“We were not supposed to kill them, we should have just beat them up”: A new play at the Slovak National Theatre delves into the themes of racial violence8 min read
In April 2023, the Slovak National Theatre premiered a new play titled Budete mať luft! (loosely translated as ‘You will have air’). Written by a collective of authors, the play is an hour-long dramatisation of historical documents and eyewitness statements from the night of 1 October 1928. On that date, in the small village of Pobedim in Western Slovakia, dozens of white villagers raided a Roma settlement at the edge of the village resulting in a pogrom that left six Roma dead and many more gravely injured. Among the victims was a 6-year-old girl; she had been shot in the abdomen by one of the villagers.
This event had not been widely known until the play’s premiere; it had received some academic interest in recent years but is not present in the national memory like other massacres and pogroms. As such, the choice by the Slovak National Theatre to produce such a play is a crucial step in the effort to bring light to a rather forgotten, and shameful, episode in national history. Perhaps it is marking a shift in the national discourse towards acknowledging the profoundly entangled racial violence at the core of the country.
Though the play depicts the events in 1928 and the majority of the script consists of dramatised first and second-hand sources from the era, its relevance reaches far beyond that of a historical play. The play shows a society where the fault lines of ethno-racial exclusion extend deeply into people’s personal lives. In the microcosm of a small village, long-ongoing social tensions come to an explosive and violent end after a series of smaller incidents in the weeks leading up to the massacre. This is not a unique event, and one of the play’s merits is that it makes this abundantly clear. It is just one episode in the structural history of ethno-racial discrimination experienced by the Roma community in the country. Similar attitudes and ethno-racially motivated murders of Roma citizens are recorded throughout the 19th and 20th centuries from all over former Czechoslovakia. The play alludes to that, and it marks an important shift away from the tendency to view events like these as merely isolated incidents. Rather than depicting the pogrom as an inexplicable outburst of localised tension, the play brings to light the structural socio-political exclusion of the Roma and their centuries-long disenfranchisement in Slovak society.
The pogrom unfolds as follows: Pobedim is a village like many others in Slovakia. It is segregated along ethno-racial lines with the white majority living in the central parts of the village and the Roma community residing in an underdeveloped settlement in a somewhat excluded area. This spatial segregation has been well documented and its history dates back to Austria-Hungary and the rule of Maria Theresa. She and her son Joseph II decreed that the Roma populations had to cease their nomadic lifestyle and were forced to settle down. As a result, Roma were often allowed to settle only at the edges of towns and villages and did not have access to any sizeable arable land of their own. In the pre-industrial era, where the main source of sustenance in rural Slovakia was small-scale agriculture, this placed the Roma in a structurally disadvantageous position.
In Pobedim, numerous instances of heightened tensions had been recorded in the months leading up to the pogrom. In the play, the villagers, the mayor, and the priest mention how the ‘Gypsies’ habitually raid their fields and steal produce. An incident is mentioned where two Roma women are shot at by one of the farmers when they are, allegedly, caught stealing potatoes from his field. This, according to many white villagers, led to resentment and the desire to exact revenge by the Roma community.
There is a feast in the village on the day of the massacre. While the entire village is celebrating, dancing, and drinking in the pub, someone lights a haystack on fire. Many villagers assume that the Roma were responsible for the arson, as “there were no Roma people present when everyone gathered to help in extinguishing the flames.” When the fire is put out, the villagers return to their festivities. At around midnight, encouraged by the drinking and growing conviction that the Roma were indeed behind the hay-burning, dozens of villagers leave the festivities, go home to pick up hunting rifles, clubs, and other weapon-like objects, and proceed towards the Roma neighbourhood. What ensues is a night of burning houses, chasing people, uncontrolled violence, and rage. At the end of the night, most of the Roma houses are burnt, many people are gravely injured (including the elderly and children) and six people are murdered; the youngest being a 6-year-old girl. At the end of the night, one of the perpetrators exclaims: “We should not have killed them, just beaten them up.” This shows that the perpetrators have realised that they crossed a line. Beatings and physical violence against the Roma had occurred regularly and with no repercussions; however, mass murder is an act that cannot be reversed and it is one that will profoundly alter the social fabric of the village.
The aftermath of the pogrom is telling of the structural conditions of inequality and the state’s complicity in perpetuating the anti-Roma racial regime. Only ten perpetrators were convicted (out of at least 30), and the longest sentence handed down was one year and four months. The play concludes with a scene where the representative of the Slovak government, together with the mayor and the village priest, present the Roma community with 11,000 crowns in cash (for comparison, the average salary in Czechoslovakia at that time was around 750 crowns a month). It is money collected by the community to “help make amends.” The money, however, is gifted with a footnote; the Roma families will receive another 11,000 on the condition they withhold their testimonies against the accused perpetrators, which they do. In the context of their socio-economic position, money is often more important than justice. The play leaves the audience enraged and embittered. The violence of the mob of villagers is raw and shocking, but the violence of the state (inherent in its complicity and neglect) leaves one feeling hopeless and disillusioned. The play is intentionally structured in a way that makes the critique of modern Slovakia apparent.
The pogrom happened in 1928, but similar events have taken place at other points in the country’s history, and violence in less spectacular form is an everyday reality in the lives of Roma in Slovakia. In 1995, in the small town of Žiar nad Hronom, a group of neo-Nazis attacked a small Roma community. Most of them managed to escape and hide, however, an 18-year-old Roma teenager Mario Goral was first beaten heavily and then burnt alive by the perpetrators (one of whom was only 16 years old). He died in hospital 10 days later, making the incident the first racially motivated murder in independent Slovakia. There was no official statement from the government after the murder; however, Ján Slota, an MP and a leader of the Slovak National Party (then one of the strongest right-wing parties) claimed that the attack was caused by the “high criminality of the Gypsies.” Just like in the pogrom in Pobedim, the brutality of the white mob is often explained by invoking unfounded racially determined stereotypes about Roma’s inherently troublesome nature.
The history of violence against the Roma populations in Central Europe is, to this day, structurally neglected. There has been some recognition and commemoration of the Porajmos, the Roma Holocaust during the Nazi rule, however, this is often done through exceptionalising the event as a part of the Nazi period, rather than as a culmination of a long history of structural exclusion and discrimination. The play is impactful on two levels. On the surface, it excavates and brings attention to a relatively forgotten story of ethno-racial violence. This is an important step in a long overdue reconstruction of the history of Roma exclusion and racial discrimination in the country; one that goes beyond mere platitudes and overused phrases but instead links the individual/local story to the larger socio-cultural context of racial segregation. The play accentuates the parallels with the current social discourse around Roma citizens and their (non)belonging in the national imagination/self-identification. In many ways, the play is an unprecedented social critique of the racial regime that permeates and defines all aspects of life in the country.
Through the retelling of a story from almost a century ago, Budete mať luft! extends a mirror to the contemporary Slovak society showing that the discrimination, the exclusion, and the spatial and social segregation of Roma and racial violence are still here. Many among the urban educated middle class conveniently overlook that there is a brutally violent racial regime which places Roma citizens into a structurally disadvantageous and degrading position.
Budete mať luft! attempts to break this curated ignorance and show that contemporary Slovakia is far from the modern, tolerant, and equal country it might appear to observers from Bratislava. The play is a remarkable feat by the National Theatre and has the potential to inaugurate a broader shift in the public socio-cultural discourse around racial violence and the structural exclusion of Roma citizens. The pertinent question, however, is whether the ripples caused by the play manage to reach beyond the urban educated middle class audience of theatregoers.