Walls is an eye-opening documentary about Romani school kids in modern-day Czech Republic. For the outsider ignorant of the plight of these children, the film reveals what the average tourist on holiday does not witness, nor has the slightest knowledge of; count me among the newly enlightened, and I’ve been in Prague three times, including my first visit in 2013. It was an internet post I read in November of 2017 that clued me in. Subsequently, I watched this compelling video, Walls, and after viewing it, I began searching for information on the history behind the Czech Roma story. Besides Paul Polansky’s informative articles on the Czech Lety Roma camp—Parts 1 and 2—I managed to get a copy of Black Silence, his 1998 book which gives a thorough account of Lety, the World War II era Roma death camp.
I drove out to the pig farm, a few miles to the east. I stopped an old man on a bicycle, and asked if he knew anything about the Gypsy camp during the war.
“Everybody knows about it,” he said. “In 1942/43 I rode by it every day on my way to work.”
“Was it a German camp?” I asked.
“Of course not,” he said. “No Germans were in this area during the war.”
“Who were the guards?”
— From Black Silence, by Paul Polansky
— Roma in the Czech Republic: The Other Prague
On a personal note…
From the very beginning, as I watched this film unfold, I immediately felt a deep-rooted connection to the children in the Walls documentary. Their untenable situation of being subjected to confines set-up within the Czech educational system, simply because of their ethnic heritage, struck uncomfortably close to home. Watching and hearing them tell their stories of what it’s like being restricted to a walled-in community and having to attend “special” schools, was deeply painful. That these precious children are made to feel diminished, and are deprived of an education equal to that of other Czech children, was, indeed, for me, déjà vu.
The obvious intention of the Czech educational system to offer the Roma kids a wholly inadequate and truncated education that denies them the opportunity to realize their hopes and dreams, evoked old memories of my life as a kid attending the de facto segregated public schools in New York City of the 1940s and 50s.
Like two of the children in the video, my talent, luckily, was noted by an observant and empathic adult, and I, too, was rescued. While a student at an all-black girls middle school in Harlem, my savior happened to be a new, young substitute teacher, Zelmar Perlin. Ms. Perlin was a graduate of New York’s prestigious High School of Music & Art, and was the person who encouraged me to create a portfolio, apply for entrance to her alma mater, and follow my dream of being an artist.
— Loretta at P.S. 90 in Harlem, NYC, age 8