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Vasil Demeter

Vasil Demeter, born 1925, Ladomirová, Svidník district; died 1991

  • Testimony abstract

    Vasil Demeter's father fought in World War I and is spoken of as a decent, honest and hard-working man who helped poor people, Roma and Slovaks – he invited them to his home where they could bathe, shave and sleep. He made his living as a village blacksmith and musician, and the family had a house right in the village. Demeter had five brothers, and when they grew up they used to perform with their father, even for Jewish weddings, because they knew their songs. His mother's younger brother Petres, who came from a mixed Roma-Polish family, lived with the family from the age of about thirteen or fourteen. Petres learned to play the violin from Demeter's father and later competed with him as a musician. He was unpopular in the family because of his violent temper and tendency to violence.

    Vasil Demeter was sent to the camp called Legaňa in Hanušovce nad Topľou on the basis of a tip-off: his uncle Petres told the gendarmes that Demeter's father had been a legionnaire in World War I and all his sons were communists. Only Vasil was at home, his brother Buger was in Svidník and Poljak was with the army at the front, so the gendarmes took only him. It was summer;[1] he had to pack and say goodbye to his parents. He said those who were political were put in Petič, while those who were not political were placed in Legaň, which was a worse camp, with more punishments.[2] His parents did not find out where he was for three months, and then his mother walked 70 kilometres from Ladomirová with Vasil's future wife to see him, carrying a package of food. They were unable to recognize him because he was so thin. The conditions in the camp were appalling, lice, fleas and bedbugs, and the prisoners had to get up at 4.00 a.m. and work from morning till night, and often overnight. They would eat roots or raw beets out of hunger, and when the guards caught a prisoner in the process, they would beat him up – he got a hundred and fifty blows on his legs; and then they had to take him to the barracks in a wheelbarrow because he was unable to walk. They would also punish a prisoner by tying a rock to his back and another rock to his pickaxe, and he had to work like that. If anyone broke his leg, he had to work sitting down. In the morning they were given bitter black coffee and forty grams (1.4 ounces) of dry bread, with potatoes and orach (mountain spinach) for lunch. They only had meat once in all that time – thirty or forty grams of sausage at Easter. Demeter, recalling the starvation, mentions how he once carried a dying prisoner to the camp in a wheelbarrow. The man kept a piece of sausage in his pocket, which Demeter took and ate it; the man was twenty-six or twenty-seven years old and died from the effects of starvation and overwork.

    Demeter was in the Legaňa camp with a cousin named Petre, who was an orphan, and they helped each other. Demeter's mother was allowed to bring him food, and thanks to the family's good relations with a Slovak gendarme from their home village, visits were allowed. There was nothing to eat at home, but she cheated the others so she could always bring something for her son. Vasil's younger brother would go to pick cherries so he could sell them, and his mother would buy food for Vasil with the money. His cousin Petre decided to esape one day, even tempting Demeter, but he decided to stay as he was afraid they would kill his parents. Another cousin[3] also escaped, but Uncle Petres turned him in to the gendarmes. The Roma from Mirošov tried unsuccessfully to escape – when they were returned to the camp, the guards ordered Demeter to beat them. He didn't want to, so he just punched one of them in the eye, and the guardsman beat him for it. The refugees were then tied to the railway track and beaten until one of them defecated on the gendarme's boot and was forced to lick it off. Afterwards, when Demeter's mother brought him bread, he shared it with this same man.

    After a year, Demeter was transferred to a camp in Dubnica nad Váhom and from there again a year later to Ilava, which he considered the worst. At that time he was already eighteen years old, and so he was conscripted into the army. They were taken to Ukraine, to Kiev, with only five Roma on the train with him. After six months, he fled home from the front with other soldiers and helped the partisans. The only person to know about it was his father, who was afraid that the family would be murdered because of Vasil. Vasil was still a soldier and was afraid of being caught, so he fled to the village of Čierna, where he hid with two Slovaks in the tower of the Jewish synagogue. However, the Germans discovered them and Demeter escaped punishment thanks to the intercession of the local non-Romani mayor, who knew his father. He and his pregnant wife then hid in the woods and with Roma in the village of Rovná, where their son was born. A German doctor, a major,[4] told them to hide in the woods because the situation was getting worse. It was cold, they were sleeping outside under the bushes, and finally arrived at his wife's mother's house, where the Germans came and took all the men of the family away. They had to dig trenches. He says it was in January, on his birthday.[5] He escaped again, but while escaping he stepped on a mine which badly injured his leg. He spent three days without food in a bunker and then somehow reached the edge of a village, where people heard his cries and carried him to the village. However, the front was moving through the region, so it took seven days before he was taken to the hospital in Bardejov where he spent four months.

    • [1] He does not specify the year.
    • [2] Both were separate workplaces of the Hanušovce nad Topľou camp, which was created because of the construction of the Prešov-Strážske railway line.
    • [3] Vojtěch Grundza (ed.), see his testimony in the database.
    • [4] He does not specify which army.
    • [5] He does not give the year.

    When Demeter returned home from the hospital, he found only a burnt-out, ruined place. The only thing left standing was the forge in which they had lived. With nothing to live on, they ate whatever they could find, baking, for example, what they called kirňavky out of frozen rotten potatoes that had been left in the field until spring. Later, the Russians sent a kilo or two of bran per person. When he had recovered a little and was walking on sticks, he set about building a house, because there were four brothers at home and there was not enough room for his new family. They gathered wood from the bunkers to use for building, and each built a shack of some material from the ruined stables or barns. Many people died of typhus at that time, and the dead were mostly collected and buried by Roma and poorer Slovaks. Vasil Demeter's family also lived on post-war aid – first from the non-Romani village secretary, a former partisan who supported the poor, and later from UNRRA. His injured leg was still hurting, so he was unable to finish the house until the other men helped him. They had one small room where he, his wife and their son lived. However, the boy fell ill and died when he was seven months old.

    “And then I went to perform with my brothers and it was fine,” Vasil Demeter concluded his story.

    How to cite abstract

    Abstract of testimony from: HÜBSCHMANNOVÁ, Milena, ed. “Po židoch cigáni.” Svědectví Romů ze Slovenska 1939–1945.: I. díl (1939–srpen 1944). 1. Praha: Triáda, 2005, 414-427 (ces), 428-440 (rom). 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/vasil-demeter (accessed 5/21/2024)
  • Origin of Testimony

    Two interviews with the survivor took place twice: the first, in 1970, was attended by the survivor's youngest brother Bertín Demeter, the second, in 1982, by Vasil Demeter's wife Lolova-Demetrová.[1] The facts in the first testimony are basically repeated in the second. From the first interview, the editor included in the book an account of the events at the end of the war; from the second interview she selected the introductory part about the tyrannical uncle who had Vasil Demeter arrested, and information about the labour camp in Hanušovce nad Topľou. The editor was not able to clarify some dates or names of villages because Vasil Demeter died in 1991 and his children – as well as Bertín Demeter's sons – emigrated to Australia in 1996; while Bertín Demeter, his wife and their two remaining children emigrated to New Zealand.

    • [1] First name not given.
  • Where to find this testimony

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