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Elena Lacková

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.

  • Testimony abstract

    Lacková stated that before the war there were eleven Jewish families living in Šariš, whom they called Čhinde. They mostly owned shops or taverns and sold various goods. The Roma got along better with the Jews than with the Slovaks, and relations were based on mutual assistance. On the Sabbath, Lacková used to light the fire for the family of a Jew named Cajzler [Zeisler, Zeisel], who had a shop and a tavern, and she would get bread for it.[1] Cajzler rented rooms in a castle in Šariš, in which he dried medicinal herbs collected by the Roma. From spring onwards Lacková and her friend Ilona-Husička would come to pick coltsfoot, sloes, wormwood and other herbs for him; but she especially remembers how all the local Roma used to pick lime blossom.

    The Jews of Šariš were not all related, but they were very supportive of each other. Lacková described how, in addition to the Cajzlers, she also went to help Berger's widow, who had a shop. Her grandmother went there every morning to drink some spirits, which "Bergerka" gave her on credit, because they were friends. Her grandfather, who worked in the mill, would go to pay her grandmother's bill after payday. Lacková also illustrated the close relationship by noting that when Mrs Berger's daughter was buried, all the Romani people went to see her off.

    Next to the Lackos lived the “Englenders” [Engländer], who also owned a shop. They had three children; their twins were born in the same year as Lacková. The children were friends and Lacková's mother crocheted, sewed and mended the holes in the Engländers’ clothes. Lacková also recalled a Jewish teacher who brought her lunches to school. She was the only Romani girl in her class, and every day the teacher would give her a roll, bread and butter, and sometimes even a cake, but she would take it home for her sister Vilma, who was eleven years younger.

    Lacková says that before the war Jews were respected among the population and that Romani people even named themselves after them. One boy whose father died and who could play the cimbalom at the age of seven was called Cajzler, but no one knew him by his first name. Elena Lacková explained that a child was named after someone who was rich or happy, who has a good name among people, who was respected, who stood out in some way – or simply after someone who was liked. “We got along with Jews”, she explained. “They never mocked us like the Gadjos. We had support from them. And then the Hlinka Guards came – and that was the end.”

    • [1] She acted as a so-called Shabbat Goy.

    Elena Lacková briefly described how all the Jews were rounded up and taken away, and how the Roma escorted them out. The local Slovaks just looked out of the windows, and Lacková concluded that they were probably afraid of the guards. She and her friend Olga Engländer cried the last time they saw each other. Olga managed to escape from the transport and wanted to go to Hungary, but was shot on the Slovak-Hungarian border. Jewish property was confiscated by the guards. According to Elena Lacková, the Roma feared that the same thing would happen to them, and she spoke of threats by the Hlinka Guards that the Roma would be turned into "soap and ointment".

    Of the Engländer family, only Olga's brother Shani returned from Auschwitz. Elena had sat next to him in class for several years before the war. He came to the Roma at Korpaš and told them what had happened to Olga. He came to say goodbye to them, he was planning to go to Israel. Elena Lacková never heard from him again.

    Lacková also talked about how the local Slovaks destroyed Šariš Castle after 1948. Everything was demolished and only the chapel remained on the hill.

  • Origin of Testimony

    Elena Lacková's testimony was recorded in Romani at her home in July 1998 (and subsequently transcribed and translated) by Milena Hübschmannová. The topic of the minimally edited interview was the relationship between Jews and Roma before World War II.

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