Thursday, July 26, 2018

Plzen's Holocaust Memorial Combines Best Jewish Memorial Traditions

Plzen, Czech Republic. Holocaust Memorial (2002) inside walls of former Auxiliary Synagogue (1875). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018
Plzen, Czech Republic. Holocaust Memorial (2002) inside walls of former Auxiliary Synagogue (1875). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018
Plzen, Czech Republic. Holocaust Memorial (2002) inside walls of former Auxiliary Synagogue (1875). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018
Plzen's Holocaust Memorial Combines Best Jewish Memorial Traditions
Samuel D. Gruber 

Next door to the Old Synagogue of Plzen (about which I wrote the other day), on the ruins of another synagogue building, is a modest Holocaust memorial; the collaborative work of a local teacher, students, Jewish community members and Holocaust survivors. The monument was inaugurated in 2002 on the 60th anniversary of the deportation of Plzen's (Pilsen) Jewish community to Terezin. The memorial and is materially simple but conceptually rich. It draws on some of the oldest and best traditions of Jewish commemorative practice including the piling of stones, the naming of names, and the respectful treatment of the ruins of holy sites, including synagogues. Perhaps equally important is that this was a collaborative effort, locally conceived, that grew from a teacher’s vision and student engagement.

While publicly inaugurated and created with modest but essential city support, the memorial is a very private place. One needs to find it. The progression leads from Stephen’s Square (today’s Smetana Park), from the portal of the Jewish Community building, through the vaulted passageway into the courtyard, and then around the substantial Old Synagogue. The monument's solitude is a virtue for contemplation, but removes it from the broader public view afforded the traditional "monuments to great men" adorning Smetana Park, such as that to Josef Frantisek Smetana (Tomáš Seidan, sculptor, 1874), the Czech poet, philosopher, physicist, and Roman Catholic priest after whom this section of the park is named.
 
Plzen, Czech Republic. Facade of Jewish Community building at 80/5 Stephen’s Square (today’s Smetana Park). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Plzen, Czech Republic. Entryway to courtyard of Jewish Community complex at 80/5 Stephen’s Square (today’s Smetana Park). One can just see the flank of the Old Synagogue through the door. Photo: Samuel D.  Gruber 2018.
Plzen, CZ. monument to Josef Frantisek Smetana in Smetana Park, opposite Jewish Community building. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018
The memorial exists within the ruined walls of the so-called Auxiliary Synagogue, also known as the Old Jewish School that was built in 1875 next to the Old Synagogue. The two structures were joined by a stone staircase to the galleries. After the opening of the New (or Great) Synagogue in 1893, the Auxiliary Synagogue was used for storage and today only the outer walls survive to enclose the Holocaust Memorial. This was built as part of the project “Year 2002 — Year of Memories,” in which Plzen hosted various events to commemorate the Holocaust, and in particular the 60th anniversary of the deportation of the local Jewish community in January 1942 when Plzen’s 2,604 Jews were sent to Terezin, and then to concentration and death camps, including Auschwitz. Only 204 survived. 

The idea for the memorial came from Radovan Kodera, a local conservationist and photographer who got the idea when photographing the massive New Synagogue which once seated up to 3,000 people.

Plzen, CZ. New Synagogue, 1893. Empty seats. View from rear of women's gallery. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Plzen, CZ. New Synagogue, 1893. Empty seats. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
At the memorial, each stone was inscribed with the name of a victim, and the stones are  arranged alphabetically in a pattern designed by Petr Novak, a local art school professor. 2,600 stones are laid out on gravel between wooden beams. Radovan described his idea in a 2002 JTA news story about the project:
“I was walking through the empty, decaying building and thought it would be interesting to place stones on the places where the people used to sit,” Kodera said. About two years ago [ca. 2000], he revived his idea and decided to use the ruins of the old Jewish school. Around the same time, Kodera came across a series of photographs of the Jewish transport. One of them showed a family with children, each with a number hanging from their necks.
“Suddenly I wanted to know what happened to those people,” Kodera said. “I went to search the archives in Prague and found them by the numbers” around their necks. The Rosenbaum family, for example, was transported from Terezin to Sobibor in eastern Poland, where the entire family died.
“It had a very strong impact on me and I thought that it could have the same effect even on other people,” explained Kodera, who is not Jewish. “For most people it is just about statistics, but if they know a name and write it down themselves, they might develop a personal relationship with the victim.
Even relatives of victims who were not from Pilsen asked if they could inscribe their family members’ names on the stones. That explains why there are 200 more stones in the Old Jewish School than the number of Jews who died in the Pilsen transport.
Local grammar school students [who are now adults], who participated in Kodera’s project from the very beginning, now know detailed information about the fates of the Jewish victims. “I wanted students to take part in it, to be involved,” Kodera said, stressing how important it is for young people to be interested in history.
The students picked up and washed the pebbles and experimented with different types of paint that would be weather resistant. They also gave special Japanese-made marker pens to visitors who chose a stone and inscribed a name on it.
“Sometimes it is really touching,” Kodera said, noting that some of the visitors are Holocaust survivors themselves. “There have been quite a lot of people who have never been here before and did not even know that the synagogue exists.”
Now, since the Old Synagogue has been restored and fitted with a permanent exhibit on Jewish Traditions and Customs as part of the EU-fund and Jewish community sponsored 10 Stars Revitalization of Jewish Monuments in the Czech Republic project, it is hoped and expected that more visitors will come to the memorial. I certainly hope so. Plzen is a beautiful town, mostly by-passed by foreign tourists to the Czech Republic who flood Prague every year.

Plzen, Czech Republic. Sign announcing the Old Synagogue (and Holocaust Memorial) as partof the 10 Stars project. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Remembering names - writing them and reciting them - is among the oldest form of perpetuating Jewish memory. We have genealogies in the Book of Genesis, martyrologies after medieval massacres in Worms and elsewhere, and Yahrzeit plaques in synagogues naming the dead and the dates on which they must be remembered. The earliest Holocaust memorials ranging from landsmanschaft plats in American Jewish cemeteries to the memorable and influential walls of names in the Pinkus Synagogue in Prague attempted to identify the victims and list their name so they would not be forgotten. The culmination of this process - still ongoing - is the collection of all the names of the approximately 6 million victims of the Shoah by Yad Vashem into a single work - the multi-volume Book of Names, which now lists the names of over 4 million Jewish victims, where I recently found the list of all the Samuel (Shmuel) Grubers known to have perished in the Shoah.


Prague, CZ. Pinkus Synagogue, Wall of Names memorial. Photo: Jewish Museum of Prague.
Auschwitz I, Poland. Shoah Pavilion (Block 27), Book of Names. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Auschwitz I, Poland. Shoah Pavilion (Block 27), Book of Names. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Plzen, Czech Republic. Holocaust Memorial (2002) inside walls of former Auxiliary Synagogue (1875). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Plzen, Czech Republic. Holocaust Memorial (2002) inside walls of former Auxiliary Synagogue (1875). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
So too, piling stones is an ancient Jewish custom of memory. Jacob said "Collect some stones" (Genesis 31:46) and Laban said to seal a contract with Jacob, "Let this cairn be a witness" (Genesis 31:48. Today we brings stones to a grave as a mark of love, respect and veneration. We don't know the origin of this custom, and in the ancient past there was perhaps a more practical purpose, to better mark a place to warn of ritual impurity and/or to better to mark and protect the grave.


As memorials to people, stones are seen to be strong and enduring. Some scholars have suggested that the process of putting stones on graves, however, is more a reaction to the Christian custom of placing flowers, and it is true that many European Jewish "traditions" are actually reactions to - often in a contrarian way - popular Christian practice. Whatever the source, creating memorials with the gathering of stones of different shapes and sizes has become a way to literally build Holocaust memorials. In a general way, this creates, or re-creates the community of memorial stones of a Jewish cemetery. Some memorials, such as at the killing site of Treblinka,  recall cemeteries. Other memorials with stones, often far from the places of horror, respond more to the tradition of cemeteries as gardens, such as the memorial garden designed by Andy Goldsworthy at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. But in New York, the narrative is about commemoration but also renewal. In the stones are drilled holes, from which trees take life and grow. The variations of the "stone garden" are many, and I will discuss other versions in future posts.

Treblinka, Poland. Memorial. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 1992.
New York, NY, USA. Museum of Jewish Heritage, Garden of Stones. Photo: David Paler/Museum of Jewish Heritage.
The Plzen Memorial is a modest but very effective Holocaust Memorial. It was made with wide and sincere community input. Significantly it cost very little. Apparently the City of Plzen contributed $2,000 and this was enough.  Even if more funds were used, the amount is tiny compared to the millions spent on so many less effective monuments!

Go visit Plzen!  Visit the Jewish sites. Of course the food and beer are good, too.

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