Richard Feder at a memorial ceremony at the former Terezín concentration camp, Czechoslovakia, 1969. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)

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Monuments and Memorials

Jewish tradition marks milestones in the life cycle with domestic commemorative acts and artifacts, including yortsayt candles, tombstones, fast days, and even the pinch of a Sabbath challah as a burnt offering to commemorate the destruction of the ancient temple. Beyond the memorials of daily religious observance, there are also larger, communal, and even collective memorials and monuments such as the remains of ancient synagogues, cemeteries, and ghetto walls, as well as ruins, artifacts, museums, and historical markers of more recent catastrophes such as the Holocaust.

Memorial at Treblinka death camp designed by Franciszek and Adam Haupt, Treblinka, Poland. Photograph by Monika Krajewska. (Courtesy of the photographer)

A further distinction can be made between memorials and monuments: there are memorial books, memorial activities, memorial days, memorial festivals, memorial sculptures, and memorial museums. Some of these evoke mourning, some celebration. Monuments, on the other hand, refer to a subset of memorials: the material objects, sculptures, and installations used to memorialize a person, a community, or a set of events. A memorial may be a day, a conference, or a space, but it need not be a monument. A monument, on the other hand, is always a kind of memorial.

Some of Eastern Europe’s most enduring monuments were produced precisely in the interaction between Jewish communities and their surrounding cultures. By the late sixteenth century, the nearly autonomous Jewish quarter of Prague had become the teeming center of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. The walls of what was called the Judenstadt still stand, surrounding now as they did then a medieval Jewish town hall, cemetery, the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe (the Altneuschul), and the oldest existing synagogue in Europe (the Pinkas Synagogue)—the latter’s foundation stones dating back to the tenth century.

The Jewish Old Town of Prague exemplifies how Jewish monuments in Eastern Europe have become a part of a city’s identity. Meticulously preserved and maintained even during the Nazi occupation and subsequent Communist era, the Jewish Old Town has long been Prague’s most celebrated and visited tourist attraction. During the massive redevelopment of the city that began in 1896, much of the quarter was destroyed, but authorities insisted on preserving what they had come to regard as national monuments to Czech and Prague history—the Altneu, Pinkas, Klaus, and Meisel synagogues, the Jewish town hall, and cemetery—all of which were restored and incorporated into the grounds of the State Jewish Museum. Already regarded as a kind of outdoor museum to medieval Jewish life in Eastern Europe, it was chosen as a repository by Nazi occupiers for looted and confiscated Jewish ritual objects (Torah scrolls, kiddush cups, prayer shawls, phylacteries, candelabras, Sabbath candlesticks)—a storehouse of Jewish artifacts that the Nazis planned to turn into the Museum to the Extinct Jewish Race.

Holocaust memorial made from the remnants of tombstones from the Jewish cemetery, Łuków, Poland. Photograph by Chuck Fishman. (© 1975, 2006 Chuck Fishman)

While the most ancient of the crowded 10,000 gravestones in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery dates to 1439 (marking the grave of the elegist Rabbi Avigdor Karo), the cemetery itself covers another, older Jewish burial ground, which was pillaged during the pogrom of 1389. The celebrated and revered Maharal of Prague, Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el, is buried here, a few paces from the Altneuschul, where he presided in the late sixteenth century; the synagogue is still a stunning example of thirteenth-century Czech Gothic architecture. A clock tower with Hebrew characters as numerals, and which turns backward, was added to the sixteenth-century Jewish town hall after a fire in 1754. To this day, the Old Jewish town hall houses the records documenting the ancient origins of the community.

In the Polish commonwealth during 800 years of Jewish residence, an extraordinarily rich Jewish life developed in what became the largest center of Jewish culture and religious life in Europe. Those territories are marked by hundreds of memorials and monuments throughout what are now Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Belarus. These monuments and memorials range from shrines honoring Hasidic rabbis and teachers to the ruins of ancient synagogues and cemeteries and the remains of concentration camps and other killing fields from the Nazi era and World War II.

As became tragically apparent after World War II, the German annihilation of East European Jewry during the Holocaust fundamentally turned what had been the center of flourishing Jewish European civilization into a landscape of monuments and memorials. Most signs of Jewish life were now replaced by markers of destruction, and without significant Jewish communities left in Poland and formerly Polish lands (such as the Baltic States) to care for them, many of the monuments and memorial ruins themselves were abandoned, destroyed, or assigned new, national, and political meanings by postwar regimes.

Choral Temple, completed in 1867, Bucharest, Romania, 2000. The memorial in the foreground commemorates Romanian Jews killed in the Holocaust. Photograph by David Gordon. (© David Gordon)

In Vilna (Vilnius), once called the Jerusalem of Lithuania and known for its generations of great Talmud academies and rabbinical sages (including the Gaon of Vilna), all that remained after the war were some 17,000 Jewish residents out of a prewar population of 100,000 Yiddish-speaking Jews, one dilapidated synagogue, and two streets bearing the names of two of Vilna’s celebrated rabbinical and Talmudic sages (Gaon Street and Mathias Strashun Street). The other great urban center of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, Warsaw, had been home to the largest, most cosmopolitan, and politically diverse Jewish population in Europe. But the Jewish quarter was destroyed entirely by the Germans during the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943. Forty years after the war, a handful of Jewish sites in Warsaw had been partially reconstructed by Polish groups, both Jewish and non-Jewish, as memorials and museums (including the Jewish Historical Institute, next to the site of the destroyed Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street). A dozen streets now bear the names of Polish Jews, including ghetto fighters such as Mordekhai Anielewicz.

Bereft of Jewish communities and governed by political regimes hostile to the public recognition of Jewish culture, most of the small towns and villages in Poland that had been home to some 3.5 million Jews on the eve of World War II were nearly denuded of all signs of prewar Jewish life and landmarks. All of Poland’s remaining distinctive wooden synagogues had been burned down during the Nazi occupation, and most of the masonry synagogues not destroyed during the war were converted by civic authorities to theaters, cinemas, schools, stables, and storage houses. Immediately after the war, many of the surviving 250,000 Polish Jews who returned to their homes found their houses occupied or destroyed, their synagogues demolished or gutted, and their cemeteries vandalized and scattered. The sad fact is that for the first 40 years after World War II, most of what could be called Jewish memorials and monuments in Eastern Europe referred either directly or indirectly to the destruction of Jewish communities there.

Many of these monuments are located on the sites of destruction themselves, some commissioned by the government as part of Poland’s own national memorial register. Monuments and memorial museums on the ruins of Nazi death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Chełmno, Majdanek, Bełżec, and Sobibór have long aspired to tell the whole story of Poland’s national destruction in World War II through the prism of Jewish destruction. The first Holocaust memorial museum was thus established at Majdanek, near Lublin, within months of its liberation by the Soviet Red Army in July 1944. When the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, designed by Warsaw-born sculptor Nathan Rapoport while in Soviet exile during the war, was dedicated on the fifth anniversary of the ghetto uprising (19 April 1948), it was the only edifice standing amid the moonscape of rubble still covering what had once been Warsaw. An international competition for a memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau was called in 1958 and headed by the renowned British sculptor Henry Moore. But when the monument was finally unveiled there in 1967, during the Polish Communist regime’s own purge of Jews, it too had been purged of Jewish historical content.

One of the first acts of the postcommunist Polish government in 1989 was to correct and restore the memorial and historical records at Auschwitz to make clear that of the 1.2 million people murdered there, 90 percent of them had been Jews. By contrast, the powerful national memorial at Treblinka, dedicated in 1964 and consisting of 17,000 granite shards, was dedicated explicitly from its inception to the 850,000 Jews who had been murdered there. Other memorial battles along with the inevitable evolution of monuments at sites such as Bełżec, Sobibór, and Chełmno, among many others, continue to play themselves out until this day.

The fate of Poland’s Jewish cemeteries is also especially instructive as an illustration of how embedded such Jewish monuments and memorials are in historical times and places. Some of the oldest cemeteries, including that of Warsaw’s Praga neighborhood, where tens of thousands lay buried, were literally scraped off the face of the earth by the German occupiers. In other instances, the tombstones had been machine-gunned, clubbed into pieces, or ground into sand. Often they were carted off altogether, and used to pave roadways, sidewalks, and courtyards. Without Jewish communities left to maintain them, the Jewish cemeteries of Poland and neighboring states to the east crumbled in the years after the war, and many were paved over for highways and playgrounds. Still others were eventually buried beneath the earth’s own cover of trees, shrubs, and tall grass.

By the end of the war, it became clear that the genocide of Europe’s Jews included the near total destruction of existing monuments to Jewish life and death in Eastern Europe: both a people and its sites of memory had been destroyed. Perhaps the most enduring emblem to this dual destruction of a people and its monuments has come in the dozens of broken tombstone pyramids, walls, and obelisks scattered throughout the Polish countryside. The first broken tombstone memorials were assembled immediately after the war by Jewish survivors returning to their hometowns to find that the memorial places, too, had been destroyed. In towns such as Lúkow, Sandomierz, Siedlce, and Myślenice, survivors built pyramids and pastiche obelisks out of scattered tombstone and fragments. In Łódź, at what had been the largest Jewish graveyard in Europe, survivors gathered thousands of uprooted and broken tombstones into great, loose heaps and piles, hoping to build a tombstone memorial there, which was never completed. Survivors in Kraków built long, high walls out of tombstone fragments to contain the devastated remnants of the old Jewish cemetery. Eventually, volunteer associations of non-Jewish Polish youths went to work at Jewish cemeteries in Warsaw, Kazimierz, and Węgrów (among dozens of other sites) to clean and tend the devastated graveyards, often constructing both freestanding and retaining walls out of tombstone shards as memorials to their destruction by the Nazis.

Because the destruction of Soviet Jewry by the Nazis during World War II was immediately assimilated to the official Soviet memory of what was called “The Great Patriotic War,” there were almost no memorials to specifically Jewish victims erected in the Soviet Union during the first 40 years after the war. Only one monument in a major city, Minsk, referred to Jewish victims in inscriptions written in both Russian and Yiddish. Monuments at Ponary, where most of the Jews of Vilna were shot, and at Rumbuli, where Latvia’s Jews were murdered, both refer only “To the Victims of Fascism,” in three languages, including Yiddish. Even though public pressure led to the construction of a large, figurative monument at Babi Yar near Kiev to mark the massacre of 34,000 Jews there in 1941, its inscription to “The Citizens of Kiev” makes no mention of Jews. In fact, the only explicitly Jewish memorials to be found during the postwar Soviet era came in the unofficial, often artistically crude markers in small towns and the countryside erected by the families and surviving communities of victims. These varied in form from simple concrete gravestones marking the sites of mass executions of Jews to arrangements of stones and sticks in the shapes of Stars of David. These markers usually lasted a matter of weeks or months before being removed by authorities, their only record coming in snapshots taken during spontaneous family commemorations. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, beginning in 1990, do we find a relative boom in Holocaust memorial installations throughout the Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.

With the end of Communist regimes in the rest of Eastern Europe at the end of the twentieth century, there was a veritable “Holocaust and Jewish museums boom” in other countries as well. Dozens of new monuments and memorial museums have been dedicated since 1989 to remembering and telling the history of Nazi Germany’s destruction of these nations’ Jews during World War II. What had once been museums depicting the destruction of nationals from 23 countries (but rarely identifying them as Jews) in Terezín, Czechoslovakia, or at Auschwitz in Poland (to name two examples) were reconfigured to tell the stories of Jewish life and death in these countries. Dozens of other museums are being planned, some hugely ambitious like the yet-to-be-built Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Still others, such as the new Holocaust Museum in Budapest, housed in what was once a synagogue, serve as both Jewish and Holocaust memorial museums.

Due partly to the great influx of Western tourists after 1989, and partly to the postcommunist regimes’ own need to reclaim their nations’ histories, the memorial preoccupations, design motifs, and museum exhibitions have evolved significantly beyond mere images of death and destruction to include presentations of Jewish lives and cultures that had been destroyed. In addition to traditional Holocaust icons, such as barbed wire and crematorium chimneys, post-1989 memorial exhibitions now routinely include photographic images of life before the war (for example, the relatively new exhibitions at Auschwitz). Occasionally, the preoccupation with Jewish life and celebrations of a lost Yiddish culture result in kitschy reconstructions, such as ersatz Jewish cafés in Kraków and Warsaw, served by local non-Jewish Polish waiters in Hasidic garb. In addition to local Polish, non-Jewish varieties of commemoration, tens of thousands Jewish heritage-tourists, visitors to former shtetlach, and youth groups from North America and Israel annually bring their own memorial agendas to bear on these sites, as politically and religiously inflected as the locals’ own reasons for memory.

Suggested Reading

David Dawidowicz, Bate keneset be-Polin ve-ḥurbanam (Jerusalem, 1960); Ruth Ellen Gruber, Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe (Berkeley, 2002); Samuel Gruber and Phyllis Myers, Survey of Historic Jewish Monuments in Poland, rev. 2nd ed. (New York, 1995); Samuel Gruber and Phyllis Myers, Survey of Historic Jewish Monuments in the Czech Republic (New York, 1995); Monika Krajewska, A Tribe of Stones: Jewish Cemeteries in Poland (Warsaw, 1993); Carol Herselle Krinsky, Synagogues of Europe: Architecture, History, Meaning (New York and Cambridge, Mass., 1985); Kazimierz Piechotka and Maria Piechotka, Heaven’s Gates: Wooden Synagogues in the Territories of the Former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Warsaw, 2004); Maria Piechotka and Kazimierz Piechotka, “Polish Synagogues in the Nineteenth Century,” Polin 2 (1987): 179–198, also in From Shtetl to Socialism: Studies from Polin, ed. Antony Polonsky (London, 1993); James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven, 1993); James E. Young, ed., The Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History (Munich and New York, 1994).