside is a means of its own, secondly, they found all kinds of work for the farmers. My granddad was a horse dealer. Blacksmiths, various tinkers, knife makers, door-to-door salesmen etc. Simply, village things. There weren’t many Romas living in the cities. But what happened after the war. You ourself said that less than five hundred people came back from the concentration camps, which is a pitiable amount. And suddenly we see today that a sober estimate gives us some two hundred and fifty thousand Romas. Where did they come from? After the war, in various ways as circumstances permitted - the first were about in 1948 - Romas in Slovakia in search for work. And the only place they could find that was in industrial centres, and so it was. Ostrava, northern Bohemia, Brno, those are the biggest agglomerations of Romas that remain to this day. On the one hand that was a good thing, because even the Communist regime allowed everyone to have a job, whether it was useful or not. Those Romas who worked in heavy industry, in steelworks and so on, or in construction, on the one hand undoubtedly gained a feeling of social security thanks to the regime. But on the other hand they found themselves in an environment that robbed them of that which Romas had until then considered traditional and important. It robbed them of Roma principles, fellowship. That was as a matter of fact in the past, and it simply ceased to exist. These people, uprooted from their native environment - for example, Romas had lived in Slovakia for centuries - where now coming into an environment that they had no attachment to, and this left its mark. They lost their rules, they lost a sense of their history, many of them lost their language. But they didn’t just lose parts of their identity, which I consider fundamental, but socially they lost their sense of self-confidence and the sense that they are the makers of their lives. This was simply forced on them somehow. And suddenly the revolution came and they were the least prepared for it. Freedom only has meaning to a person who is capable of using it properly. But the regime had actually directed them and bound them into rules that suited [the state] and that damaged the Romas the most. The regime will not damage an educated person so much - it will cause the most damage to those who have no idea how they should set about their own life. They did have that idea in Slovakia, they lived in centuries of tradition, which were passed on from one generation to the next. But here in this new environment they lost everything. That is the biggest catastrophe that could have befallen the Romas. And it continues to this day.”

  • “At the time I was an assistant professor at the Department of Cars, Tanks, and Armoured Transports. In other words, a really specialised department, we educated future officers in tank armies, mobile battalions, and so on. And that was when the Russians came. I won’t mention the ups and downs of how things were in the department. There were profiling checks, and I was stood before the problem of what to do. At the time I was teaching in Vyškov, that was the so-called first faculty. And the first faculty acted pretty bravely for a few months. We were on the premises, we didn’t let the Russians in, but things were starting to look in the way of some kind of agreements. We went through profiling in the autumn, and the principle question was: ‘What do you say about the entry of troops into Czechoslovakia?’ And that was a fundamental turning point for me. I had done the research and knew how things were and how it had all developed under Dubček. I realised quite clearly what position Dubček, Smrkovský and the rest were in. I didn’t really have a very good opinion of them any more, certainly not about Dubček later on. But I said to myself, man, no matter the situation, you can’t - excuse the word - make a shit out of yourself. Look, you can’t say something that you’re convinced is not true.”

  • “I did follow the events in the news, very closely, but I was somewhat aside of the Brno commotion, which really was pretty lively - even when compared to Prague. But by coincidence I happened to be in the office in Brno around 19 November - that was our sanctuary and the place where we prepared invoices and salaries for our employees. I always went to Brno for two three days like that. And during that time, we were in our ordinary run-of-the-mill site manager office, there were about three of us, and a man came from headquarters, he saluted to me and said: ‘Mr engineer, sir, I am reporting for duty.’ I stared at him and said: ‘Is this a joke?’ And he said: ‘Well, we’ll be starting a revolution, right?’ I said: ‘Well that’s great.’ People in the company knew me as a person who, from time to time, when there was some RUM [Revolutionary Union Movement; ROH in Czech] meeting, would quite openly criticise the political situation, ‘our’ Communist leaders of the time. I had the reputation of being somewhat deranged in that way, but otherwise a good worker who can keep the men on site, is just about proficient in his field, and delivers the necessary dough. I was also known for the fact that from time to time, State Security would preventively arrest me on certain days like 28 October, 21 August - either on site or at the office. The day before a colleague told me: ‘Man, there were some two blokes here asking about you. We told them you were at the site, and they left.’ I said: ‘Well, we know what that is.’ I reckoned they would come again. They didn’t. Because the moment this chap came to me, I was made chief of the Civic Forum of Industrial Constructions.”

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“I changed from an educated dolt into a completely different person.”

1956; as a soldier
1956; as a soldier

Karel Holomek was born in 1937 in Brno. His father Tomáš grew up in a gipsy settlement in Moravian Slovakia, and he was the first Roma in Czechoslovakia to obtain a university degree. His mother Hedvika was a farmer’s daughter, and she worked as a cook her whole life. His father hid in Slovakia during World War II, most members of the Holomek family died in concentration camps. As half-gypsies, Karel and his sister Marcela were also supposed to join a transport. Fortunately their mother’s courage, one Czech gendarme, and their neighbors from Milotice, the Nazis officials never found them. After the war, the whole family moved to Zlín. Karel’s father joined the Communist Party and became a military prosecutor. He sent Karel to study at the military grammar school in Moravská Třebová. Karel did professional gymnastics, but an injury before his graduation meant he could not continue in his career. Instead, he began studies at the Military Technical Academy in Brno. He remained in the Army until 1969. During the post-1968 party profiling checks he criticized the invasion of the Warsaw Pact armies; he was fired from the Army and then worked as a lorry driver. From the 1970’s, he was active among Brno dissidents, and he distributed Samizdat literature. In 1981, he was discovered and stood trial, and spent a short time in prison. During the revolutionary events of 1989 a coincidence caused him to become chairman of the Civic Forum of Industrial Constructions (the company Průmyslové stavby, where he worked at the time). By that title, he was co-opted as a representative in the Czech National Council, and his post was confirmed during the first free elections. Since the early 1990’s he has been active in attempts to emancipate the Roma communities in the Czech Republic, he has founded the Roma Citizens’ Initiative, the Community of Romas in Moravia, and the Museum of Roma Culture. He has long advocated constructing a memorial in the locations of the former concentration camps in Lety near Písek and in Hodonín near Kunštát. He is a member of the Governmental Council for Roma Minority Matters and one of the most prominent Roma activists in the Czech Republic.