Milan Pitlach AAI
The history of the Jews, for three thousand years a people without a country, is movingly captured in Jewish cemeteries throughout the world. These are the empty spaces in maps of German towns. These are the marker stones, heaped one on top of another, in congested burial places confined within the limits of the European ghettos.
According to the Jewish Rite of Death the corpse is in some sense untouchable, an object of respectful honour. Hence the tragic destiny of the millions of victims of pogroms and concentration camps is compounded by their never having been accorded a tombstone or even a grave.
The Shanghai Jewish Memorial is not a cemetery. No bodies lie buried beneath the grass. Only a hundred tombstones rest on the slanting grassy disc, a fraction of four thousand stones which marked the four thousand graves in four Shanghai Jewish cemeteries now disappeared.
In spite of that, I have sought to give my design of the Memorial the symbolic attributes of a Jewish cemetery. I have tried to create an autonomous enclave, separated from the surrounding world. But because I am designing a memorial, not a cemetery, I apply the architectural elements I use not in their common, but in symbolic syntax.
There are walls, grass, tombstones in my design; but the wall is not a limiting factor, the surrounding line only a spatial element; the opening in the wall is not a gate, only a rectangle framing the scene; the circle of grass is not the place of internment, only the base for some 100 tombstones.
Since for me architecture is the art of creating space, I have given the composition a spatial, that is, a three-dimensional character. Essential to the design is the vertical organisation of elements. Walls with their inner side are painted black and positioned closely one to another to create a narrow, high space (my inspiration here being Hans Dצllgast’s staircase for the Alte Pinakothek in Munich) which symbolises the discontinuity of time and at the same time creates a metaphorical gateway to another world - the world of sunken time, sunken lives, and sunken memories. I arrange tombstones in the way familiar to me from the Jewish Cemetery in Prague because I know no other way to express with the same emotional impact the fate of these people. The circular grass disc with its longer, leaning axis is also an important space-creating element. If its sunken part represents the forgotten world of the Jews of Shanghai, the part that is rising captures the idea of aiming for the absolute, for God.
If the line, at least in the symbolic language of Christianity (Georges Duby, Le temps des Cathedrales), represents the act of creation, the ray of God’s mercy, then the circle symbolises the return, the time contained in eternity, indeed eternity itself, circular as the lines are traced by the celestial bodies in their cosmic movement. The final compositional element is the wall which follows an elliptical line. This represents the journey between beginning and end, the consolation of contradictory elements, the peace ultimately achieved.