Prague TV tower under fire as dark reminder of city’s antisemitic past

Another Holocaust legacy a government having difficulty addressing:

It has been called one of the world’s ugliest structures, pointing above Prague like a jabbing metallic finger while offering visitors panoramic views of the Czech capital’s more aesthetically pleasing sites.

Now the city’s looming 216-metre (709ft) television tower – one of the most distinctive architectural legacies of communism – is the subject of renewed complaints from the Prague Jewish community, which says it is a brooding reminder of the antisemitism of the regime that ruled the former Czechoslovakia for more than 40 years and whose dark history needs to be officially recognised.

“Part of our community is still present under the ground here and people should know about it,” said Pavel Vesely, a history and tourism coordinator with the Prague Jewish community. “It reflects our history in the second half of the 20th century, when there was pressure – part state-organised antisemitism, part anti-religion – to erase the remnants of a Jewish presence in Prague. And the communists did a thorough job, because if you speak to people visiting the tower, they have no idea a Jewish cemetery was here.”

The ancient Prague Jewish cemetery as it was before it was turned into a tower. Also shows the site when the tower’s foundations were being dug.. Sent by Robert Tait.
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The ancient Prague Jewish cemetery before the tower was built over it, involving the disinterment of human remains. Photograph: Archive of the City of Prague

Local officials are calling for a memorial acknowledging that the tower, believed to have been conceived partly as a cold-war gambit to block western TV and radio broadcasts, stands on what was once Prague’s biggest Jewish cemetery, where rabbis, distinguished scholars and leading industrialists, among others, were laid to rest.

Graves in the former cemetery in the Žižkov neighbourhood were disturbed after workers began drilling in 1985 to lay the tower’s foundations. While some remains were reburied in other cemeteries, others were reportedly dumped in a landfill site outside Prague, in violation of Jewish law forbidding the disinterment of buried bodies.

The Jewish community sold the site, under pressure from the communist authorities, to the state broadcaster after it was deemed the ideal location for the tower. Most of the headstones in the once sprawling cemetery – first established in 1680 and the burial place for about 40,000 people – had previously been flattened and grassed over in the early 1960s to convert it into a park, also at the demand of the communist regime.

By the time the tower was completed in 1992, the cold war had ended after communist regimes in Czechoslovakia and other eastern bloc countries lost power. It is now marketed as a tourist attraction, boasting an observatory, a restaurant and even a one-bedroom hotel.

It stands at the centre of a square hosting a restaurant, an underground parking facility and a mini-golf course, part of which is said to be sited where the grandest tombstones once stood. There is also an ice rink in winter.

The cemetery’s oldest section survived the developments and remains in relative obscurity at one end of the square, Jewish community leaders having spent heavily to rescue it from the decay it had fallen into during the communist period.

However, they say a memorial is needed out of respect for the much larger, disappeared part of the cemetery, and as a reminder of what is seen as a state-sponsored effort to erase the last vestiges of Jewish identity after the Holocaust.

Some local schools have taken pupils on tours of the site to raise awareness. Magdalena Novotná, a teacher leading a group of nine-year-olds around the cemetery as part of a class project, said: “The communist regime was not sensitive to spirituality or religious traditions. What touches me is that we know the Jewish belief that we cannot move bodies once they are in the soil, but they moved them completely. This is what we teach the children in the project.”

Anna Tumova, a spokesperson for České Radiokomunikace, the tower’s owners, said the company had not been approached, but that it would consider any proposal for a memorial. A plaque on the body of the tower itself would need permission from its architect, Václav Aulický.

The structure already carries the figures of several sculpted “babies” designed by a Czech artist, David Černý, copies of which were refitted earlier this year after the originals were removed.

The tower is the latest focal point of the Jewish community’s drive to restore scores of cemeteries, synagogues and other cultural sites destroyed or allowed to fall into ruin under communism. Some 105 synagogues were demolished during the communists’ reign – compared with 70 during the Nazi occupation.

Stonework for many abandoned sites was sold and later reused for private gardens, car parks or pedestrianised streets. Prague city council recently agreed to allow Jewish community leaders to examine cobbled paving stones dug up for a forthcoming redevelopment of Wenceslas Square. Some stones are believed to have been taken from Jewish cemeteries and repurposed for the pedestrianisation of the area carried out by the communist regime in the 1980s.

Source: Prague TV tower under fire as dark reminder of city’s antisemitic past

Friedman: Why Canadians should be proud of the Holocaust Monument

Rabbi Daniel Friedman is Chair of the National Holocaust Monument Development Council puts the plaque controversy in context:

Last month, Canada unveiled our incredible Holocaust Monument. Let me tell you about my proudest moment that day. It wasn’t when, for the very first time, I walked into the awe-inspiring monument. It wasn’t when, alongside our prime minister, I addressed the nation. And, despite my great reverence for them, it wasn’t when I met the hundreds of inspiring survivors and generous donors.

My proudest moment was watching Justin Trudeau step off stage after his speech. Just then, he noticed a familiar face towards the back of the room, that of Tim Uppal. Uppal is the former MP who introduced the Holocaust Monument bill in Parliament. When Trudeau spotted him, he strode up to the back of the room, grabbed Tim by the hand, and escorted him to the front. At the end of the ceremony, the prime minister turned and gave him a big hug.

That’s the epitome of Canadianism. You see, Tim Uppal was a Conservative MP. Trudeau could have snubbed his former rival and basked all alone in the glory of his government’s day in the sun. But he chose to include him, making sure that he was every much a part of this historic hour.

That’s why Canadians deserve the monument we’ve built together. Many in the world today pay lip service to eradicating hatred and promoting love, respect and tolerance for all humankind. But they never miss an opportunity to attack those who don’t agree with their views, attacks often having little to do with any real matter of substance.

The monument is the product of a partnership between many organizations. Designed by the Lord Cultural Group and Daniel Libeskind, built by the National Capital Commission, facilitated by Canadian Heritage, and overseen by the Monument Development Council, a lot of people have coordinated their efforts to build this piece of our nation.

Along the way we had disagreements. Some bigger, some smaller. Along the way, we made mistakes. Some bigger, some smaller. Along the way we switched governments, which meant a whole host of new players and opinions entering the fray. But we’re Canadians. And we figured it out. We didn’t point fingers. We didn’t politicize things. We were proud of the fact that the Monument bill passed unanimously.

On the big day, we suddenly realized that an egregious error had been made. In amongst the debates over wording and plaque positioning, somehow the one plaque that introduced the others – and made no sense outside the context of the plaques detailing the Nazi genocide of six million Jews along with homosexuals, the disabled and others – ended up mounted all on its own on a separate wall. Visitors to the site were rightly disturbed to encounter this major injustice to the memory of the six million Jews for whom the monument was built. All of the parties involved are deeply remorseful and we apologize unconditionally for the pain we have caused by this oversight.

I want to thank the Trudeau government for acting expeditiously to amend the plaque as soon as the error was brought to its attention. Mistakes happen; most can be fixed quickly and decorously. Without questioning, the government did the right thing, which has been our experience with Trudeau’s government throughout. And that’s why when I saw his interaction with Tim Uppal at the unveiling, my respect for our leader grew ever stronger.  The man is a true Canadian. The man is a mensch.

Canadians don’t look for fights. We seek opportunities to embrace and boost other people who are different from us, whether those differences involve political views, religion or skin colour. The last thing we would want to politicize is the Holocaust.

The National Holocaust Monument was initiated by the Stephen Harper government. It was brought to fruition under the Trudeau government. We live in the most tolerant country in the world, and probably, of all time. Let us never take that blessing for granted. Let us be a little more forgiving of one another. And let us continue to work together, across party lines, ethnic lines and religious lines, to lead the international community, and make this world a better, safer place for all peoples.

Source: Friedman: Why Canadians should be proud of the Holocaust Monument | Ottawa Citizen