Thursday, May 4, 2023

Slovakia: What's Wrong with the Bratislava Holocaust Memorial?

[n.b. this was first posted on June 17, 2009]

Slovakia: What's Wrong with the Bratislava Memorial?
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) My readers know my interest in getting the story straight, and when it comes to Holocaust Monuments and Memorials I have a strong sense that collectively they are not getting or telling the story - straight or otherwise.

The big question is how can one remember what one doesn't know? How can one "not forget" what is never fully discussed or taught? In some recent posts I've discussed some ways that informative narratives can be added to monuments to make them meaningful to everyone who passes by and wants to know.

We all know that monuments - whether to kings, generals, scientists or town fathers - go silent after not too many years. In the case of many purported Holocaust memorials, silence is built into their very design. Their purpose is clear only to a chosen few. With a didactic or narrative text, few people know what these monuments stand for- and those that do know have the excuse to avoid specifics.

This is the case of the Holocaust Memorial in Bratislava, Slovakia, and also its adjacent commemorative synagogue image, erected in 1996 in the Old Town center of Bratislava, on the site of the former Neolog Synagogue which was torn down in the Soviet period (not by the Nazis or their Slovak allies) to make way for a highway.

The monument is a striking piece of sculpture, and its placement, and the adjacent wall size engraved image of the Great Synagogue are very effective ways to enliven an otherwise near-dead space - a former plaza now cut through be a highway. But to the passing resident or visitor, young or old, they say nothing of what they are and why they are there, and they give no details the people and places they are meant to recall.

According to Maros Borsky on the website of the Slovak Jewish Heritage Center:

The Memorial was erected in 1996 by the Slovak Republic to commemorate the memory of 105,000 Holocaust victims from Slovakia. The location was not selected accidentally. The Holocaust memorial was composed as a place of public remembrance, where two layers of history intertwine: the memory of the tragic event and the memory of the former Rybné Square synagogue, still remembered by many Bratislavians, and which can be often found on historical photos hanging in Bratislava cafés. The memorial consists of the black wall with silhouette of the destroyed synagogue and the central sculpture with non-figurative motif and a David Shield on the top, placed on the black granite platform with “zachor” [remember] and “pamätaj” inscriptions. The plot of the former synagogue is owned by the Bratislava Municipality, which leases the site for an annual symbolical fee to the Museum of Jewish Culture, which maintains the memorial.

I was struck on my last visit to Bratislava that none of this information is knowable without going to Maros's website. There is no sign, no plaque, not text at all except "Remember!" in Hebrew and Slovak. In the history of Bratislava there are so many events one can be asked to remember, so which does this recall?

Some might say I'm unfair, since monuments do receive attention when they are the focus of events - such as Yom ha-Shoah or some other Day of Remembrance. Still, what about the rest of the year? A good monument has a job to do, and it should be on the job full time. It's not like a tuxedo or fancy dress only taken out once a year for the Opera.

Some artist friends of mine - including some who have made monuments - have said to me that their work should not be labeled, or constricted by one interpretation. I have no problem with that, the work can be interpreted in any way, or in many ways. But the event it purportedly commemorates is not open to such interpretation. In an age of Holocaust Denial we cannot allow that. Some specifics - the what, who, how and when need to be stated, and stately unequivocally.

I hope that the Museum of Jewish Culture in Bratislava will take heed, and take action. Put up a sign, a plaque, something informative to help people remember.