Brno’s Living and Loving Memories

Brno’s Central Cemetery and Spilberk Castle have both been dwelling on the departed this month. Brno Daily’s Cathy Khoury-Prinsloo visited both to reflect on two very different ways of remembering the dead. Photo: “Faces of Oblivion” at Spilberk Castle. Credit: Cathy Khoury-Prinsloo.

In living memory. In loving memory. Two very different Brno venues explored the same theme of remembrance this November. Both places supercharge conversations about mortality and monuments. Ultimately, the dialogue becomes all about love.

The first venue is the expansive grounds of the historic main cemetery, Ústřední hřbitov, which sees many visitors during November, especially on the first two days of the month – All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

The second Brno venue is a small double room at Spilberk Castle dedicated to a photographic exhibition called “Faces from Oblivion”.

The cemetery was full of bright colours and activity when we visited, with relatives cleaning the graves of loved ones, lighting candles and putting flowers in vases and plants in the earth.

Many Brno residents visit their loved ones in the cemetery at the beginning of November. Credit: Cathy Khoury-Prinsloo.

On children’s graves there were soft toys. On one grave there was a row of ceramic toys, almost like a mantelpiece of favourite playthings.

At one family plot, where the latest person to be buried was a six-year-old boy, a grandfather sat in his car, with the door open, facing the grave. Later that evening, another car pulled up on the side, and the grandmother joined in the vigil.

A friend mentioned that the grandfather’s car is often seen at the cemetery, as though he does not want his grandchild to be alone for too long, in any one week.

There are many famous graves. World renowned geneticist Gregor Mendel shares his humble plot with several other monks. Someone from Mendel University, identified by her university backpack, carefully cleaned the paving around the plot.

The composer Leoš Janáček’s grave featured some bars of his music, and several bouquets of flowers. The functionalist architect Fuchs’ grave is fittingly composed of two main elements – a strong horizontal slab and a sturdy vertical one.

Dr Karel Absolon was an archeologist, the finder of the rare Venus of Dolní Věstonice, and a cave explorer. His grave looked like a mini cave, with the crevices cheerily lit up by many candles.

At one entrance to the cemetery is a huge, high stone monument, with what looks like a sarcophagus positioned right at the top. It is as though the family tried to get the dead person as close to heaven as they possibly could.

The sculptural elements at Ústřední hřbitov vary from a small realistically modelled dead ceramic dove on the top of a mother’s tombstone, to two large sphinx-like guardians positioned on either end of a family obelisk.

The areas for the dead German and Russian soldiers are extensive, and multiple rows of square tombstones and crosses make eloquent anti-war statements.

Sometimes there are two soldiers’ names on the small crosses in the German section. One died in the First World War, and the other one in the Second World War.

Monuments of stone, cement and marble.

Many graves include a small photograph of the people buried there. One recent grave stands out because it features a larger than life-size photograph of a beautiful young woman, which has been burnished onto a metal background.

She is smiling at us, dressed for a special occasion, and the intention of the loving family is clearly that just as she was exuberant and larger than life in real-life, the memory of her is not diminished at all by death.

Marcela Horvathova: Loved in life and in death. Credit: Cathy Khoury-Prinsloo.

When we visited, her mother Mrs Bendicová and her sister Ms Horváthová were busy cleaning the grave, and attending to the flowers. She was clearly greatly loved, and they agreed to be photographed at her grave, with her. It is a most unusual, very loving family photo.

At the photographic exhibition, Faces from Oblivion, at Spilberk Castle, the photographs have been similarly enlarged to life-size and larger, and printed on board, placed on linked wooden screens, and an easel.

These intimate family portraits from doomed victims of the Holocaust were lost for almost 90 years. Credit: Cathy Khoury-Prinsloo.

Here we are very aware of the fragility of this medium. These photos were made from old photographic negatives which were found in the attics of two old Brno houses several years ago. Many of the negatives were partially damaged by mould or chemical deterioration. Some of the images are incomplete.

What endures, however, is all the more to be treasured, because these intimate portraits are of families killed in the Holocaust. Their very images were lost without trace for almost 90 years. Now, after all this time, we see them again. In a profound way this exhibition has restored people to living memory.

There are several photos of siblings, two brothers, two sisters. The older sibling stands protectively next to the younger one, holding their hand, smiling slightly more confidently than the younger one at the camera.

The one younger sister is sitting on a chair. Her legs are too short to even reach the ground. Her older sibling steadies her with one arm around her shoulder, and her right hand clasps her sister’s left hand.

One little girl in a sweet nautical hat bravely poses alone, her hand confidently placed on the armrest of a chair.

A young boy and girl on bikes are next to each other, and the boy rests his hand to balance against the shoulder of the girl. A group of youngsters in swimming costumes sit close together, leaning slightly against each other.

There are several very beautiful women in this exhibition. The same woman is photographed at home, informally in an apron overall, and later all dressed up with lots of stylish accessories, photographed outdoors. She is smiling happily at the photographer.

There is a beautiful, wistful looking young girl with braids and a glamorous woman with short, glossy hair and movie star looks.

A mother smiles up at us, a book open on her lap. She is photographed against the same background as the two young brothers and a dashing, handsome young man, so we can deduce that they are all family.

There is a young woman sitting astride a motorbike. It is a very modern image, which surprisingly dates back to 1928.

Two enterprising businessmen stand at an industrial knitting machine, conferring about some part of the mechanics.

The photograph of an enigmatically half-smiling matriarch sitting on her sofa is a wonderfully rich, multi-layered photo. The woman faces the camera, reading her magazine, possibly amused by an article. A mirror on the right shows us her profile. There is a photo of a couple on the back wall, possibly this woman’s own wedding photograph. It is like a modern Vermeer.

There are lots of fabrics and patterns – the wallpaper, the daintily embroidered cloth behind the woman, the tablecloth and the crocheted blanket on her left, which she leans against. It is a very cosy room.

There are some photos of working women. Two older women stand together, in similar pinafore aprons. The older one has her arm around the younger one’s shoulders. It looks at first as though there is a pattern that extends across both dresses. On second look, though, it is some photographic damage which fortunately is just decorative, and does not mar the image at all.

There is a photo of the family cat on a chair. The rattan pattern of the chair back is in sharp focus, but the cat did not sit perfectly still, and there is a blurring of the image, which also suggests something about the character of this curious and twitchy pet. The pet owner felt the image was still lovable and important enough to keep with the family portraits.

Though many of the photos are damaged, they show clearly that much about the lives and priorities of these families was the same as ours. Photo credit: Cathy Khoury-Prinsloo.

The exhibition organisers have added some moving quotations below some of the photos.

“You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble?” ― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

“Our dead are always with us and we are never truly alone. And they come like shadows with clay and ashes in their hair.” – Jan Skácel

In visiting the exhibition we become witnesses to the lives of some of the Bardach, Breda, Freund, Hauser, Kahn, Kohn, Neubauer, Stiassny and Strebinger families.

In looking at their photos we see the love these families had for each other. We stand at their photos. We pay our respects, celebrate them and mourn their loss.

The exhibition will run at Spilberk Castle until 31 March 2023.

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