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Božena Pflegerová

Božena Pflegerová, née Sigmundová (1921, Kotvrdovice, Blansko district, year of death unknown) came from a family that travelled with a covered wagon: her father was a knife grinder and her mother had a licence to sell stoneware. Božena was interned in the camp at Lety in August 1942, together with her son Vlastimil when she was in an advanced state of pregnancy. In September 1942, her daughter Berta Štěpánka was born in the camp and died in December 1942 as a result of the camp conditions. In May 1943, Božena Pflegerová and her son were released from the camp on the grounds that she was not a “gypsy”. After the war, she studied at a teachers’ training college, but did not complete the course. When she reached retirement age she emigrated to Canada, where in the 1980s she wrote her memoirs of her internment at Lety u Písku. The text is considered to be the only known written testimony about the camp penned by a Roma person who was interned there. She named the manuscript “Return Undesired”. “I want to use these two words as the title of my memoirs from the gypsy concentration camp at Lety u Písku. It was simply a transit station to the extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, from where there was no return for people who had a drop of gypsy blood in them.” The manuscript was donated to the Museum of Romani Culture in 2020 by Jan Hauer, the son of Bozena Pflegerová. It will be one of the key artefacts in the exhibition of the Memorial in Lety that is being prepared.

  • Testimony abstract

    Božena Pflegerová came from a family that travelled all year round in a covered wagon. Her father [Josef Sigmund] was a knife grinder and her mother [Emilie Pflegerová] had a license to sell stoneware, which she bought from factories in Znojmo and Kunštát. The couple had to have so-called registration books, with which they had to report to the mayor in each municipality, who granted them permission to stay in the municipality and put a stamp in the book. Only the three youngest daughters lived with their parents; the eldest[1] did not go to school because she had to take care of her ailing mother, but Božena Pflegerová and her sister Maria were sent to school by their strict father. Božena recalled that she started school in 1928 at Protivanov, where the family stayed longer because of the unusually harsh winter at the turn of 1929. So much snow fell that they could not get out of the wagon and were in danger of suffocating inside. The local people in Protivanov shovelled the snow away from the caravan and provided them with food, while her father sharpened knives and scissors for the people in return. The family also helped out a local farmer in exchange for being able to stable their horses with him. Both Božena Pflegerová and her sister Marie fell ill with pneumonia that winter. A retired doctor lived in the village and helped them with medicine. The health of the daughters forced the parents to settle permanently.They bought a house near Moravský Krumlov, where they also established a smallholding, which was taken care of by the eldest of the sisters, while the parents travelled with a small wagon covered with a tarpaulin to make a living. Her sister Marie died of tuberculosis in 1934, and Božena Pflegerová’s lung condition returned. For half a year she could not go to school, but thanks to doctors and her mother’s care she was saved. She graduated from the elementary school, completed six months of housekeeping school and then assisted her mother.

    • [1] Name not stated.

    Božena Pflegerová recalled that in 1938 there were rumours that an “inventory of gypsies and travelling people” was to be taken. Her father brought a newspaper from the mayor that mentioned a proposal to sterilize Romani women, but she said Masaryk rejected the proposal.[1] Nevertheless, they started to issue “gypsy identity cards” and took inventories. Božena Pflegerová’s parents, as well as a brother and a sister, were issued with identity cards, even though they were already settled. [At the beginning of the war], Božena Pfleger went to Prague to visit her sister, where she met Jan Čermák and began to live with him in a small flat in the Pankrác district of Prague; Čermák’s mother lived with them. In 1940 they had twins: a daughter and a son.[2] The son died soon after birth. Jan Čermák worked in a joinery in Dejvice; she bought clothes with clothing coupons, which she exchanged for food in the villages. This was a punishable offence; she was caught and detained in Pankrác Prison. During interrogations in the Gestapo headquarters at the Petschek Building they tried to persuade her to collaborate. She refused and was sentenced to 10 months in prison for the fraud. In April 1941, her son Vlastimil was born in detention and 10 days later she was released. During her imprisonment, her daughter was cared for by a close friend, and she left the child with her even after her return, taking her only on weekends. She believed that this saved her daughter from internment in the camp.

    At 4 a.m. on August 5, 1942, the Gestapo, together with civilians, and Czech police officers from Michle burst into Pflegerova’s apartment, told her to pack only the bare essentials, and took them to the police station at Michle. There they were hustled into the basement, where there were already other families. They were told that they would go to do field and forestry work and then return home. She remembered one Roma man who, together with one other associate, offered to secure the release of the others if they were paid 20,000 crowns. But Božena Pflegerova had only 10,000 crowns on her. Several families paid the money, but not all of them were released. The next morning they were taken in police vans to the Smíchov railway station and transported by train to Mirovice near Písek. On the train there was a relaxed mood, and someone was playing a harmonica – they still thought they were going to work. From Mirovice they were taken in wagons through the neighbouring village of Lety to the camp gate, where they were greeted in person by the director Janovský: “So you are here, and from here your only journey will be to hell. I don’t have any other destination for your race.”

    The children had one large barrack in the middle of the camp, with about 50 huts on either side, about 25 of which were reserved for men. Under one row of huts on the right side was a latrine, a long plank for 8 to 10 people, with a pit underneath. At the upper end of the camp was a food store, a carpenter’s shop, and a camp kitchen. Next to the kitchen were two houses used as a prison and behind them was the store house. On the lower side of the camp was a laundry, a bathhouse with several showers, and in front of it a barrel for disinfection. On the ground floor of the one-storey wooden house right by the entrance to the camp, the guards had a kitchen, a dining room and offices, while upstairs were the gendarmes’ quarters and the camp commander’s flat. Near the gate were the houses of other gendarmes.

    Upon arrival, everyone in the office had to undergo registration with the gendarmes [František] Havelka and [Josef] Hejduk. Here everything of value was handed over and registration numbers were assigned,[3] but they were not tattooed. Other things were taken to a storehouse, which was looted by the kapos or the guards, and what was left was later burned.

    Other families arrived daily, and Božena was reunited with a number of relatives, such as her niece Antonia Richtrová and her family. They all had their heads shaved with hair clippers, and afterwards the women were allowed to wear a headscarf, but had to remove it when they came for roll call. At the same time, all women, men and children had to undergo disinfection and deworming. This process was supervised by Mr. Havrda[4] from the Vinohrady Hospital, who was a kind man, according to Božena Pflegerová. He was fond of her son and secretly brought her packages with sugar, butter, garlic and cigarettes from her relatives in Prague. She hid these things in her straw mattress but someone informed on her and she and her one-month-old daughter ended up in solitary confinement, where her daughter died two months later.)

    The gendarmes in the camp varied, some had volunteered for duty, and some were cruel – she specifically recalled Hejduk, who liked to beat pretty women. One of the kapos from among the prisoners, Tomáš Ištván, was also brutal, winning the favour of the guards by beating women and old men. He was also in the camp with his daughter Karla. Božena witnessed him clubbing to death a prisoner called Růžička, nicknamed Skála. He had promised to give him food in exchange for gold rings that the old man had hidden. But he didn’t provide the food, and when Skála demanded what he had been promised, he beat him to death. Equally cruel were the German kapos Robert, Friedrich, and another whose name she could not recall, as well as their associate who was known as Bluma.

    On the other hand, some of the guards showed compassion, such as [Bedřich] Bělohlávek. Božena also spoke favourably of Havel[5] and [Josef] Luňáček. The latter caught Pflegerová’s husband having sex with her cousin, Květa Richtrová, and he beat him up for it.[6]

    He also considered the gendarme Bedřich Pešek, who worked in the camp kitchen supervising the meals, to be a good person. The daily ration consisted of black coffee substitute, soup and 200 grams of bread. The director, Janovský, robbed the prisoners of their food rations, and instead of having the supplies unloaded in the storehouse, he had them unloaded in his apartment and took them by car to Prague. Often there was no salt to flavour the turnip soup. Only prisoners who worked outside the camp, such as on forestry work, were better off. They cooked better there and sometimes people from the villages gave them some extra food.

    Božena Pflegerová was assigned to the sick bay, where she assisted Dr. Beck,[7] taking temperatures, dressing sores and administering aspirin, the only medication available. Thanks to this work, she and her son were vaccinated against typhus and dysentery, as were other female prisoners who worked for the camp staff. When typhus spread in the camp, they were even housed in a dormitory outside the camp so that they would not spread typhus to the guards. Even so, some became infected, including Hejduk. Commander Janovský ordered Božena to take care of him 24 hours a day, but she got him to agree to her taking care of Hejduk only during the day, because of her two-year-old son. She took care of Hejduk for three weeks.

    She had only positive memories of Dr. Beck, who may possibly have saved her life. He noticed a sore on her foot, where her clog had been rubbing her instep, and her foot was already turning blue. He made an incision in her foot and cauterized the wound with a pocket knife heated over a candle. She had a visible scar for the rest of her life.

    Prisoners died daily in the camp, especially during the typhus and dysentery epidemics. Their bodies were piled up by the well, where they were covered with blankets before being taken to the forest. There, they were “buried like cattle” – dumped in a pit and covered with lime. Before the typhus epidemic, they were still buried in the cemetery in Mirovice, where Božena’s daughter, who died on 2 December 1942, had also been taken.

    Božena Pflegerová recalls two transports to Auschwitz from Lety. Before the first of them, women were asked to volunteer if they wanted to go on a work detail; among other things, they would be able to send their children food parcels. About 90 women volunteered, and 80 of them were selected, but instead of going on the work detail, they went straight to Auschwitz. She also recalled the selection carried out by Dr Kuchař and Mareš: they examined the prisoners’ teeth and felt their skulls. About 60 prisoners were sent to the left side and the rest to the right side, who were then all taken away by buses and ended up in Auschwitz. Božena Pflegerová was lucky and stayed in Lety with her son. The thieving commander Janovský was replaced by [Štěpán] Blahynka who had been the top-ranking gendarme at the camp at Hodonín u Kunštátu[, and was a strict but fair man. He saw to it that everyone received their food rations, proper medical care, and so on. In the end, they were given their papers in the office and released, and only a few prisoners remained to burn the entire camp.

    [1] In 1938, President Thomas G. Masaryk had been dead for three years. It is likely that there was a confusion with 1927, when the law 117/1927 “on itinerant gypsies” was adopted, which introduced the so-called “gypsy identity cards”, and in 1929 a census of so-called “cikáni” was also held. This would also explain why Božena did not receive an identity card. These were not issued to children under the age of 14.

    [2] Names not stated.

    [3] Božena Pflegerová was imprisoned in the so-called gypsy camp at Lety with the registration number 69 (from 5 August 1942 to 27 May 1943, when she was released), and her son Vlastimil (born 1941) was also registered under the same number from 29 August 1942; on 2 September 1942 her daughter Berta Štěpánka was born there, and she died in the camp on 2 December 1942. (ed.)

    [4] Antonín Havrda, disinfector, employee of the Prague Epidemiological Station (ed.)

    [5] No further details.

    [6] The guard Josef Luňáček is often evaluated negatively by Romani detainees and ev by his fellow guards, so it is a therefore not clear whether the survivor meant those words ironically, or whether, on the contrary, in light of the aforementioned episode of her husband’s revealed infidelity, she had a different perspective on the guard. (ed.)

    [7] This was either Dr. Alfred Milek or, more likely, Dr. Michael Bohin. These doctors worked as prison doctors in the camp. There is no information about a doctor named Beck in the literature about the camp at Lety. (ed.)

      How to cite abstract

      Abstract of testimony from: HORVÁTHOVÁ, Jana a kol. ... to jsou těžké vzpomínky. 1. svazek. Vzpomínky Romů a Sintů na život před válkou a v protektorátu. Brno: Větrné mlýny, Muzeum romské kultury, 2021, 19, 128-131, 141-145, 303-304, 308, 326-328, 334-336, 359-361, 368-369, 384, 396, 403-404, 431-434, 444-446, 456-459, 481, 487-488, 500, 502-505, 518, 538, 544-545, 556, 563-564, 576-578, 613, 636, 692-693, 708. Testimonies of the Roma and Sinti. Project of the Prague Forum for Romani Histories (Institute of Contemporary History, Czech Academy of Sciences), https://www.romatestimonies.com/testimony/bozena-pflegerova (accessed 4/13/2024)
    • Origin of Testimony

      The testimony of Božena Pflegerová is quoted from the manuscript “Return Undesired”, which was donated to the Museum of Romani Culture by Božena Pflegerová’s son, Jan Hauer. Reference is also made to the 2018 interview with Jan Hauer in Prague and to the research report 9/2018 Jan Hauer.

      The memoirs of Bozena Pflegerová appear in the book ... They’re Painful Memories, which includes abundant visual material.

    • Where to find this testimony

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