Medicinal Plants of Płaszów

One of my preoccupations in recent years has been the area in Kraków known as Płaszów, which before World War II was the site of two Jewish cemeteries and during the Holocaust was a major forced labor, transit, and death camp. Estimates of the number of people who passed through the camp between November 1942 and January 1945 range from 30,000 to upwards of 50,000, most of them Jews. At its peak in 1944, the camp’s slave laborers numbered some 25,000, the size of a small city. Approximately 8,000-10,000 prisoners perished in the camp—from disease, starvation, exhaustion, beating, and firing squad—and the remains of 2,000 victims from the Kraków Ghetto were also interred there.



In the contemporary city of Kraków, Płaszów remains a deeply ambivalent space.  Though publicly signed as a site of genocide––most recently through a project undertaken by graduate students of the Jagiellonian University––it remains the only major former Nazi camp not incorporated into a museum or cultural institution.  Primarily it functions as a public park, a popular place to sunbathe, picnic, ride bicycles, play games, and party.  Płaszów's everyday life is altogether different than that of Auschwitz, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Chełmno, not to mention dozens of smaller former camp locations in Poland.



The ways that Płaszów is simultaneously remembered and forgotten, understood and misunderstood has been the subject of photographic work and also socio-cultural research of mine over the last decade.  Now it is also the subject of an experimental work of historical memory, created in response to the questions, “What forces of healing is the genocidal earth of Płaszów itself generating?” and “Is it possible to harness the power of that natural healing for social healing?”  



These questions first came to me two years ago, when I began to study and photograph the medicinal plants growing at Płaszów.  Since then, a vision began to take shape in my imagination of a multi-dimensional encounter with Płaszów:  an exhibition bringing together historical consciousness of Płaszów, frank examination of the everyday life of Płaszów, and the earth of Płaszów itself, some kind of engagement with the healing plants growing on the site of the former camp.  

FestivALT––the Kraków-based experimental artist’s collective that I co-founded in 2016 and that I currently co-direct with Magda Rubenfeld Koralewska and Michael Rubenfeld––decided to take up the project as part of this summer’s program.  With FestivALT, the vision became more focused.  We conceived the idea of a community garden of medicinal plants brought from Płaszów, a garden tended by neighbors living near it.  We imagined a garden that in and of itself would bring people together and strengthen the community, as so many community gardens do, and at the same time serve as a place from which a change in historical awareness might develop.

Magda and I found a partner in Berenika Błaszak, director of Miejski Ośrodek Pomocy Społecznej, MOPS for short.  MOPS is a community center located in an old building in the former area of the Nazi ghetto for Jews in the Podgórze section of the city, just across the street from the site where the great Yiddish poet and singer Mordechai Gebirtig was murdered on June 4, 1942.



Berenika offered the community center’s courtyard––small, neglected, humble, perfect in spirit––and she convinced the board and the families of the center to invest their time and hearts in a community garden of healing plants harvested from Płaszów.  Berenika also accepted the task of obtaining permissions to establish the garden, which led her into a Kafkaesque bureaucratic maze from which she somehow emerged with the necessary documents.

A week ago, Magda and I went to Płaszów together with members of the MOPS community and Karol Szurdak, a Polish ethnobotanist and expert in plant-based medicine.  Karol gave a remarkable tour of the medicinal plants growing at Płaszów, dozens of plants from which medicinal tinctures, teas and compounds can be made.  As Karol spoke of natural medicine and plant pharmacology, I spoke of Płaszów’s history, and the two types of awareness––the medicinal and the genocidal––were brought together in a single complicated encounter.  



That afternoon, Karol described some three dozen species of of medicinal plants growing at Płaszów, and we collected eighteen of them––the number that corresponds to the Hebrew word for life.  We brought them back to MOPS, where other community members were building planters and filling them with soil.  We transplanted the specimens, one per planter.



A few days later, the artist and composer Miko Szatko and I––Miko is FestivALT’s technical director––together with Berenika and other members of the MOPS community, built the garden itself.  With the garden we hung a small exhibition of my pictures and texts, in Polish and in English.  We placed signs into each planter with information about the plant species, its chemical compounds and its medicinal uses.  I was still putting in the last screws when members of the MOPS community and a few interested others arrived for the dedication.  As Magda, Berenika and I described the project and our hopes for its future, the skies opened and rain came to water our garden in what seemed an impossibly poetic moment.



The exhibition is a braid of two image types:  small-format photographs showing the wide range of things people actually do at Płaszów, made from 2010-2018; and large-format photographs contemplating the earth of Płaszów, made from January-May 2018.  These two sets of pictures form my project, The Camp in its Afterlives.  Printed differently, the pictures would be for a museum exhibition.  As they are, they are printed for outdoor use.  The texts provide basic information about the camp’s history and about the complications of Płaszów as a site of memory and forgetting both.  

The community garden plus the pictures and texts are Kraków’s first long-term exhibition about the realities of contemporary Płaszów, an exhibition that none of Kraków’s museums or cultural centers will accept––not the Galicia Jewish Museum, not the Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków, not the International Culture Centre, not the Historical Museum of the city of Kraków, not the Kraków Fotomonth.  For all of these institutions, the complications of contemporary Płaszów remain too difficult, too tangled.  Following Poland's 2018 law criminalizing speech about the Polish involvement in the Holocaust, open examination of Płaszów's everyday life has become even more controversial.

On the day following our garden’s dedication, the FestivALT group returned to Płaszów with Karol for a second medicinal plants/historical tour, with Berenika and members of the MOPS community, and a handful of other people interested in the work.  We collected further specimens.  The adults seemed to find a measure of wonder in the combination of Płaszów's melancholy and the bounty of its flora.  The children channeled the energy of what grows.  Altogether it seemed both the culmination and the beginning of a remarkable process.

From my exhibition text:

“If we were only to recognize that the wounded earth grows plants from which we can make medicine––that would be enough.  And if we were to create a special garden of those plants, where the forces of pain and healing come together––that would be enough.  And if that special garden were tended by the hands of the community in whose midst the former camp sits––that would be enough.  And if that community were to make from this one garden other gardens of healing and remembrance––that would be enough.  And if from those other gardens new seeds of consciousness and understanding were to be planted––that would be enough.  And if from those seeds other kinds of actions, thoughts and hopes were to grow––that would be enough.”

The garden of medicinal plants is located in the courtyard of Dąbrówki 7 in Kraków.  It is open to the public everyday except Sundays and holidays; visitors should ring the bell for no. 3.

Jason Francisco
Kraków, 30 June 2018