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Paul Polansky: The road to Lety

Paul Polansky: The road to Lety

Posted: September 23, 1998

By Alan Levy

Ä?Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter who will be 90 on New Year's Eve, calls himself a "researcher." Paul Polansky, 56 - the rabble-rousing Romany lover who has called the Czech Republic "the most racist nation in western Europe" and President Havel a hypocrite - is at heart a genealogist. Ä?A strapping ex-boxer with fading blond ponytail and piercing blue eyes, Paul Jay Polansky is a gentle giant of Czech extraction and a very midwestern man of many surprises. He was born in Mason City, Iowa, in 1942 - the third of seven children of Victor and Nellie Polansky, first-generation Americans. Paul's paternal grandparents originated in Vodnany and Pacov, southern Bohemia. His father - who managed a wholesale grocery warehouse for Consolidated Foods - grew up in the town of Spillville, a Czech emigre enclave in northern Iowa where Antonin Dvorak spent 100 days in 1893. For most of those 100 nights, Paul's grandfather, Matej Bily, drank slivovice and played cards with the composer. Ä?(The first surprise about Paul Polansky is that he is an eminent Dvorak scholar who edited Otakar Dvorak's memoir, Antonin Dvorak, My Father, published in 1993 by the Czech Historical Research Center in Spillville.)Ä?After what he calls a "lower middle class" youth in Mason City, Paul Polansky won a football scholarship to Marquette, a Jesuit university in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, "in the same year they dropped football. So I took up boxing, won an all-university title and a Golden Gloves regional title as a light heavyweight: 168-175 pounds [76-79 kilograms]. Nowadays, I'm a heavyweight." Ä?Academically at Marquette, he majored in journalism, minored in history. In 1963, he dropped out for a semester of "hitchhiking across America - to Greenwich Village, San Francisco, doing the Hemingway-Kerouac on-the-road bit." This cost him his student draft deferment and won him an induction notice to fight the war in Vietnam. Instead, he hopped a freighter from New Orleans to Spain - and prolonged his stay abroad by 35 years. Ä?Ä?After studying Spanish literature at the University of Madrid, he became editor of a tourist magazine called Tab that was owned by Cuban exiles. Even though Tab was published in English, Paul "had to take its texts every month to the censor" in General Francisco Franco's dictatorship: "We couldn't publish anything about politics, had to be very careful with religion and always featured a Saint of the Month."Ä?A couple of years at Tab led to the editorship of a magazine serving the Hilton Hotel chain. Part of his job was to interview VIP guests and one of them, San Francisco publisher Randolph Hearst, took a liking to Paul and made him his family's "unofficial tour guide. I remember taking Patty to the Prado" art museum. (A decade later, Patty Hearst would become the notorious co-opted kidnap victim of the Symbionese Liberation Army.)Ä?Polansky got to know the Hearsts so well that he asked the publisher to back him in starting an English-language daily newspaper. "I'm selling papers, not buying them," Hearst told him, "but if you could go off and find me a private bay for my yacht, I would cut you in on [the sale]."Ä?Paul found such a bay: "By then, however, Hearst was no longer interested. But that got me interested in Spanish real estate and, a year later, I owned the bay." Ä?With "a bit of money " he made from other realty transactions, he bought a mountain farm in Granada with a trout stream, but he hasn't been there for more than a year.Ä?Somewhere along the line, he sold some property to a well-to-do British family and, on a visit to London, fell in love with their daughter and married her. The Polanskys had twin sons and two daughters; most of his offspring deplore his current work: "Growing up in Spain, both my boys were beaten up by Romany children and want nothing to do with them."Ä?His wife's father was Jewish, but at the behest of his Gentile wife, had changed his name. When their indefatigable genealogist of a son-in-law started tracing the Jewish family tree, they asked him to desist, but he continued his research in secret. "They got so upset," says Polansky, "that this laid the foundation for our marriage ending in divorce."Ä?Ä?Starting in 1971, Paul Polansky visited Eastern Europe every year to research his ancestral roots and also to trace the history of Czech immigration to the United States. After many years, he discovered that "the first pioneer to America from Bohemia after the 1848 revolution was a Jew named Josef Levy from a town called Lety, south of Prague."Ä?Josef Levy went as far west as Cleveland, Ohio, where he bought a grocery store and sent such enthusiastic letters back home that many of his Catholic neighbors in Lety - and then their kin - followed his trail. "This huge exodus of hundreds of thousands of people," says Polansky, "began with one man from Lety. For many years, I even wanted to talk the Czech government into putting up a monument in Lety to the cradle of Czech immigration, but nobody in the communist days was eager to talk to foreigners. After [1989's] Velvet Revolution, though, I found myself spending most of each year here."Ä?From the early '80s onward, he visited the sleepy town between Pribram and Pisek "to interview every single old-timer in Lety. My specialty is oral history. What did they remember of relatives who went to America or wrote from America? I collected every story and no one - no one! - ever mentioned a word about Gypsies.Ä?"One day in 1991, however, the reading-room librarian of the state archive in Trebon asked me if I knew what had happened in Lety in World War II. She said: 'There was a Gypsy camp there and everybody died of typhus.'Ä?"Right away, my ears perked up, because typhus was the excuse the Nazis always used when everybody died in their extermination camps. So I went back to Lety and the first person I looked up was a retired schoolteacher who had published 17 books about Lety and its region - on knights, the first houses, rock quarries; you name it, he'd written about it. So I asked him why he'd never written about the Gypsy camp at Lety."Ä?"Gypsies aren't worth writing about," the man told him.Ä?Polansky doubled back to re-interview his "old-timers. They were reluctant to talk about it, but they did answer my specific questions: 'Did Germans run the camp?' 'Well, no.' 'Then who ran the camp?' 'Czech policemen.' 'Did everybody die? 'Most of them.' 'All typhus?' 'Well, that's for you to find out, Mister.' "Ä?And that he did. What Paul Polansky unearthed - first described to him as a "recreation camp for unemployed Gypsies" - proved to have been a hellhole that was more of an extermination camp than a concentration camp. Between 1940 and 1943, hundreds (Polansky says thousands) of Czech Romanies died at Lety - mainly from beatings and starvation, not typhus - and another 2,000 were transported to Auschwitz for slave labor there or gassing in the adjoining Birkenau extermination camp. Adding affront to genocide, the Lety site was by 1994 the AGPI pig farm - home to 14,500 pigs.Ä?The only book of history about Lety in World War II - 1981's Czechoslovak Romany 1938-1945 by Ctibor Necas - called it a work camp and inferred that Germans ran it. Upon learning that the Trebon archive had five meters (16 feet) of shelves filled with records of the camp at Lety, Polansky petitioned the archives director for access to them: Ä?"He told me they were sealed for 50 years. 'Fifty years from when?' 'From today.' So I pestered the hell out of him for three years and finally in 1994 I got permission to see the records. The director himself had never seen them. I hired three Czech researchers and we went through 40,000 documents there and copied more than a thousand of them."Ä?On May 15, 1994, a newspaper in Decorah, Iowa published a front-page article headlined researcher claims thousands of gypsies exterminated by czechs: Paul Polansky uncovers horrifying tale of death. As his story spread, Polansky petitioned the Commission on European Security and Cooperation (CSCE) to invoke the 1975 Helsinki Agreements - which specify that World War II death camps are to be preserved in their original state as remembrance sites - to get rid of the pig farm.Ä?Polansky - who was visiting the Czech Historical Research Center he'd founded in Spillville in the early '90s to house his materials on immigration - was invited to Washington by the Czech Embassy to meet with a CSCE representative and an archivist from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He says that at the meeting, the embassy promised to remove the pig farm and asked the Holocaust Museum if it had architects to design a suitable monument.Ä?Upon his return to the Czech Republic, however, Polansky found that, on orders from Prague, he was now banned from the Trebon archive; requests from Holocaust Museum and Auschwitz researchers to microfilm the Lety records had been denied. A Foreign Ministry official was now in charge and was telling all interested parties - including Polansky - that, alas, there were no surviving Lety prisoners or guards.Ä?That September at a human rights conference in Warsaw, Polansky criticized the Czech government for its new law "designed to disenfranchise more than 300,000 Gypsies from Czech citizenship." It was in this context that Polansky made his inflammatory statement about Czech racism and accused Havel of hypocrisy. Upon his return, he was persona non grata at Prague Castle and the Foreign Ministry.Ä?Convinced that there were Lety survivors, he set off across the former Czechoslovakia in a beat-up Fiat mobile home "to live with the Romany in a lifestyle they could relate to." By the time President Havel was sponsoring seminars on racism and the Romany Holocaust to rebut Polansky's remarks, Paul had begun to track down more than 100 Lety survivors and some of its more sadistic guards. Although seven of the Romany survivors were waiting outside a seminar and only Polansky eventually was admitted to the session, he says, "I wasn't allowed to speak; nor was anybody with a dark face. All those university professors gave brilliant speeches about how racism didn't exist here until the Germans brought it in 1939. I know otherwise...."Ä?Out of Paul Polansky's wanderings have come two books thus far this year - with a third (The Storm, a novel about Lety) due in December. In a bilingual edition, last spring's Living Through It Twice: Poems of the Romany Holocaust (1940-1997) generated too many arguments about whether it was poetry; too few about whether it spoke truth. Just published, his new book built around interviews with more than 50 Lety survivors, is issued in separate editions as Black Silence and Tizive mlceni. It is irrefutable oral history. Ä?

By Alan Levy

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