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Michal Demeter

Michal Demeter, nicknamed Mochnač, born 1933 in the village of Borov, Medzilaborce district

  • Testimony abstract

    Michal Demeter grew up in a musical family in the village of Borov.[1] Five integrated Roma families lived there. His father and grandfather were blacksmiths, and as a boy Michal already helped in the forge in the yard to work the bellows and burn coal. His father played the accordion and the double bass. Michal was five years old when his mother died, his brother only one year old. From that time they lived in poverty and were often hungry. He only had two months’ schooling. The teacher did not teach the poor children so they did menial tasks for him – chopped wood, cut the grass, looked after the cattle and so on. He remembered that the daughter of a woman from the village for whom he looked after the cattle sewed a shirt and trousers for him.

    • [1] Today part of the town of Medzilaborce.

    The first to be deported from the village were the Jews. On the order of [Jozef] Tiso Romanies’ houses were demolished and they were hounded into the forest where they had to build new houses. Michal Demeter said that the members of the Hlinka Guard worse than the Germans, and they enjoyed torturing people. His father worked in the forest, even though the Romani chief interceded on his behalf, explaining that he had to look after small children on his own, he was taken off to a labour camp in the village of Hanušovce nad Topľou. His younger brother was taken in by his aunt but Michal was left to take care of himself. He described how he had to fend for himself for fourteen months, hiding in the forest and starving. He was filthy, lice-infested and barefoot, and stole food from people’s lofts. Then his father was injured by a fall from a bridge in the camp and and came home, having been released as unfit for work.

    Michal Demeter described how his namesake Michal,[1] the vajda’s son, managed to escape from the camp. The Germans came for him, beat him, and dragged him harnessed to a horse to Medzilaborce, where he ended up locked in a cellar.

    Michal Demeter with another boy and girl took food and tobacco to partisans hiding in the forest. They pretended they were going to get wood. They had no shoes, so they tied rags round their feet.

    During the war he caught typhus. He remembered that all the sick were thrown into a cart and taken to the hospital in Michalovce.

    Michal Demeter described how at the end of the war the villages were pillaged by soldiers[2] and the Roma taken from the settlements to the village of Komanice, where they survived the final battles in a barn. They had no property left. After the fight was over they welcomed the Russian soldiers.

    • [1] Surname not given.
    • [2] He does not say from which army.

    After the war his father found a new wife who already had a son, and in 1945 he left for Bohemia to try and find work there. He returned three weeks later with two big suitcases full of clothes and other things, delighted with how the Czechs had helped them when they told them where they were from. So they moved to Bohemia the same year, and with another family they applied for work on a farm in Chrudim. Michal Demeter remembered that he still wore clogs, and that they had care of a cow, a bull and a horse, and had to spread manure. He quickly learned Czech. Nine months later they left the farm for the village of Kopista near Most, where the local authority provided an apartment for them.

    In Most he met his wife Juliana, who was then sixteen years old, and they soon got married. When Juliana’s parents saw how hardworking Michal was, they finally accepted the marriage. However, Michal Demeter’s father did not want to stay in Most, and so the whole family moved to Prague where Michal’s stepbrother was already living in Kobylisy. They began work on a building site in Vysočany and some months later theforeman offered the young couple accommodation in a hostel and work at the Podolí Waterworks, where they carted sand. Eventually the rest of the family moved in with him and they all lived together.

    When he was eighteen he had to do his military service and served three years in the Technical [Auxiliary] Battalion. He already had two sons by this time. He did his service in Rumburk, Týniště nad Orlicí, Žamberk and Náchod, and also spent eight months as a guard at the Military Hospital in Střešovice [Prague]. He and his wife corresponded in the Roma language but because he could neither read nor write, he was helped by a traveller.[1]

    They spent another year in Podolí after Michal returned from military service, and before they moved into a bigger apartment in Braník. Michal Demeter described the neighbours’ initial mistrust of the new Roma tenants. In the end they spent a large part of their life there. Four more children were born to them there – altogether they raised three sons and three daughters. Demeter worked for Posista [a military construction company] in Smíchov, and until his retirement he worked as a labourer for 25 years in a gas works.

    In 2001 they had to move out of the apartment because it was to be reconstructed. They stored their furniture in the cellar and were supposed to return eight months later, but the new rent was too high and their furniture had gone mouldy in the cellar in the meantime. One of their sons took them in until they found places in a Prague care home, but did not feel completely at home there. If he could have a wish granted, Michal Demeter said, it would be to have his own apartment to live in, and look like a human being.

    • [1] A specific group of people linked with certain trades, such as running merry-go-rounds, circuses, puppet shows, etc.

    How to cite abstract

    Abstract 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, 43-61. 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/michal-demeter (accessed 5/8/2024)
  • Origin of Testimony

    There were two meetings with Michal Demeter, each time them with his wife Juliana in their home in Prague. The first recording was made on 21 June 2001 by the People in Need association (Člověk v tísni)[1] as part of the project Assistance for Roma Victims of World War II with a view to the possibility of applying for compensation from the Czech-German Fund for the Future. The editor Jana Kramářová subsequently asked Michal Demeter and his wife whether they would agree to further recorded interviews for the purpose of publication. A joint recording took place on 3 December 2004, again in Prague, with the photographer Martin Šimečka present.

    Included in the memories of life after the war is the transcript of an interview called Living Together: Michal Demeter’s narration is here supplemented by his wife Juliana, whose memories are included in the book. The testimony is supplemented by three photographs from the family archive (undated, circa 1950, 1951).

    • [1] Name of interviewer not given.
  • Where to find this testimony

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