Elena Lacková (1921, Veľký Šariš, Prešov district – 2003, Košice) was a Romani writer, poet and playwright, and one of the leading figures of the Romani ethno-emancipation movement in Slovakia. She began to write poetry even before the war, as a schoolgirl. Elena Lacková’s promising work was interrupted by the war: the creation of the Slovak state was declared a week before her eighteenth birthday and the family began to face repression. In 1940 she married Jozef Lacek from Kapušany, who then spent the following year in the camp for forced labour at Petič. In November 1943 Elena Lacková and her family experienced the destruction of their settlement.
After the war Lacková and her husband joined the Communist Party out of conviction and began to devote themselves to educational activities. She wrote her first play in 1948, Hořící cikánský tábor (The gypsy camp is on fire) about the persecution of the Roma during World War II, rehearsed it with her own company and then toured the whole of Czechoslovakia. She brought up five children, and then at the age of forty-two registered for distance learning at the Faculty of Journalism and Education at the Charles University in Prague, where in 1970 she was the first Roma woman from Slovakia to graduate. She was forty-nine years old and by that time had nine grandchildren.
Lacková wrote many articles and plays for radio and the theatre. Her best known work is her autobiography Narodila jsem se pod šťastnou hvězdou (I was born under a happy star) which was published in cooperation with the specialist in Indian and Roma studies Milena Hübschmannová. She travelled with Lacková from 1976 to 1984 and recorded her narration in the Roma language. It was 1997 before the transcribed, translated and edited memoirs were published by the Triáda publishing house.
Elena Lacková was the first Roma personality to be awarded a high state award – The Order of Ľudovít Štúr Third Class, which was awarded to her by the Slovak President Rudolf Schuster in 2001. The Slovak President likewise awarded her his Commemorative Medal for her lifelong efforts to bring the values of the Roma nation to the non-Roma society and for her artistic depiction of the holocaust of the Roma.
Elena Lacková talked about the coexistence of Roma and non-Roma residents of the village and how they were intertwined and needed each other. Her mother used to embroider monograms on bed linen for the peasants, knit for them and mend their clothes. Lacková was the only Romani girl to sing in Zpěvokol, the local choir. She recalls that when the Slovak state was declared on 14 March 1939, the church bells rang for at least two hours and the peasants cried out that the world would finally open up to them and they would have their own state. A few days later, she ran out of a Zpěvokol rehearsal crying because a boy shouted at her that [the Roma] would now "be turned into soap", and she never returned.
Elena Lacková described what the declaration of the Slovak state meant for the Roma and how the new measures affected their lives so far. Roma faced public ridicule from non-Roma; their freedom of movement were restricted, and they were not allowed to remain outside their home village. A drummer came and announced that they could only go to Veľký Šariš between noon and 2.00 p.m. and that they could not go to the more distant and larger city of Prešov at all. Lacková mentioned a prison wagon, nicknamed Eržička by the locals, which drove through Prešov and took Roma who violated the ban to the gendarmerie station. As punishment, the women had their hair cut off on one side of their head, while the men had a cross shaved on their heads.
After her marriage, Lacková moved in with her husband's parents in Kapušany and helped her mother-in-law, who worked for the peasants. In November 1943, gendarmes and Hlinka Guards drove the Roma out of Šariš, where Lacková was visiting her parents with her ailing first-born son, to a forested hill called Korpáš, two kilometres from the village. They were only allowed to take with them what they could carry. When the gendarmes began to demolish their current dwellings, they told Elena's father, who was the Roma mayor, that they could take timber and metal sheets with them; they then built crude huts out of them on Korpáš.
Lacková mentioned the assistance Romani people received from their Slovak neighbours. For example, when her father fell ill with pneumonia in Korpáš, they received food for him from the peasants. Similarly, when her daughter Máňa, one of the twins she gave birth to in 1944, fell ill and she walked with both of them to the Prešov hospital for the poor, the doctor let them stay there for five days despite the ban, and treated the child for free. A month before the end of the war, however, the second of Elena Lacková's twins, her daughter Irena, died.
Origin of Testimony
The interviews were conducted over the course of eight years and became the original basis for the writer's autobiography, Born Under a Lucky Star, which includes a chapter on the wartime fate of Elena Lacková, her family, her native community of Roma from Šariš, and the Roma community of Kapušany, where she was married.
However, for the book After the Jews come Gypsies, the editor chose only memories of the forced eviction of Romani people from the village. She did not use the edited and published Czech version, but returned to the Romani originals, which in the mid-1980s were to become part of an unpublished publication about the wartime fate of the Roma in Slovakia. Elena Lacková's narrative was therefore published in a new translation and in a different way from the autobiography as a book.
The facts described probably do not always correspond to the time frame provided by historians. For example, the proceedings over the announcement of the ban on Romani people entering Prešov and their deportation to a forced labour camp as punishment for non-compliance could not have taken place immediately after the declaration of the Slovak state. The forced conscription of Roma into the labour camp in Hanušovce nad Topľou did not begin in the Prešov region until the summer of 1942.
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