VIKTOV, Czech Republic — Natalka Kudrikova is a bright-eyed, three-year-old girl recovering from the severe burns she suffered when far-right extremists threw a Molotov cocktail into her home.
Her family and authorities say she was targeted because they are Roma, or gypsies. Natalka lost 80 percent of her skin, two fingers (a third was later amputated) and spent months lying in an induced coma following the attack last year in Vitkov, in the Czech Republic. She is still recuperating after 14 major surgeries.
In May, Natalka returned to Ostrava Hospital for rehabilitation sessions so that one day she may be able to get around without support. “I’d rather not take her back to the hospital,” said her mother, Anna Sivakova, “but if she must return, my dream is that she learns how to walk without any help.”
The very next day, four young men accused of attacking Natalka, filed into Ostrava District Court to hear the indictment: a racially motivated attempted murder.
According to the prosecutor, the attack was planned for the 120th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s birth. Court experts confirmed swastikas and other Nazi memorabilia were found in the defendants’ homes.
In court, Ivo Muller and Vaclav Cojocaru described their coordinated Molotov cocktail attack. Their only excuse — they said they thought they were attacking an empty storehouse of stolen goods.
Under cross-examination, Muller and Cojocaru admitted attending anti-Roma demonstrations organized by right wing extremists.
The other defendants, Jaromir Lukes and David Vaculik, did not take the stand. Lukes is accused of being the ringleader, a claim his defense counsel strongly denies although he concedes Lukes drove the getaway car. His lawyer also vehemently denies there was any racial motivation to the attack.
An anti-fascist website published a photo of Lukes walking next to the leader of the far-right Workers’ Party. Another photo showed Vaculik wearing the armband of the Workers’ Party, the public face of the Czech far right.
The leader of the now banned Workers’ Party, Tomas Vandas, denied any involvement.
“Yes, we may have used those people as organizers of our public meetings but how could we know they would commit a crime?” said Vandas. “I hope Natalka gets better soon,” he added.
Miroslav Mares, from Masaryk University in Brno, is the leading academic specialist on Czech extremist groups.
He thinks it’s unlikely that the Workers’ Party was directly involved in the arson attack, but he says they were responsible “for inflaming anti-Roma sentiment.”
“Maybe some youngsters from the neo-Nazi scene said to themselves, ‘If the whole population is against Romas we are justified in carrying out such attacks,’” he said.
And surveys do show anti-Roma sentiment is widespread. The European Union EURoma website says Czech Romas endure extremely high unemployment rates, low educational standards, isolation, and the prejudices of the majority population.
“In regions with high unemployment and poor social conditions, the rise of extremism is popular with unemployed young men but we can see more and more women on the neo-Nazi scene,” Marek said.
Lucie Slegrova, 20, is a flag-waving militant of the now renamed Workers’ Social Justice Party. She denies her party is inspired by Hitler’s Nazi ideology.
Instead, she says, they follow their own nationalist ideas. “The Czech Republic should be for people who know how to behave. If the gypsies don’t want to follow the rules, they’re free to leave,” she said.
Only one percent of Czech voters supported the Workers’ Social Justice Party in the last elections, but Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer worries that 7 percent of Czech students voted for the far-right party, according to an unofficial nationwide poll.
“A lot of people are frustrated with politicians, and have troubles due to the crisis and recession. My message to them is please think it over and don’t believe these very bad prophets,” Fischer said.
The far-right movement has made bigger gains in neighboring Hungary where 17 percent of voters chose the Jobbik party in the last elections.
Violence has been much worse as well. In the last two years, nine Roma have been killed in Hungary in unprovoked night-time attacks, according to the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC).
Roma bashing also became an issue in the Slovakian election campaign. The far right Slovak National Party commissioned billboards showing a dark-skinned man with tattoos and an inflammatory message: “Vote SNS so we don’t feed those who don’t want to work.”
In eastern Slovakia many Roma live in segregated communities like the village of Ostrovany where municipal authorities spent some $16,000 to build a wall separating the Roma from their white neighbors, because of fears of “alleged Roma crime,” said Stanislav Daniel from ERRC.
“To me the wall is a symbol of segregation because public finances were used to target a stereotype, not what’s real,” Daniel said.
The wall separates a tidy town from a rural slum. Roma, living right next to the wall, have no sewage or garbage collection and there’s just one tap with drinking water for dozens of families.
Back in the Czech Republic, Natalka’s father, Pavel Kudrik, has chosen to stay in the region and rebuild a comfortable home for his wife and four daughters.
After police asserted that Natalka’s family were victims of a racist attack, many Czechs opened their wallets and their hearts.
Prime Minister Fischer’s wife and son spearheaded a nationwide campaign to help them — a move that led to the Fischer family having full-time police protection after they received anonymous death threats.
But the current climate is not the only reason Fischer wants to clamp down on right wing extremism.
Everyone in his family died in the Holocaust except for his father and grandmother. “Sixty-five years after WWII, the societal memory is getting weak,” he said.
And Roma activists complain that recognition of their sacrifices under the Nazis has never been properly acknowledged.
Half-a-million Roma perished in what they call the “Devouring” — Hitler’s campaign to eliminate them as a people.
Last May, several hundred Czech Roma gathered at a memorial for the victims of the Lety concentration camp. Hundreds of Czech Roma children died there and are buried nearby in a mass grave.
Jan Vrba is one of the camp’s last survivors. He was born there. His sister perished there.
“What happened in Vitkov made me cry”, said Jan.
“Little Natalka reminded me of my sister who died in this camp.”
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