Gateways to Our Interior
Since its return to the Czech Jewish community in the autumn of 1994, the Jewish Museum in Prague has changed its appearance. It has returned Prague’s historical synagogues to their former beauty and has provided unprecedented access to the unique diversity of its collections, the unique relics of past Jewish life. Each item in the Jewish Museum in Prague’s collections has its own history and, like people, has its own fate. For, in its way, many of the objects housed in the Jewish Museum in Prague have shared the fate of the people to whom they belonged.During the Nazi occupation, first the objects were given numbers, then the people. The people were murdered, but the Jewish ritual objects survived; they recall the dead as more than telling symbols.
Prague’s historic synagogues, which house many of the Museum’s artifacts, also have their own fate. In 1958, the Pinkas Synagogue became the Memorial to the Bohemian and Moravian victims of the Shoah. It is a particularly devout place on the edge of the former ghetto in the immediate vicinity of the Old Jewish Cemetery, a place where the history of the Jews connects with the history of the city. It is an intersection in every sense of the word. I do not consider it a coincidence that this space, whose very existence points to this complexity of meaning, is tied to the Pinkas Synagogue. Enclosed on all sides yet clearly visible, small in size yet immeasurable in terms of all that it expresses – and all that it may express. When I first spoke with Aleš Veselý at the Forum 2000 conference four years ago in Prague about how to give new life to the street by Pinkas Synagogue, he suggested drawing up a project for this. I considered it appropriate that he should be the one to complete Pinkas Street with his sculptures, for he is a person with a personal Jewish experience and an outstanding artist of international renown. “Three Gates,” as Aleš Veselý titled his project, is already a work, at the study stage, that invites many interpretations. It is indisputable that it could enrich the space of Pinkas Street in every sense possible, and, moreover, provide a deep experience that is characteristic of the artwork itself.
As is customary with Aleš Veselý, he calls on people to interact, not only to passively look. He actively enters into the space and, at the same time, redefines it. The Three Gates project can be carried out only with strong support from sponsors. I believe that it will attract the attention both of specialists in the Czech Republic and abroad, and of Prague residents and visitors to the ‘city of a hundred spires’. The city also has many gateways. The ones that Aleš Veselý intends to build in the former Jewish Town, however, are, above all, gateways to our interior, a passageway to our feelings and conscience. I therefore wish very much for this project to be implemented as soon as possible. The age in which we are living has a great need for such milestones.
— Leo Pavlát, Director of the Jewish Museum in Prague
Small Pinkas Street – The Space Between
Situated between the garden of the Museum of Decorative Arts, the Old Jewish Cemetery and the Pinkas Synagogue, Small Pinkas Street is one of the few remaining sections of the original street network of Josefov, the fifth quarter of Prague and until 1848 the Jewish ghetto.
Originally known as Goldřichodvorská (Goldřich Court) Street, probably after the adjoining court owned by Karel Goltz in the second half of the seventeenth century), it came to be called Malá Pinkasova (Small Pinkas Street) and Pinkasova ulička (Pinkas Lane) in the early 1870s. Its later name may suggest that it was an unimportant side street, but this was not the case in the earlier days of the ghetto. Once a major through-road, it used to connect the two Christian districts of the Old Town that were separated from each other by the Jewish Town. Due to the gradual increase in the size of the Jewish Town (particularly in a northerly direction towards the Vltava bank), however, it grew in importance mainly for the inhabitants of the ghetto, providing access to the Pinkas Schul – from the late fifteenth century one of the most important spiritual centers of Jewish Prague1 – and a vital access to the river in case of fire.2 It led from one of the ghetto gates at the western end of Židovská (Jewish) Street – later also Pinkas Street – which, in 1870, became part of Josefov Avenue (now Široká – Broad – Street) and ran along the western façade of the Pinkas Synagogue and the edge of the south-western part of the Old Jewish Cemetery as far as the river bank.3
The entire course of the street is clearly visible on a map of the Jewish Town that was drawn up in 1690 by the land surveyor Andreas Bernard Klauser – just after the devastating fire of 1689 that swept through the entire ghetto and part of the Old Town. On a ghetto renovation map drawn up after another fire in 1754 by Jan Ferdinand Schor, Goldřich Court Street is depicted as a oneway street leading to the entrance gate of the Old Jewish Cemetery. It has the same disposition on Herget’s 1791 map of Prague and on Jüttner’s revised map of 1811–1815. It is safe to assume that the north-western part of the street fell into disuse some time in the second half of the 18th century. At the latest, this happened after 1768 when the Jewish Elders purchased a semi-dilapidated hangman’s house from the Old Town municipality and expanded the Old Jewish Cemetery. From then on, the south-western projection of the cemetery could be accessed from Goldřich Court Street through a small gate in the cemetery wall.
In the course of the urban renewal which, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, transformed the structure of the former ghetto and the adjoining parts of the Old Town, the south end of Pinkas Street had to give way to a new, more generously conceived, street network. As a result of this it was swallowed up by today’s Široká Street and only about a half of its original length was preserved. All the apartment buildings along both sides of the street were pulled down in 1907 and were replaced by walls that separated what used to be a public road from private plots (garden of the Museum of Decorative Arts and the Old Jewish Cemetery). In addition, the construction of a new Vltava embankment near Rejdiště, the purpose of which was to regulate the Vltava’s flow, led to a significant rise in the surrounding terrain. As a result of these changes, the entire Pinkas Synagogue complex, including the adjacent street, remained deep below the new street level. Pinkas Street, then, lost its original function, becoming a defunct space. Today, however, it is one of the few places that can still recall the lost face of the Jewish ghetto.
Pinkas Street is now part of a private plot of land which is owned by the Prague Jewish Community and administered by the Jewish Museum in Prague and is not accessible to the public. The land is separated from the street by railings and can be entered only from the south-west vestibule of the Pinkas Synagogue (since the 1950s a memorial to the 80,000 victims of the Shoah from Bohemia and Moravia). Situated as it is next to prominent and much frequented sites of the Jewish Town, which represent key “places of memory” in Prague history, Pinkas Street clearly deserves to be revitalized and opened to the public. As a natural connection between the Pinkas Synagogue area and the Old Jewish Cemetery, it may provide visitors with an interesting alternative in the tour route of the Museum. However, as Pinkas Street has lost its original character and purpose, it will be necessary to find a new form of spatial articulation for it. With this end in mind, the renowned Czech sculptor Professor Aleš Veselý has designed a project for the street entitled “Three Gates.”
This project involves a sculptural environment in the form of three gates which take up about two thirds of the present length of the street. The first of these gates is installed in such a way as to not disturb the view of the west façade of the Pinkas Synagogue with its large stained-glass window. All three gates are positioned in the corridor of the street as a self-supporting structure that does not require any additional anchorage in the adjoining walls or in the synagogue building.
The gates have been conceived as three separate sculptural objects whose positioning (about 4 meters apart), dimensions and form, however, are completely subordinate to the whole. This has been designed as a corridor-pathway with a specific rhythm (time) and material (space) articulation. The gates have the effect of completely filling out the space of the street, which creates the impression of narrowness. The material not only controls the space, but also tends to extend beyond. Each gate (and the passageway within) is derived from a measurement of the human body. The anthropometric qualities of the objects are the basic condition for the interactive function of the whole. A person who finds themselves in the corridor has no other choice but to go through the narrow openings of the gates, whose massive structure excludes the possibility of going any other way.
Each passage through the gate is based exclusively on the completely subjective, untransmittable experience of the pedestrian-pilgrim and is perceived through their corporeality and their confinement to the space. The individual gates represent various degrees of spatial awareness and spiritual initiation. Considering the environment in its entirety, however, the interconnected spatial relations of the individual objects (what is seen / what remains hidden, what follows / does not follow, what we can / cannot foresee) are key to impacting the quality of our experience.
The first gate consists of three giant tree trunks cast in bronze (the creation of “trunks” by welding stainless steel is an alternative here). One can pass through it without stooping (the passage should be about 2 m high), although the bolder, which is suspended from a large steel spring, makes the process of passing visually insecure. This gives one a feeling of uncertainty, which works as a trigger mechanism for creating a critical distance towards one’s own existence in relation to the historically variable and universally valid conditions of the surrounding world.
The second gate comprises a massive block of limestone which is attached with giant bolts between two thick steel slabs. The only way one can walk through it is if we bend down and literally drag ourselves through a narrow opening in the stone block, which at the same time completely shades the view of the last gate.
The third gate consists of a supporting structure of mirror-polished stainless steel, with a massive steel slab above that is penetrated by an unhewn bolder as if it came down from space as a meteorite. The load-bearing pillars in the form of three triangular prisms emerge from a square ground plan, with the edge of the third pillar directly opposite the entrance to the gateway. This prevents one from going straight through its center and creates the dilemma of having to choose between two exits. The last gate leads to the low-lying gateway in the cemetery wall, through which it is possible to continue on to the Old Jewish Cemetery.
In terms of content, the Three Gates project constitutes a multi-layered structure which touches upon many themes. This follows, on the one hand, from the actual use of the gate as one of the basic archetypes spanning all world cultures, religions and philosophical systems and, on the other, from the quite unique positioning of the proposed environment at the boundary point between spaces of an antithetical nature: the living (street) and the dead (cemetery), the profane (street) and the sacred (synagogue and cemetery), the public and the private. During the existence of the ghetto, Pinkas Street was situated at its very edge. Even today, therefore, it can still suggest an imaginary boundary between two worlds that are distinct in terms of culture, religion and ethnicity, and at the same time can symbolize their interconnection.
— Michaela Hájková
Aleš Veselý / Three Gates
When I moved with my parents to Prague about three years after the war, we were given an apartment on Veletržní Street – coincidently, opposite the side entrance to the grounds of the makeshift trade fair pavilions which were used during the war as an assembly point where Jews were gathered, given registration numbers and dispatched to trains heading for the ghettos in Łódz and Terezín. From my window I looked at this entrance, through which many of my relatives passed, never to return. My then fourteen-year-old sister also passed through there; due to the absurdity of the Nuremberg laws, she was the first member of our family to be deported. Fortunately she returned with my dad, as they managed to escape from Terezín together just before the end of the war. They returned, but forty-seven of my relatives did not.
In time the buildings and fence were pulled down, but that made me more intensely aware of the place – that imaginary gateway. A Gate of Remembrance as a sculptured gateway gradually emerged in my mind, and I wanted to erect it on this site.
When I was approached two years ago to design something for the narrow space of the former Pinkas Street next to the Pinkas Synagogue, I immediately thought of gates, corridors and suspended ramps. In the first phase I always work intuitively – I don’t want to have an a priori program or to rationally analyze what occurs to me – I want to rely on the depth of the most inner feelings and ‘genetic codes.’ Only when the concept is ready (and, from my perspective, definitive) do I start to investigate and decipher what led me to a particular solution. It starts to interest me when it has further connotations and supports in areas that I had intentionally not dealt with before beginning my work.
The outcome of my considerations about the space of Pinkas Street is the environmental project “Three Gates.” I don’t know why three. There is nothing mystical about it. I just knew there had to be three. I started to realize that it was all connected with the Diaspora, that it is about a journey, about the two thousand year wandering of the scattered nation, about a search for temporary homes and contacts in an otherwise alien, different world, and, at the same time, about a strong, eternally continuous awareness of mutual solidarity.
I began to decipher for myself the innermost reason for the concept for the gates which was now ready. The first gate, with a stone suspended from a spring above one’s head, is a certain memento – it is clearly the Gate of Remembrance that I had shaped for many years in my memory. My concept contains this remembrance, but also and primarily for me, an important concurrence of the present and the past, that which is permanent and ever present, independently of time.
A boulder, stone, rock is present in all the gates – it is always above me. For me, stone is connected with places where all the important moments of the past have taken place. The middle gate is a piece of rock elevated between two steel slabs. Within it is a law corridor, to get through which we have to stoop slightly. This gate is possibly connected to the many years of wandering and may also signify the persistent subconscious longing for Jerusalem.
The square architrave of the last gate rests on three triangular pillars of polished stainless steel. A large unhewn stone penetrates through the center of the architrave from above to the middle of the gate. I enter but there is no one direct way out. Inside I am faced with a dilemma: should I go left or right? Both ways look the same – neither has priority. It is ambivalent. I have to continue through, but the decision must be mine alone. I will always have within me at the same time both an age-old desire based on an awareness of belonging and the actual (yet estranged) reality in which I find myself. For me, the third gate constitutes the eternal essence of the Diaspora.
It is important for me that none of my projects should lose their universal character or offer only one possible interpretation. This is why I have never tried to incorporate any specific religious or historical content in this project. I was raised in a family which had a strong awareness of its roots, but which was non-religious and non-practicing. Nevertheless, I was pleased to hear that my long-time friend Karol Sidon, now a rabbi, found that the model of my project evoked part of the prayer Aleinu leshabeach [“It is our duty to praise the master of all”], which contains the verse: Va’anachnu korim umish’tachavim umodim..., which is usually translated as: “We bow in awe and thanksgiving...” The essential message that emerges from this is that the “Three Gates” are above all my personal testimony based on my own experiences, but this does not rule out that they will be perceived from many different views as it belongs to the site on which they are to stand.
Aleš Veselý (b. February 3, 1935 in Čáslav, Czech Republic)In 1952–1958, he studied with Professor Vladimír Silovský at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. Since 1990 he has been head of the Studio of Monumental Art at the Academy. He lives in Prague and works mainly in his studio in Středokluky, near Prague. Over the years he has received several prestigious international and domestic awards. He has completed a number of prestigious public commissions in Germany, South Korea, Japan, Czech Republic, Holland and Lithuania and his work is featured in many private and public collections across the world.
A complete overview of Aleš Veselý’s work is available at www.ales-vesely.cz.