František Vrba (1939) was imprisoned as a child with his family in the camp at Lety. The Photograph shows his father Ferdinand Vrba (1904), a blind horse handler and accordion player, and his uncle Ferda Janeček in the middle left; 1950s.
Photograph from the collection of the Museum of Romani Culture.
František Vrba, born 1939, Zbuzany, Prague-West district
František Vrba was born in Zbuzany near Prague in a covered wagon. He had twelve siblings, seven of whom died of natural causes. His father, Ferdinand Vrba, was blind and supported himself by playing the accordion in pubs; in addition, he was a horse trader. His mother, Jana Vrba, née Tichá, belonged to the travelling community and met her future husband at the horse market, where they used to go with other travellers, the Verdchajn family. Even as a young boy, František Vrba learned from his grandfather how to judge a horse correctly and make a profit when trading; the difference in price could be as much as fifty crowns and that could buy “litka”, he says. [According to the survivor, it was a slang term for alcohol "among the horse traders and in the village (...); the men would go for ‘litka’ or send the kids with a jug (for beer)" (ed.)]. From spring to autumn, the Vrba family would travel in a covered wagon, mostly through the villages around Kladno towards the town of Radotín. Their winter camping place was at Pankrác near the Michle church [probably the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary in Prague 4 – Michle], where other travelling families also gathered – he mentions the Chadrabs, Kloces and Vintras by name. He says that the travellers were called chále whereas they were actually prásto. ["Chalo" is the term for a traveller who is not Roma, "prásto" is a Roma who is ritually unclean, excluded – i.e. it is a commentary on Roma identity.]
František Vrba knows more about what it was like during the war from the stories his mother and father used to tell him about the past. When the extended family gathered, the aunts and uncles would tell stories and cry, but as a child he was not allowed to listen to these conversations.
He remembers the camp [the so-called gypsy camp in Lety u Písku], how his blind father could not move around on his own and how Vrba's sisters took him to the toilet. They would go swimming en masse in the pond; the young children had to stay at the edge, while the older ones were allowed to go further into the water. Vrba's mother worked in the laundry. The women tried to supplement the children’s diet with baked potatoes from the kitchen. The small potatoes that the women prisoners did not want to peel were thrown into the ashes on the stove and then secretly given to the children.
After their release from the camp, they lived at Arizona in Jinonice from 1943 to 1944. František Vrba's mother worked as a kitchen manager in the canteen at Waltrovka  after her release from the camp.
-  It was one of the principles of polite behaviour in the Czech Roma community thatchildren were encouraged to respect their elders and it was improper for them to take part in the serious conversation of adults.
-  Josefa (born 1936) and Růžena (born 1935) were interned with the family. (ed.)
-  The family was released from the camp in Lety on 8 September 1942. (ed.)
-  The former engineering company Walter, a. s., in Prague 5 - Jinonice, producing first motorcycles and motor tricycles, later also automobiles and aircraft engines.
František Vrba worked with horses after the war. He was approached, he says, by Venca [Václav] Kotek to help them organise a theatre carneval. For this purpose he built a five-metre long float and took part in the carneval as a coachman with a team of horses.
Around 1960 the family visited Lety u Písku. They went there in two cars. Everything was overgrown and the pig farm was not there yet. When Vrba's mother was describing to them where each camp building stood, she fainted; her daughters had to revive her. Then they went there again at their mother's request, but she was already very ill, and they didn't even get out of the car.
Later he learned from the media that they were renovating it [the memorial], so he went there himself with his brother. He cursed the fact that a pig farm had been allowed to be built there.
-  The Venca Kotek mentioned by the eyewitness was a stagehand, later actor and manager of the Jára Cimrman Theatre in Prague, Václav Kotek (1953-2019). The pilgrimage refers to the Theatre Carneval that took place on Střelecký ostrov [Shooters’ Island] in Prague in 1985; for more about this carneval see https://www.divadelni-noviny.cz/divadlo-1918-2018-9%20 (in Czech).
-  In 1972-1974, a large-capacity pig farm with ten sheds was built in the immediate vicinity of the former camp site, and three more halls were added in the late 1970s and early 1980s, extending into the southeast corner of the former camp.
How to cite abstractAbstract 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. ISBN 978-80-86656-45-8, 96-101, 121, 129-130, 320-321, 395, 602, 636-638, 705. 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/frantisek-vrba (accessed 11/29/2023)
Origin of Testimony
František Vrba's recollections were recorded by the team of the Museum of Romani Culture (MRC) in Brno on 13 August 2018 in his apartment, and as evidenced by the photographs taken at the time, the interview was captured on video. In addition to František Vrba and his wife, six other people took part in the filming; mentioned by name is the man who took the photo, MRC photographer Adam Holubovský. In some places, the questions are preserved in the text, listed with a neutral letter T (for tazatel=interviewer). Other source material came from Research Report 4/2018 – František Vrba. The eyewitness's narrative is illustrated with four archival photographs depicting František Vrba and his relatives, three articles from the contemporary press devoted to Mr. Vrba's work with horses, and five photographs taken by the MRC photographer Adam Holubovský during the filming of the interview.
Where to find this testimony