Vojtěch Demeter, known as Bejla (born 1938, Veľopolie, Humenné district), was one of the most important post-war musicians, performing abroad with his band Viola, appearing in Czechoslovak films, and playing for high-ranking representatives of the Communist regime.
Vojtěch Demeter's family lived in a Roma settlement of about twelve houses, half a kilometre from the village of Veľopolie. His mother died when he was only nine weeks old. His father remarried and moved to a village about ten kilometres away, and the son and his father did not see each other; Vojtěch Demeter later had three half-brothers from his father's second relationship. He grew up with his grandparents: his grandmother Julia and grandfather Jan, a blacksmith who made horseshoes and ploughshares and was given food, such as ribs or lard, for his work. The family was well off before the war. Vojtěch Demeter's grandfather was an excellent musician, playing at Jewish weddings and in a wine bar in Humenné, where many Jews also lived. Most of them were shop owners and Vojtěch Demeter says they were good people; but during the war they were all taken away.
According to Demeter, the Hlinka Guards behaved like Gestapo and hated the Roma. After the Germans arrived, the Roma hid out of fear for about three weeks. They went into the forest five or six kilometres away from the village because the Germans were afraid of the partisans, and did not go into the forest. However, the Roma did not listen to the partisans’ warnings and returned home, believing the Germans would not do anything to them after all. It was a mistake – one day about four cars full of Germans came and forced six-year-old Demeter, his grandfather and grandmother to walk the nine kilometres to Humenné. Demeter's great-grandfather, his grandmother's father named Jakub, who was old and incapable of walking, according to the Germans, was hit with a rifle butt, kicked and killed. They spent three days in stables in Humenné and then were taken in wagons to the camp in Dubnica nad Váhom. Originally, they were probably meant to go further, perhaps to Poland or Germany, but according to Demeter, there was nowhere to go, because the railway tracks and bridges had by then already been destroyed. There were many Roma in the camp, in separate groups of children, women, and men; small children were allowed to stay with their mothers. The guards beat them, and the prisoners had no proper clothes. Demeter had only a torn coat, and went barefoot without trousers. They were given watery soup and a piece of bread to eat, and if there was anything left in the kitchen, the guards preferred to give it to the dogs. So they would go and collect potato peelings. The adults worked, carrying stones, doing what was, according to Demeter, pointless work. Later, jaundice spread in the camp, and Demeter fell ill too, but his grandmother cured him with tea made from some leaves. Apparently a pit had already been dug in which the prisoners were to be shot, but before this happened, the Russians arrived at the camp, gave the prisoners bread and let them go home. The Demeters walked all the way to Humenné; everything was broken and destroyed. When they got home, they found nothing at all; everything was burnt and reduced to dust. They got materials and built a hut to have a place to sleep, but they had no clothes, and went barefoot and naked.
Later on, the Demeter family was given clothing vouchers and food tokens. Some Slovaks who had belonged to the Hlinka Guard during the war became turncoats after the Russians arrived. One local Slovak, for example, had been a captain in Humenné during the war, but under the communists they made him chairman of the National Committee.
After the war they spent two years in Slovakia. Vojtěch Demeter went to the local school and attended the music school in Humenné. In 1947 the family moved to Prague; first they lived in Vinohrady, then in Smíchov and Modřany, where four musician families lived next to each other. Vojtěch Demeter's wife, who earned her living in Prague as a cleaner, came from the village of Ľubiša, about a kilometre from Veľopolie. Her father was also a musician. They had known each other from childhood and lived together for forty-five years, until her death. For the last seven years she was very ill and Demeter nursed her at home. At first he did not speak Czech, so he and his wife and children spoke Romani at home; but their grandchildren no longer understand Romani.
Demeter made his living from music. For his first few months in Prague he delivered coal, but then he just played in wine bars with his own band called Viola. He was a band leader and played viola and bass, mostly at the Bystrica wine bar on Národní třída, and in the International and Ambassador hotels, but his longest engagement, twenty-seven years, was at the Šumice wine bar. For a long time the band was employed by the Pragokoncert agency. They performed in Poland, France, Greece and Germany, and were supposed to go to Dubai. The band Viola also performed in the films The Three Veterans and I Enjoy the World with You, and in the series Ambulance. They also played for important representatives of the communist regime, for example, for Gustáv Husák’s birthday, and after 1989 for Václav Klaus when he became Prime Minister, and for [President] Václav Havel.
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, 79-93. 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/vojtech-demeter-bejla (accessed 11/29/2023)
Origin of Testimony
The narrative was recorded during three visits to Vojtěch Demeter in Prague in 2001 and 2004. The text has been edited for publication in a book.
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