Following our general post about the three synagogues and memorial space in Plzeň, Czech Republic, we feature here a closer analysis of the simple but striking Holocaust memorial in the so-called Auxiliary Synagogue, situated in the Jewish communal courtyard next to the Old Synagogue — which has been restored and is part of the Czech 10 Stars network of Jewish heritage sites.
The analysis comes as a cross-post from Samuel D. Gruber’s Jewish art and monuments blog. In recent weeks, Sam traveled with Jewish Heritage Europe Coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber on a lengthy road trip visiting three dozen or more Jewish heritage sites in Czech Republic, Poland, and Austria.
He writes that:
The memorial 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.
As we wrote in our previous post, the Old Synagogue, built in 1859, today forms part of a heritage, Jewish community, and memorial complex. In 1875, an “Auxiliary Synagogue” was built next to it, connected to the Old Synagogue by a stone staircase. This synagogue was used as a storehouse after WW2. Today only its outer walls remain. In 2002, the space was transformed into a Holocaust memorial that personalizes the Shoah by inscribing the names of the more than 2,600 local victims on stones placed in what had been the sanctuary.
Sam Gruber writes how “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 […] At the memorial, each stone was inscribed with the name of a victim, and the stones [were] arranged alphabetically in a pattern designed by Petr Novak, a local art school professor. 2,600 stones [were] laid out on gravel between wooden beams.” (Today, there are stone borders, rather than wooden beams).
A JTA article from 2002, when the monument was dedicated, described the concept and process in detail.
In the past we have run photo essays and posts about Holocaust memorials that, like this one in Plzeň, place attention on the names of the victims — or otherwise personalize the Holocaust by bringing home the fact that each of the millions who died was an individual. They range from lists of names, to memorials built of the fragments gravestones, to the the nearly 60,000 “stumbling stone” or “stolpersteine” commemorative cobblestones around Europe placed by the German artist Gunter Demnig as a memorial art project in front of the houses of people who were deported.
In his blog post, Sam Gruber sets the memorial in its urban context — hidden from the street in the Jewish courtyard, and in stark contrast with other monuments in a nearby park.
He also elaborates on the tradition of naming names as well as on placing pebbles or stones — both combined and used in Plzeň.
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 Pinkas 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.
He discusses several examples of using stones in memorials and discusses the possible origins of the practice of placing stones or pebbles on graves.
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.