Irena Tomášová called Dandvaľi, born 1923, Tolčemeš, Sabinov district
Irena Tomášová's family lived with four other related families in a Roma settlement in Tolčemeš. There were sixty-two of them altogether. The Roma there had good relations with their Slovak neighbours. According to Tomášová, people did not discriminate, they were used to each other. Her family had a big yard, and every Sunday they performed, and local peasants came to visit, dancing and singing. Materially, they were better off than anyone else – they didn't live in a hut, but in a house with a bedroom and a kitchen; they had floors, glazed doors and three windows; they kept chickens and pigs. Tomášová went to school only in winter, otherwise she had to take care of the animals, herding geese and cows. Her brother Karel was very clever and got top marks at school. Her brother Dezidera was also said to be clever, and her brother Andrej later became an army officer.
Irena Tomášová's father came from Tolčemeš, and because his seven sisters married into other villages, he was the only one to stay at home. He was later widowed and raised three daughters.
Tomášová's mother came from the village of Kurima, was widowed at the age of twenty, and was left alone with two children; one of them later died of smallpox. Irena Tomášová's parents, her mother and her father, who was fifteen years older, were introduced by her father's sister, who knew that there was a widow and her children living in Kurima.
Tomášová's father worked as a blacksmith and mason and also made bricks, for which he built the kiln himself. There was also a Slovak blacksmith in the village, but people didn't want to go to him because they had to pay him money; at that time, even small peasants didn't have much money. Unlike him, Irena Tomášová's father would accept flour, butter or bacon from people. Her father could tell stories and was a great musician – a primáš. In his youth he learned to play from the Farkaš family in Prešov, who were excellent musicians. Later, already known as Andris, he became a renowned musician throughout the Prešov and Bardejov districts. He used to play on the radio in Košice and had his own ensemble – a folk cimbalom band. Irena Tomášová's mother was a well-known herbalist who dried herbs in the attic and people came to see her from far away. She also used them For about a year to treat her husband's knee, which he had injured when drunk. Irena Tomášová said that her father was a gifted man, but also a big drinker.
During the First Republic there was poverty – no work, food was scarce, and people had to beg. However, Irena Tomášová's family did not suffer from hunger, they had enough of everything, because from spring to winter they worked for a farmer and received potatoes and grain in return. In the summer they went to the forest to pick strawberries, raspberries, buckthorn, acorns, camomile and lime blossoms, which were bought from them in Prešov by "their" Jew, with whom they had a good relationship; he even photographed their house. They also helped a local Jewish woman who owned a shop and a tavern. On Saturday, when the Jews observed the Sabbath, Tomášová would come to her to light a fire, for example; she remembered her as a nice lady.
For Irena Tomášová's family, 1939 marked the end of freedom. [Jozef] Tiso, the Hlinka Party and the Hlinka Guard came to power. In her opinion, the Guards were worse than the Gestapo. They started persecuting people. In Tolčemeš they included a certain Skľepár, his three sons Tomáš, Janko and Jura, and their children. They wore black clothes and high leather boots and began to persecute the Roma. One of them tried to rape her several times, even though she used to go to help him before the war. She said that this is what hurt people – when they were harmed by the neighbours they grew up with and who, unlike the Germans, knew them. The Hlinka Guards from the village would not let them sleep, they would come to wake them up at night and then it would be bad. The Roma were also not allowed to go into town, they couldn't even go shopping. Later on it was even worse – they had to demolish their houses with their own hands and were taken in wagons to the forest three kilometres away from the village. The villagers were afraid to say anything, so they kept quiet, even though they pitied the Roma.
Irena Tomášová's family slept outside at first, but after a while her father built a room and they dug a well for water. Soon, however, the Germans began to persecute them – patrols came from as far away as Sabinov, because there were no Germans in Tolčemeš. In the daytime, someone from the Roma always kept watch, so the others could escape and hide in the Jewish cemetery, but one day the Germans came from the other side, caught the Roma and shaved their heads. After that, they preferred to sleep on the bare earth so that the Germans wouldn't find them at night. People from the village brought food and clothes to the Roma secretly. In 1942 they were saved by Ondraš, a Slovak landowner who had good relations with Irena Tomášová's father. He employed all of them on the construction of a cowshed, and they received curd cheese and milk for their work. When they went to Prešov one day to see "their" Jew, they found that he had already been taken away. Not even the Jewish woman for whom Tomášová used to light the fire on the Sabbath returned home – her son was left alone, because he married a Slovak woman and was baptized.
As soldiers, the Roma were isolated from the other men – they were not allowed to have weapons, they were dressed in black, and they wore black berets. Their barracks were in the Jewish synagogue and Irena's future husband, Štefan Tomáš, also stayed there. They met when she and a friend went shopping in Sabinov one day and were caught by the police. At the station, they burned the wig she wore on her shaved head, and hit her with a truncheon. The women they knew waited for them outside, gave them scarves to cover their bare heads, and advised them to take the back way, around the forest. Soldiers were digging there, and one of them fell into conversation with her and started to visit her. One day he brought his friends with him and one of them fell in love with her. He was her future husband Štefan Tomáš, who came from Čaklov and had only his mother and three sisters. After the Slovak [National] Uprising, all the soldiers from Sabinov were discharged and Štefan Tomáš came straight to their home, but her father did not allow him to stay. So he went to the forest and joined the partisans. After about a month, the partisans came to the village for food and he asked if he could visit Irena. Then he asked Irena's father for her hand in marriage and stayed with them. The next day he could not find the partisans in the forest, so he hid in the forest in Irena's brother's clothes. She brought him food and he went to sleep at their house at night.
Irena Tomášová's family also helped the partisans; her mother made soups and tea for them, and one aunt took in a sick partisan and hid him in bed dressed in women's clothes. One night, about eight partisans came and wanted the men, including Irena's husband and brother, to go with them to Michaľany, where they robbed a military warehouse, taking two handcart loads of shoes, linen, food and sugar.
On Sunday, August 15, 1944, the Germans surrounded the Roma. The adult women and the children were set apart, while the men and young women were loaded onto a truck, which then picked up more Roma around the area. They took Irena Tomášová and her husband, her brother Karol and his wife, and her sister Ema. They loaded them onto a truck and drove them around the neighbourhood to pick up more Roma. At 6 p.m. they arrived in Sabinov, where they were put in the prison; by morning they had not been given anything to eat or drink and did not know what would happen to them. During the morning rollcall, a gendarme from the village of Terňa reassured them that they would be taken away, but it would not be for long, because the Russians were already close. They loaded them into freight wagons that smelled of cattle and took them through Pečovská Nová Ves, Lipany and beyond. They arrived at a field where the work camp Plaveč was situated. He says, there were three large barns and thousands of people, all prisoners, Russians, Hungarians, French, Romanians and Slovaks. The men and women were separated and slept in four rows on the ground on straw. They had no proper clothing or shoes, and suffered from the cold. They had to be at rollcall at six o'clock in the morning, and for food and drink they were given chicory, a piece of bread and a piece of horsemeat [horse sausage], which had to last them until the afternoon. But people would leave cabbages, potatoes and carrots in the fields for them, and the Roma would then secretly go and get them and roast them over the fire. The men had to dig trenches, chop down trees, cut wood, and the women would carry everything away and clean up. Tomášová was given lighter work – she had to mask the trenches with sods of earth. She was guarded by a Pole who was good to her and helped her so that she didn't have to carry anything heavy, because she was pregnant at the time. After two months, her parents found out where their daughter was and brought her a coat and shoes, and on Sundays they brought them food.
The Germans who watched over them didn't do them much harm; there were two treacherous ones who took the women to the chapel in the field in return for candy. At night, however, drunken German soldiers would come to the camp and rape the women. They picked on her once too, but in the meantime, chaos broke out and the officers that arrived maintained order.
Towards the end of their stay they were helped out of the camp by a German with whom they were on good terms. He said “Deutschland kaput” and that “Ivan” was coming here, and he arranged for the whole group of ten he was in charge of to be allowed to go home on leave. The journey on foot took them three days and three nights in mid-December, and they came home all in rags and frozen. Tomášová, in her fourth month of pregnancy, had nothing to wear and at home she developed a high temperature. They hid out of fear until Christmas. Shortly after the New Year, on January 3, 1945, her father went out and saw that the Russians had come. Irena Tomášová's husband and brother still enlisted in General [Ludvík] Svoboda's brigade; her brother returned home at the end of May, and her husband a little later. In her seventh month Tomášová gave birth to a baby girl, who was underdeveloped and weak and died a few hours after birth.
Irena Tomášová's husband had to go to Trnava to continue his military service because he had served only one year. Tomášová didn't want to stay in Tolčemeš because she could not forget what people had done to the Roma during the war, so still during 1945 she went to Prague to her brother's aunt and cousin from the village of Kurim. They lived with them for several months in Maniny, where her brother found work in the construction industry, and Irena went around collecting linen, sheets, covers and tablecloths left behind by the deported Germans and then sent parcels of clothes to her mother in Slovakia so that her mother could earn money by selling them. Her husband was later transferred to Holešovice and they were married in Prague, but in July 1946 they moved to a town in Plzeň district, where a relative of her father's had persuaded them to work and live. They quickly became friends with the local people, many of whom also came from Slovakia. Her husband was handsome and they said he looked like an Italian, not a Roma. He dressed nicely and liked to dance. People trusted him and he was even appointed a lay judge. For twelve years he was a foundry worker in the metal works, but he had a bad back, so he had to change his job. First he drove a forklift truck, but his health was not strong enough for that either, so he worked in the station warehouse until he retired. Irena Tomášová worked as a cleaner for Czechoslovak Railways and the Czechoslovak State Automobile Transport.
A daughter was born to Tomášová and her husband on 29 August 1946. Her parents came from Slovakia and stayed in the same town because they got their own apartment. Tomášová and her husband had a total of six children; Mirek was born after the daughter, and then Jarušek was born, but before Christmas he died of intestinal catarrh at the age of three months. In March 1949, eighteen-month-old Mirek died of diphtheria. In 1950 another daughter was born, and in 1956 another son.
The Tomášes liked to travel, and had free bus and train tickets. They went to Poland, Germany and Bulgaria, but most often to Balaton, where they stayed every year. He liked to go to Košice, but Tomášová did not feel like returning to the places where she had spent her childhood, and known the hardships of the war. In Plzeň district they experienced beautiful things, had money, and made good friends. She also buried her parents there, as well as her brother in 1982, and her husband ten years later.
How to cite abstractAbstract of testimony from: KRAMÁŘOVÁ, Jana a kol., (Ne)bolí. Vzpomínky Romů na válku a život po válce. 1. Praha: Člověk v tísni, společnost při České televizi, o.p.s., 2005. ISBN 80-86961-04-4, 25-41. 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/irena-tomasova-dandvali (accessed 11/24/2023)
Origin of Testimony
This narrative was recorded during a visit to Irena Tomášová in 2004. The editors have amended the text for its publication in book form.
Where to find this testimony