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Oral History with Marie Ondrášová

In the featured oral history, Marie Ondrášová (called Kveta) recalls her family’s imprisonment in the Hodonin camp for Roma and Sinti people.
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

In fall 1938, Nazi Germany annexed the western borderlands of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland. In 1939, German forces invaded the neighboring Czech territories and forced the Czech government to agree to the creation of the German-controlled Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Nazi authorities arrested citizens of Bohemia and Moravia whom they deemed "asocial," imprisoning them in forced labor camps.1 The Nazis applied this classification broadly, and it was often used to target Roma and Sinti peoples.2

The Hodonín forced labor camp was established in the forested hills outside the small Moravian village of Hodonín u Kunštátu in 1940. At first, the camp's population was mostly non-Romani Czech "asocial" prisoners. In 1942, Nazi authorities transferred or released the camp's non-Romani prisoners and redesignated Hodonín as a so-called "Zigeunerlager," or "Gypsy camp."3 The camp was operated by Czech police and administrators under the supervision of German officials. Thousands of Czech Roma were imprisoned at Hodonín and another "Zigeunerlager" established at the Bohemian village of Lety u Písku.4

In the featured oral history, Marie Ondrášová (called Kveta) recalls how she and the rest of her Czech Romani family were imprisoned at Hodonín. She was 16 years old in summer 1942 when she was taken to Hodonín with her pregnant mother, grandmother, and five younger siblings.5 Upon their arrival, a German official separated the teenaged girls from the other prisoners and examined their hands and clothing. Although Ondrášová protested that she had never even been inside a clinic before, she was selected to work in the camp hospital on the basis of her tidy appearance.

Ondrášová's position as a prisoner nurse gave her certain privileges not granted to other prisoners. She received a rare typhus vaccination, and she possessed keys to the camp's gate so she could clean the Czech police officers' cottages.6 She slept in the hospital dispensary instead of the camp barracks, and she was permitted to bring her family members into the hospital with her in order to protect them during deportations to Auschwitz. Ondrášová was not physically abused as other prisoners were, recalling how she confidently spat at the feet of abusive kapos.

Her position also brought unique responsibilities and concerns. Although she could not read, she took great care to memorize everything she could learn about the medications she dispensed. Ondrášová often worried about revenge after the war if anyone at the camp suffered or died in her care. This fear reflects her unique role as a victim of persecution working within the system of her own oppression.7

Hodonín closed in late 1943 after nearly all of those imprisoned there were deported to Auschwitz.8 Ondrášová stayed behind to pack up the dispensary's medicines, and she and her family survived their imprisonment.

Since the end of World War II, Romani people have struggled to receive recognition of their persecution during the Holocaust.9 The camps at Hodonín and Lety have only recently become memorial sites. Hodonín had been used as a recreation camp for years, and Lety had been the site of an industrial pig farm and slaughterhouse.10

Guenter Lewy, The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 275.

For a brief introduction to the experiences of Roma and Sinti during the Nazi era, see the Experiencing History collection overview for Roma and Sinti in Nazi Germany.


To learn more about the Nazi persecution and genocide of Roma and Sinti, see Sybil Milton, Nazi Policies toward Roma and Sinti, 1933–1945 (Cheverly, MD: Gypsy Lore Society, 1992); and Anton Weiss-Wendt, ed., The Nazi Genocide of the Roma: Reassessment and Commemoration (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013). 

The German-language term "Zigeuner" translates roughly to the English-language word "Gypsy." These words are generally understood to be anti-Romani racial or ethnic slurs today.

In late 1943, hundreds of surviving Roma imprisoned at Hodonín were deported to Auschwitz, where nearly all were killed shortly after their arrival. For more on Czech Roma during the Holocaust, see Ctibor Nečas, The Holocaust of Czech Roma, translated by Šimon Pellar (Prague: Prostor, 1999).

As a prisoner nurse, Ondrášová delivered the babies of roughly three dozen Romani women imprisoned at Hodonín. She attended her mother's labor herself, delivering a baby sister who would live to survive the war after being sent into hiding.

Typhus is a devastating epidemic disease that is spread through lice. During World War II, typhus threatened all of the countries involved. Nazi propaganda falsely blamed Jews for typhus and attempted to equate Jews with lice, but Nazi policies actually created the perfect conditions for outbreaks of the disease during the Holocaust by forcing people into overcrowded spaces with insufficient food or hygienic arrangements. For more on typhus and the Holocaust, see Naomi Baumslag, "Typhus: War, Lice, and Disinfection," Murderous Medicine: Nazi Doctors, Human Experimentation, and Typhus (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005): 1–32. 

Although Ondrášová was appointed to her post in the dispensary over her own protests, her position nevertheless brought her closer to camp authorities. For example, the director of the Hodonín camp was a Czech official named Štefan Blahynka, who has been described as a stern and "cold-blooded" man. Ondrášová, however, fondly remembers Blahynka as a father figure whose dog she cared for when he was transferred to the "Zigeunerlager" at Lety u Písku. Her own father had been arrested and killed by German authorities in 1942 when she was 16 years old.

Guenter Lewy, The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 277.

For more, see Celia Donert, The Rights of the Roma: The Struggle for Citizenship in Postwar Czechoslovakia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017); and Julia von dem Knesebeck, The Roma Struggle for Compensation in Post-War Germany (Hertfordshire, UK: Hertfordshire University Press, 2011). See also the related item Letter from Otto Rosenberg in Experiencing History. 

For more, see this article from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

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Q: And who decided who would go to the dispensary?

A: What do you mean?

Q: Who could be there.

A: You mean who could be there? I made the decisions, me. One soldier went with us to check everybody. Then you know we visited the blocks. And when the people came back from their work or there was an accident or simply something serious happened, then he stayed there straight away, you know. Then he made the decision, who would stay, not me, when I smelt something, then yes. And he said, "Who is there?" I said "Krauzova is laying here." And I said to him, "She has a high fever, she is almost burning up with fever" Then Toman should come with the stretcher but I said, "Tell the girls to come over here, and we will go with them to the dispensary and carry her with us."  Well, well. That’s how it was, you know. There everyone was watching you, everyone. And it also happened to us, it happened a lot, that the bunks were full, four tiers, yea. And for instance, on top was a woman giving birth in great pain. So we had to carry the stretcher over our heads, and the girls put her on the stretcher from above. You know what it was like. They didn’t bother at all if someone fell down and died. They didn’t care. But I did, Miss. I knew, that, I was smart enough, and my mum said, "Be very careful, very careful. You know, if somebody dies because of you, then after the war, when you leave the camp, then you will not survive. People will kill you or put you in prison. The others later [unintelligible] same. "That is why I was so careful, you know."

Q: Again, tell me how did you live in the block? Did you have any room there?

A: No, I used to sleep on the field bed that was used for patients during treatments.

Q: And mother and granny and the others?

A: They lived in the block.

Q: But you said they all used to live in the dispensary.

A: No, no. They were in the dispensary when they took the others away from the camp to other camps.

Q: I see. So they only let you be there then.

A: Just at that time.

Q: They protected you probably.

A: Yea, yea, yea

Q: I see I misunderstood.

A: Well. In ”A” building maybe there , I don’t know, I don’t know. My sisters went there to have a look. I didn’t go there, I, I didn’t go there. I didn’t want to go there. (Crying) During communism it used to be a pioneers camp and then they made it into a pigsty. The pigs were there. Our girls were there, when they stayed in the blocks, where my mum used to be, that block is still there.(crying) I don’t know if they left it there as a memorial or what, I haven’t been there since. Nobody knows that, Miss. You can’t imagine that... you couldn’t be sure from minute to minute when somebody would call for you and then kill you. They didn’t care.

And who were these chosen, you know sergeants, the same as in other concentration camps, in these [unintelligible]. You know, they were in blocks [unintelligible], they told them, they were even worse than the Germans, than the Germans. And these people were prisoners, prisoners... It was a life. 

Q: And did it happen, for instance, that someone came to like you, one of the gendarmes, or some other person, they were only human, and they liked you or something.

A: Yea, they had dorms of their own, their own dorms, their own dorms. They were around the camp, how can I explain it to you, sort of cottages. 

Q: Yes

A: Sort of cottages, you know. And again, the girls, the nurses, _____, so they went to clean the cottages. So, I respected, I really respected our director Blahynka, he was really an extraordinary man. He probably didn’t hurt anybody during the whole time, never, Miss. So he, he always told me, many times he asked me" Kveta, can you tell me..." as I carried a basin, water or whatever into his office. " And asked me " Kveta, can you tell me, can you tell me, when you clean here, here and there, you are working and you see me often" I cuddled his shoulders and I said to him "You know you are a human being, you really do have a heart" And he said "I know that, girl" " And now, tell me, if you could like someone here" I said "I could, you" I said "I am telling you the honest truth. But I like you as a father, as a father." Because he was an older man, you know. I said "I adore you, like my Dad." He might have liked that or not, but probably yes. He made the best of it. So he said "You are a nice little girl."

Q: He did like you probably. 

A: I don’t know, I don’t know. It is possible, but, I tell you, I respected him as my father, yea. Then policeman Vyroba came to the dispensary, he had taken a hospital course, you know. Well and this man, this man was very hard working, very hard. And he even asked me, if I survived the camp if I would like to live with him or go somewhere else. I said, I said, "Not at all, because my mum needs to look after her kids, till her kids were grown up enough, I can’t leave my mum and go with you, can I. You can’t ask me to do that." 

Q: Yes, he was thinking about after the war, probably.

A: Yes, after the war, after the war, well could I leave my mum there? Could I ? What would she do, what, tell me.

Q: And if this had not happened, you would be living with him?

A: Maybe yes, if I had been like other girls, you know. Maybe yes, he was a Czech, he was not a German. So you see I have my youngest sister I liked her, but she isn’t here any more, Miss, like my other sisters who are here. She stayed, immediately when she came back, yes. Then she left for Germany, stayed there and she is still there. She lives there.

Q: And this Vyroba he harassed you?

A: No, no, no. There were girls there who had relationships. But it didn‘t help them either, so what. Why should I do it, why Miss.

Q: But you didn‘t know did you? In those conditions there. There are different attitudes

different views everywhere.

A: I know that.

Q: Humans want to live. 

A: I know that. With that poverty, when you have bad nerves and in that sort of life and when your whole family was there. Maybe if I had been there on my own, on my own it probably would have been different you know. But I have seen my little brothers and sisters and my mother as skinny as anything, just bones.

Q: But you could have said to yourself that you would help them.

A: Yea, and how, how could I help them?

Q: Well somebody could for instance give you some food or clothes.

A: Yea, yea.

Q: You say he was helping you a lot.

A: He helped, he helped me when it was necessary. When I was bandaging, you know.

Q: I see...

A: Or for instance when they came back from the work. You know. 1200 people were standing there and I had to look after them all. Then it was almost impossible to do everything, Miss. And sometimes my head was spinning so I always used to say, "Please be careful when I take something I don't want to hurt anyone else." I was always asking him about it. He always answered, "Don't worry, I will be careful" and he always looked at where I was taking things from. I respected him because I knew what would happen to me after the war, you know.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
RG Number 50.444.0016
Date of Interview
June 20, 1997
Duration 00:11:14
Time Selection Part 1, 15:50-27:04
Marie Ondrášová
Peter Ryan
Elizabeth Ryan
Interview Type Oral History
How to Cite Museum Materials

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