A Prague railway station that saw tens of thousands of Czech Jews leave for ghettos and Nazi death camps between 1941 and 1945 is to become a memorial for those who died.
Czech Jews and Holocaust survivors have for years been calling for a memorial for the Prague-Bubny station, which last year welcomed a theatre troupe that roamed the Czech Republic and Poland on board a train to perform a play about the Holocaust.
Now Shoah Memorial Prague, a newly formed non-profit organisation, is making it happen.
The memorial “won’t be your classic museum but rather a place where we’ll be able to have dialogue on the Holocaust”, said project mastermind and filmmaker Pavel Stingl.
“We are only at the beginning of our journey. If everything goes well, the memorial will open in four years,” he told AFP.
In the meantime, the station will host a number of temporary exhibitions, the first of which — called Kaddish or “magnification of God’s name” in Hebrew — opened in June.
The Kaddish is also the Jewish prayer of mourning, and on the station’s walls are sepia-tinted photographs with the smiling faces of hundreds of Czech Jews later sent to death camps.
On the peeling facade of the station, which is still in use, are two dusty arrows indicating train directions — left for downtown Prague, right for the city of Kladno.
But during the war, dozens of convoys set out from here in a completely different direction — towards the ghettos in Lodz, Poland and Terezin outside Prague.
The ghettos served as transit camps for Jews before they were sent to Auschwitz in Poland or other Nazi German death camps.
A total of 45,513 Czech Jews — men and women, grandparents and children alike — passed through Prague-Bubny to take the fateful train ride.
Only a couple of thousand of them survived the war that killed around 80,000 Czech Jews.
“My transport left Prague on October 28, 1941,” said Maja Dohnalova, who attended the opening of the exhibition.
“I was with my mum and sister. I was 13 and we were told we would come back in three months as this stupid war could not last longer.
“There were about 5,000 of us who were deported by the Nazis to Lodz. And only 276 of us returned to the country after the war.”
More than seven decades after her deportation, Dohnalova said she still feels intense emotion at the station.
The Czech capital already has one Shoah memorial — the Pinkas synagogue in the old Jewish quarter, a busy area popular with tourists.
Built in 1535 in the late Gothic style, its inner walls bear the names of Czech Holocaust victims.
The Prague-Bubny memorial will be a much more modern homage to the past, incorporating an education centre and making use of multimedia to recount the horrors of the Shoah.
“The new memorial should speak today’s language,” said Leos Valka, founder of the modern art centre DOX near the station, which is helping to curate the memorial.
“The goal is to create a message for the future.”
“Why a Shoah memorial in Prague? Because the dead remain immortal as long as people remember them,” said Marketa Malisova, head of the Franz Kafka cultural centre in Prague.
Kafka, the Prague-born German-speaking writer who died in 1924, was part of a large Jewish community that lived in what is now the Czech Republic, with 118,000 members between the wars.
His sisters Elli, Valli and Ottla left via the Prague-Bubny station in the 1940s and died in Nazi camps.
“A nation that does not know its history is condemned to relive it,” said Ivo Toman, manager at the Ceske drahy rail company in charge of the station, using the oft-cited quote.
“For this reason we support the project and we have allowed Shoah Memorial Prague to use the building.”
[Image via Agence France-Presse]