Clear and Not Clear Enough

Remains of one of two prewar Jewish cemeteries at the former Płaszów camp in Kraków, 2015

Half a year ago, during the 27th annual Jewish Culture Festival in Kraków, the Galicia Jewish Museum held a public conversation entitled “What Next for Płaszów?”  The panelists were Tadeusz Jakubowicz, president of the Kraków Jewish Community; Roma Sendyka, professor at Jagiellonian University and director of the university’s Center for Research on Memory Cultures; Michał Niezabitowski, director of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków; and me.  Discussion concerned the future of the vast open space in the Podgórze section of the city, where the Germans established a major concentration and forced labor camp during the Second World War.  

Płaszów is the city’s most important Holocaust site, but its status as a memorial site remains highly ambivalent.  Several markers and monuments to the site’s genocidal history have been erected, but efforts at thoroughgoing and encompassing memorialization have repeatedly failed.  The result is a space that is both a known territory of genocide and a de-facto public park, popular among dog-walkers and hikers, and in the warm months among sunbathers, picknickers and drinkers.

At that panel, Niezabitowski announced that the Historical Museum, in collaboration with the City of Kraków and with the consent of the Jewish community, was undertaking a large-scale commemorative project for Płaszów.  The project would include a series of “stations” installed at the site, containing historical information and narrative accounts of the camp’s inmates, along with demarcation of archaeological relics.  An accompanying exhibition would be mounted in the Grey House, including items found in an archaeological dig conducted during the spring and summer of 2017.  He gave 2020 as an “optimistic answer” for the opening of the new memorial works.

Archaeological dig at Płaszów, July 2017

During the panel discussion, Niezabitowski emphasized that the Museum’s work at Płaszów would be guided by three principles.  First, it should be authentic––not an artificial museumification but a combination of a museum and a memorial, recognizing Płaszów as the place of prewar Jewish cemeteries and also a vast genocidal cemetery created by the Germans.  Second, it should be experiential, towards an understanding of Płaszów as a place of “living memory” and not “dead material” or “petrified reality.”  Third, it should be inclusive of local and international, Jewish and Polish perspectives.  It was a major announcement, marking the end of Płaszów’s dubious distinction as the only major former Nazi camp not under the oversight of a museum or cultural institution.

For my part, I’ve been photographing and writing about the complications of Płaszów for eight years, including time as a fellow of the Polish Ministry of Culture’s International Culture Center.  While the panel discussion was happening at the Galicia Jewish Museum, an installation of my photographs from Płaszów was on view a few blocks away at Gallery Trzecie Oko, as part of Festivalt, the new alternative Jewish culture festival created by an artist’s collective of which I am a founding member.

Sunbathers near the Cipowy Dołek killing and burning site at Płaszów, June 2010

Families at play on the Cipowy Dołek killing and burning site at Płaszów, August 2015

A child in the middle of the Cipowy Dołek killing and burning site at Płaszów, July 2015

In November 2017, as a “temporary” step toward the realization of the planned memorial complex, the Museum unveiled a new set of large signboards, 19 of them, installed at various locations around Płaszów.  In the last days, since returning to Kraków, I’ve had a chance to see them for myself.

New signboard near the former camp entrance at Płaszów, January 2018

Given the situation that has prevailed at Płaszów, the sheer fact of these new signboards represents an improvement.  Just seeing them from a distance, I felt a palpable sense of victory––that after 70 years of neglect and avoidance, at least now there is rudimentary in-situ historical information placed there.  However, that sense of victory was tested by the contents of the signboards themselves, which apparently are a dry run of the kinds of “stations” that Niezabitowski envisions.

New signage with text about the Grey House, Płaszów, January 2018

The boards are design collages comprised of three main elements:  a large historical photograph filling the frame, over which float two sets of text––an excerpt from a first-person narrative of a Płaszów inmate or survivor, and information written in the impersonal voice of the Museum authority.  Both types of text are presented in Polish and English, and in general the contents of the boards pertain to the particular location in the former camp. 

The use of historical photographs is to me a good decision, except that the black and white images are presented in an altered form, with selected figures colored gold––sometimes prisoners, sometimes guards.  I do not understand this manipulation, either aesthetically or museologically.  It looks to me like an effort to animate or vivify––unfortunately using a hallmark technique of amateurish digital art––photographs that the Museum’s curators fear would otherwise be seen as heavy and dispiriting, if not overlooked altogether.  In my view, the heart of the challenge at Płaszów is changing the perception of the site among locals, whose behavior attests to an incomprehension of the site’s genocidal history––and functionally a denial of it.  If so, the transformation of historical photographs into historical illustrations based on photographs is a step in the wrong direction.  In attempting to teach history visually, the manipulation instead has the effect of casting that history into the realm of the semi-fantastical, reinforcing the semi-recognition that prevails among local attitudes.  Or to ask differently:  would the same technique of digital manipulation be necessary or appropriate at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where historical photographs made in the camp have likewise been installed?  If not, why not?

Beyond this, I notice important problems with the signboards, in the texts written by the Museum authority.  The problems especially concern the main informational signboard, which is installed twice––in front of the Grey House, and again beside the Cięckiewicz monument.

The same new general information board installed beside the Grey House and the Cięckiewicz monument at Cipowy Dołek, Płaszów, 2018

The English text on the board begins as follows:

The German Nazi concentration camp Plaszow, established in October 1942 on the grounds of Jewish cemeteries.  Initially, it was a forced labor camp (Zwangsarbeitslager) and was intended for approx. 4000 inmates––Jews from the Krakow ghetto liquidated in March 1943.  In the years 1943-1944, the Jews from liquidated ghettos in Bochnia, Tarnów, Wieliczka, Rzeszów, Przemyśl and a camp in Szebnie were put in Płaszów.

In July 1943, the Germans established a labour education camp for Poles within the territory of KL Plaszow.  The inhabitants of Krakow and victims of punitive military actions in towns and villages of the Krakow region were kept here.

This text is clear and not clear enough.  It is not just that the camp was intended for Jews from the Kraków ghetto.  The violent liquidation of the ghetto on 13-14 March 1943 alone sent thousands of Jews to the camp, about 8,000 according to the Polish historian Ryszard Kotarba.  Indeed, Kotarba notes, “[t]he Płaszów camp was an ‘extension’ of the Krakow ghetto.”  Companies operating in the ghetto were moved to the camp, as were the power structures and social hierarchy, all of which “distinguished Płaszów from typical concentration camps.”

Clear and not clear enough:  Płaszów’s uniqueness significantly consisted in the wanton terror and sheer sadism of the camp’s leadership, particularly the notoriously brutal commander Amon Göth––a situation that actually improved when Płaszów was given concentration camp status in January 1944.  None of the signboards forthrightly address the extraordinary level of brutality (even for the Nazis), which was a defining feature of the camp’s history.  None of them contain, for example, the account of a prisoner named Henryk Bloch, who testified as follows at Göth’s trial in 1946:

“Göth ordered his deputy to start beating us.  He went away to have his lunch.  We were then taken to the back, next to the house he lived in.  Two tables were brought, also buckets of water and they started beating us directly on our naked flesh. Göth ordered that everyone should receive 100 strokes each, but everyone received more than 200 and even 300.  Every prisoner had to count each stroke loudly.  If a mistake was made in the count by him, the beating started afresh from number one… It was impossible being hit so many times, to count properly, people were making mistakes, and the beatings were starting afresh.  And so the beatings went on and on, the tables were covered in blood, as every hit meant a fresh cut in someone’s flesh. As anyone left the table, he was virtually one bloody mass of cut flesh.  Everyone getting off the table was ordered to report, standing to attention:  `I report humbly that I have received my sentence.’  In the course of all this, one man screamed terribly.  Göth shouted at him to calm down, to count.  The man did not calm down.  Göth approached him, picked up half a brick off the ground, went to the table on which the man was being beaten and from a very close distance struck him on the head with the brick, splitting his head.  The beating of that man continued uninterrupted, then the pouring of water and beating again.  Covered in blood, with a split head, he went off the table, and approaching Göth, he reported he had received his penalty.  He was ordered to go away, and as the man turned, Göth pulled out his revolver, firing it into the back of the man’s head.”

Clear and not clear enough:  without explaining the overall chronology of the camp’s changes, and without contextualizing the numbers of Polish to Jewish prisoners, the new text suggests that the camp was equally a destination for Jews and Poles from Kraków and the region.  In fact Jews were always the overwhelming majority of Płaszów’s prisoners, and as the text goes on to state accurately, the most numerous of its victims. 

Concerning numbers, again clear and not clear enough.  For decades, estimates of the total number of prisoners who passed through the camp were pegged at 150,000, based mostly on the work of the Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland.  Kotarba revises this total figure downward to “a few tens of thousands,” with some 22,000-24,000 at the camp’s height in May-June 1944, and notes that around 25,000 prisoners were actually assigned numbers.  The new signboard proclaims 30,000 for the whole period of the camp’s operation, an underestimation.  Likewise the new signboard downplays the number of victims, reporting the number as 5,000.  Kotarba cites a figure of 7,200, against the testimony of the Jewish gravedigger Herman Ladner, who estimated 10,000, and the most commonly accepted number of victims is 8,000, a number appearing on an older signpost that forms part of the Podgórze cultural trail, just beside the new signboard.  It is incumbent on the Museum not to lower the number of victims, and at the least to acknowledge the ongoing state of research into these numbers.

New signage beside the Hujowa Górka killing and burning site, Płaszów, January 2018

Problems also exist with new texts at the two main execution sites, Hujowa Górka and Cipowy Dołek.  At Hujowa Górka, the new signboard reads:  

In September 1943, the next site of executions of Jewish inmates was a former artillery earthwork.  The bodies of the victims were initially buried in the earthwork moat, and in September 1944 the bodies were exhumed and burnt on pyres.  In 1946, a wooden cross was erected at the site to commemorate the camp victims.

And at Cipowy Dołek, the new signboard reads:

From February 1944, a former Austrian earthwork was used by the Germans as a site of mass executions.  The victims were mainly Poles––the Gestapo prisoners brought here to be shot.  The bodies were burnt on pyres immediately after these executions.  In 1964, a Monument to the Victims of Fascism was erected here.

Clear and not clear enough:  the new signboard at Hujowa Górka is conspicuous in its non-mention of the Polish text at the base of the large cross, which translates to the following:  “This cross is erected in memory of hundreds of Poles slain on this hill by the German occupiers.  May our Lord grant eternal rest to the souls of the martyrs and may a perpetual light shine for them.”  That older text wrongly implies that most of the victims at Hujowa Górka were Polish; the new signboard offers additional but not corrective information, leaving Polish-speaking visitors with two accounts of the site’s victims.  Further, the new signboard fails to acknowledge the problematics of a cross being used to commemorate a place of primarily Jewish death.  In my view (and I would suspect also that of other foreign Jews), the new signboard compounds the problem by reproducing a historical photograph of the cross, even though the cross itself stands unchanged just a few meters away.  I appreciate that in predominately Catholic Poland, placing a large cross is an honorific gesture.  Likewise, I think it is realistic to expect the Museum’s curators to see how and why it is presumptuous to treat the cross as a universal or common emblem of memory, when it is not.

Clear and not clear enough:  it is one thing to acknowledge that at Cipowy Dołek the murdered included Poles and various inmates from the Montelupich prison, and it is another to claim Cipowy Dołek as a site of predominately Polish victims.  In effect, the Museum is attempting to apportion the camp’s two largest killing sites between Jews and Poles.  The truth is different.  At Hujowa Górka, executions primarily of Jewish inmates occurred virtually everyday in the trenches of the former Austrian artillery rampart, from the summer of 1943 until February 1944, when the trenches could not hold any more corpses.  From February 1944 they continued at Cipowy Dołek, 300 meters to the west.  Postwar witnesses testified that 17 truckloads of human ashes were removed from the two burning sites, and scattered over the area of the camp.

Dividing Płaszów into national sectors is historically disingenuous, bordering on the absurd:  the killing site with the large cross on it is to belong to Jewish memory, and the one with the cacophony of monuments to Polish memory?  This is the same logic that has remade the memorial landscape of Kraków itself, with Kazimierz treated as the Jewish space and the rest of the city, particularly the Main Market Square, as Polish space––when in fact Jewish history belongs as much to the center of the city as to Kazimierz, and before the war Jews lived all over the city, and not only in Kazimierz.  Standing against the Museum’s subtle polonization of the camp’s history, and against the false division of the camp’s geography into zones of national memory––as also against the erasure of specificity in the Communist era Cięckiewicz monument––the text of the Jewish monument at Cipowy Dołek speaks far more lucidly than what the Museum has so far made:

Here, in this place, in the ears 1943-45, several tens of thousands of Jews were tortured, murdered and turned into ashes, brought here from all over Poland and Hungary.  We do not know the names of the murdered.  Let us replace them with one name––Jews.  Here, in this place, severe crimes were committed.  Human language knows no words to describe the atrocity, the beastliness, the ruthlessness and the cruelty.  Let us replace them with one word––Hitlerism.  The Jews who survived the Nazi genocide pay homage to the memory of those who were murdered, whose final scream of despair is Płaszów’s silence.

Finally, and not least, the new signage does nothing to address the question of what are appropriate and inappropriate behaviors at Płaszów.  I, for one, do not think it is so difficult to do.  The memorial complex to the mass murder sites in the Paneriai forest in Vilnius, for example, and Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, both post simple rules, including no dogs, no cycling, no littering, no drinking.  (In Berlin, these rules are routinely flouted––another story.)

Signboard at the Paneriai memorial site, Vilnius, Lithuania, May 2017

Posted rules at Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, January 2018

To my eyes, not explicitly addressing behavioral expectations smacks of a denial that inappropriate behavior exists at Płaszów.  This is a position I associate with Tadeusz Jakubowicz, whose chief strategy for Jewish survival is invisibility––not speaking of Polish anti-semitism where it exists––much as his chief strategy for Jewish prosperity is non-transparency.  In the same way, not addressing behavioral expectations is a compromise of silence over the continued desire of many citizens to use Płaszów as a recreational site, even when they understand its history. 

There are those who see ethical coercion and eventual ethical disengagement as the consequence of framing Holocaust sites as places apart from the activities of everyday life.  But this argument must, I think, contend with what has prevailed at Płaszów for decades, namely a state of convenient neglect, and a don’t-ask-don’t-tell situation in which a genocidal site has quietly become an attractive greenspace and even a pleasure-ground for residents of nearby high-density housing (itself largely built on the grounds of the former camp, outside the barbed wire, where Germans had their residences).  My guess is that Niezabitowski and his team fear the political costs to the incumbent city administration of confronting inappropriate behavior at Płaszów.  Or perhaps they are planning a staged introduction of behavioral rules at a later phase of work, or perhaps they plan to post rules without the intention or capacity to enforce them.  Perhaps they calculate that the anticipated number of visitors when the new project is completed––at our panel Niezabitowski gave the number 500,000 annually––will dwarf local presence and local attitudes.

Dog walkers beside new signage at Płaszów, January 2018

Clear and not clear enough:  just as you cannot pay a debt in tears, good intentions are not enough to undo ignorance.  And if ignorance is largely what a person or a group chooses to ignore, the Museum, the city and the Jewish community are not at liberty to ignore the mistakes of this “temporary” memorial work.  Płaszów belongs to all its victims, who deserve to be described as accurately as possible.  And Płaszów belongs to all its visitors, who deserve to know what happened there as clearly as possible, from which point they can begin the long task of figuring out for themselves what it meant and continues to mean.

Kraków, January 2018