Will there be a Holocaust Museum in Prague?

I had never been to the Holešovice area of Prague, but had arranged to meet Jirka there. We had met before on previous trips to Prague and he had given me all of Alice’s photographs. I was happy to see him again and he suggested we should go and look at a memorial to those deported to Terezin. It was a short walk along from the tram stop, past stunning Secessionist apartment blocks to a bleak modern building, with a plaque on its wall. It was a bronze relief in memory of the more than 45,000 people, mostly Jewish, who had been gathered in that particular place before being marched to Bubny railway station and transported to Terezin.

We then walked along the route they had taken to the railway station and reached a scene resembling a waste land. It is a vast area with many tracks and rusted fences, pitted paths and thorny bushes. There have been several plans for redeveloping the site, but it still stands bleak and abandoned, used as a temporary car park. The wall facing you as you approach, is covered by a photograph from the war showing people hurrying to that very railway station with their 50kg bags, as instructed on their deportation papers. It is a reminder to anyone who passes, of the significance of this station, but I am not sure how many people pay attention to it. 

Jews being escorted to Bubny Station

However, the photograph is not the first thing you notice. Even before entering the scrubland in front of the station, a huge sculpture commands your attention. It is of railway tracks extending high into the sky and is called The Gate of Infinity. Perhaps it is intended to suggest a journey up to heaven, but I couldn’t help feeling that the descent into hell would have been more appropriate. 

The Gate of Infinity by Aleš Vesely

Nearby is another, more recent, sculpture of a boat made up of thousands of small laths of wood nailed together in an open fretwork. The accompanying explanation references the journey made in 1940 by a boat filled with Jews and sent by the Nazis to Palestine. It was Eichmann’s idea, as he thought it would destabilise the British. When the boat arrived in Palestine, the British did not allow it to dock and sent it on to Mauritius, but it never completed the journey as it was bombed at sea. The symbolism of a boat that could never float underlines the futility of the journeys made by so many.

Wooden Cloud by Martin Steinert

For me, the boat was also symbolic of the diaspora. It is made up of many separate pieces of wood tacked together to form a harmonious shape and it reminded me of all of us who lost family and the stories of the past in that Holocaust and who are now trying to fit our separate missing pieces into a narrative, into a form that will help us make sense of what our ancestors were and who we might have been, had they and their world not been destroyed.

That is what a museum or a memorial can help people to do and posters on the dilapidated walls of Bubny railway station explain the desire to use the buildings to create a museum to the Holocaust and its victims in Prague. There are other memorials in Prague, including the names of the thousands of victims from Bohemia and Moravia on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue, the museums of Jewish history in the Maisel and Spanish synagogues and, of course, Terezin itself.

Yet seventy years on, this space cries out for attention. There are only the windblown posters, the two sculptures and the intention to name a street after Nicholas Winton, the Briton who was one of many to help evacuate Jewish children from Prague in 1939. But the wheels are in motion and funding has been promised. Who knows how long it will take, but I look forward one day to visiting the finished site. 

4 thoughts on “Will there be a Holocaust Museum in Prague?

  1. Glad to see you at last realised the hoped-for trip to Prague, Liz. Yes, it‘s problematic with memorials: It‘s of course still being argued about also in terms of location in London; and the maze of granite blocks of different heights in front of the Jewish Museum which represents the huge Holocaust memorial complex in Berlin is also still much debated for its suitability and therefore its value. We visited this on Sunday, and concluded that simply the enormity and anonymity must be its principal impact. I daresay that cost as well as a consensus on “what exactly” are factors for Prague, not least now given the pandemic, which will undoubtedly have caused any incipient project to be shelved.

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  2. A most thought provoking piece, Liz, descriptive and illustrative, which left me wondering whether the desolation of the site with its unresolved simplicities, such as a railroad pointing at the stars but without a SkyTrain, its complexities (a boat painstakingly made with hundreds of pieces of wood but still unfloatable) and everything being a conundrum, frustration or paradox (a boat that won’t float, a railway to heaven or hell (as you see it)….) aren’t these themselves a fitting ‘memorial’ or perhaps aide memoir is a better term to the jagged arc of the Jewish experience? Great journalism. Thank you so much.

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