Karol Szurdak and Berenika Błaszak collecting medicinal plants at the former KL Płaszów, Kraków / Jason Francisco, 2018

Thoughts and Afterthoughts on an Artistic Initiative / 2022

It is the summer of 2022, and I have returned to Kraków for the first time since the pandemic.  I am walking Płaszów again, a place I have come to know intimately over years of time in Kraków.*  I am walking Płaszów full of dissatisfaction, looking at it as it is and also looking conjecturally, with a particular kind of attention—call it historical consciousness, or Jewish consciousness, or an outsider’s consciousness, or an artist’s consciousness, or a scrambled mess of all of them.  My particular path through Płaszów follows no given path.  It crisscrosses itself and keeps digressing.  Probably this is also just my way in the world, which is in fact a nameless way—inasmuch as there is no good word I know in English for rhythmic meandering, in which the act of walking journeys the search for meaning back and forth between the comprehensible and the non-comprehensible.
For those who know something about Kraków, and especially for Jews, Płaszów ineluctably recalls the war, specifically the camp that the Germans created there on the site of two Jewish cemeteries.  The camp opened in June 1942 as the main forced-labor camp for Jews rounded up from the Kraków region, and later from Hungary.  It initially occupied 25 acres on the site of two Jewish cemeteries in the Podgórze section of Kraków, and was planned to hold 5,000-7,000 prisoners, largely from the Kraków ghetto.  By 1944, it occupied 197 acres and contained some 30,000 prisoners, and over 200 buildings.  At least 50,000 people passed through the camp in the two and a half years of its existence.  Though most prisoners were Jews, the camp’s population also included hundreds of Roma and thousands of Polish political prisoners, as many as 3,000 following the Warsaw uprising in the late summer and fall of 1944.
The camp served three major purposes simultaneously.  First, it was a forced labor camp, in which prisoners worked as tailors, locksmiths, carpenters, upholsterers, mechanics, electricians, shoemakers, furriers, printers.  Second, it was a transit camp for condemned Jews subsequently sent to Bełżec, Auschwitz and other forced labor camps.  Third, it formed a killing center of its own, with regular massacres occurring by gunshot, especially at two military fortifications originally built by the Austrians, which prisoners came to call Hujowa Górka (“Prick Hill”) and Cipowy Dołek (“Cunt Hole”)––names that remain in use.  “Life” in the camp was extraordinarily brutal, especially under the infamous commander Amon Göth, who assumed leadership in February 1943.  Sadistic beatings, shootings, and torture of prisoners occurred continuously, above and beyond the camp’s baseline murderousness of starvation, exhaustion and disease.  Camp guards included some 200 Ukrainian SS men trained at Trawniki, plus another 600 German SS men and SS women.
In January 1944, the SS economic and administration department took over the Płaszów camp, effectively converting it from a regional to a major camp in the general government.  The SS liquidated the remaining forced labor camps for Jews in the Kraków and Radom districts, and concentrated Jewish slave laborers at Płaszów, which overtook Majdanek in size.  In the summer of 1944, in an effort to erase evidence of the camp, the Nazis began to exhume the bodies of some 9,000 people from 11 mass graves, and burn them.  Witnesses later testified that 17 truckloads of human ashes were removed from the burning sites and scattered over the area of the camp.  The death toll at the camp is estimated at 8,000-10,000.  In January 1945, the SS guards evacuated the last 636 Jews from Płaszów in the direction of Auschwitz, and when Soviet troops entered Kraków on January 19, they found Płaszów a deserted, barren tract of land.
In the decades since the end of the Second World War, Płaszów has acquired a distinctly ambivalent status within the contemporary city.  The part of the site formerly reserved for German personnel, almost half of what constituted KL Płaszów, has been developed into a residential area, with buildings, private houses, and businesses.  Though part of the erstwhile camp, it is not generally known as such, and not commonly regarded as a Holocaust site.  The part that held the camp’s prisoners, which includes the prewar cemeteries, has remained a tract of open land, and is commonly known as a Holocaust site.  It includes several memorials, representing different eras and communities, most of them clustered around Cipowy Dołek (one of the camp’s most gruesome locations, site of the mass burning of disinterred corpses toward the end of the camp’s existence).  For the most part, the open tracts of land at Płaszów function de-facto as a sprawling public park for locals living in adjacent areas.  As such the former camp is used for recreation, especially in the warm months, where it is popular among dog-walkers, sunbathers, picknickers and drinkers.  And while there are visitors who come to learn about and to remember the site’s history, also special commemorative events such as the annual march from Płac Bohaterów Getta to Płaszów to mark the liquidation of the Kraków Ghetto, the everyday life of Płaszów is utterly unlike genocidal places that are its equivalent in moral darkness—Auschwitz, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Chełmno, not to mention dozens of smaller former camp locations in Poland.
For most of the decades following the war, in-situ public information about the camp was non-existent.  In the 1990s, the official Kraków Jewish community erected a handful of terse signboards alerting visitors to the existence of a camp and asking that they “respect its grievous history,” but failing to provide even the most rudimentary facts.  In 2006 an international competition for a memorial resulted in detailed studies and eventually a winning entry, which was then torpedoed by the head of the Jewish community, Tadeusz Jakubowicz, for his own reasons.  Only in 2017 were signboards with detailed in-situ information about the camp’s history installed—as an activist initiative by a local academic, Roma Sendyka, and her graduate students.  In 2018, after decades of neglect and indifference, the City of Kraków, the official Kraków Jewish Community, and Historical Museum of the City of Kraków jointly agreed to undertake the creation of a museum for Płaszów.  That process has been, to say it plainly, a fiasco.  Fully to comment on it is beyond the scope of this short essay, but suffice it to say that the city and its partners have essentially continued the insular and non-transparent style of the Jewish community’s management of its portion of the site, which is a story in itself.  The city has developed a plan without an international competition and jury, or the involvement of heritage professionals and policymakers, or international experts in Jewish heritage specifically, or a meaningful democratic process involving the local community.  Rather the city has been by turns imperious and evasive, lacing its proclamations with mixed messages, specifically with regard to the question of whether the green space of the camp will be fenced off.  It does not take a brain surgeon to figure out that just historical remembrance is not driving the city’s activities.  Rather the city has figured out that it has a mini-Auschwitz in its backyard, and that some large number of the millions of tourists who visit Auschwitz every year might also be drawn to Płaszów, representing significant money.
On the other hand, I also see ulterior motives on the side of locals who oppose the city’s plans.  They have focused their cause on the city’s plan to cut down hundreds of trees to create the proposed museum.  This argument looks to me dangerously close to greenwashing, using environmental consciousness to mask a deeper resistance to change.  This resistance has, to my eyes, three parts.  First, it is easy and convenient for locals to enjoy Płaszów as a park, relative to the dearth of green spaces in the southern part of the city.  Second, the city’s cravenness and heavy-handedness all by itself creates a NIMBYist backlash, with Płaszów joining the list of other citizen grievances.  Third, Płaszów’s transformation into primarily a memorial site threatens to rattle what I would call the prevailing don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach to Płaszów’s status in the collective consciousness of the city, as it has taken shape over decades and generations.  For many of the 11,000 locals who have signed a petition opposing the new museum, personal inconvenience plus the feeling of being railroaded and insulted by the city, plus the complications attending Polish remembrance of Jewish losses—are enough to close many minds.
The don’t-ask-don’t-tell status quo is likewise its own story, but it seems to me that much has to do with the dialectics of ignorance and indifference concerning a place of traumatic history.  Some large part of local ignorance of Płaszów owes to the post-war Jewish community’s reluctance to call attention to its own pain, plus the poverty of Holocaust education in the city, now just as in the communist period.  But something else seems to me responsible for indifference to Płaszów—something I notice perhaps because I am a Jew and a non-Pole, an outsider to Polish belonging.  I notice what I would call a collective blind spot, created by the problem of competitive victimhood concerning the legacy of the war.  The blind spot results not from Polish denial of Jewish losses, but from a positional privileging of “our” (Polish) murdered as against “their” (Jewish) murdered, so that Polish and Jewish victims come effectively to occupy different strata of ethical demand.  When Jewish losses reside in the Polish blind spot, Polish losses appear with greater priority and urgency, and ignorance of Jewish losses begins to slip into indifference.  When Jewish losses sit in the Polish blind spot, the result is a tacit dismissiveness—not the ugly Polish anti-semitism of Jewish stereotype—rather a quiet conversion of Jews’ still-living losses into Poles’ cold facts and old news.  It seems to me that a fair test for discerning the Polish blind spot concerning a place like Płaszów is to compare Polish perceptions of it to killing sites reflexively honored in Polish national consciousness, such as Katyn.  I would argue that what is obviously necessary and appropriate to Poles about honoring Katyn is the standard by which they should measure what is necessary and appropriate at (perhaps) not-yet-obvious sites like Płaszów.**
I realize that generalizations such as these are always fallible, and at best approximate.  But if there is a vibration of truth in what I sense, it seems to me also in keeping with what I have learned through a quarter century of studying the geography of the Holocaust across a much larger territory of eastern and central Europe.  I find Płaszów’s complications emblematic of the landscape of undecidability:  places that are equally non-places, where memory precisely resembles non-memory.  Genocidal sites like Płaszów are, to me, most notable for the potency of their irresolutions.  They are at once volatile and marginal, charged and forsaken, rich and abject—places of memory that are also non-places of memory, and places of non-memory.  Indeed, they beg the meaning even of the prefix “non-”, inasmuch as it becomes impossible to discern a non-place from, say, a counter-place, and non-memory from dys-memory.  

It is 2022, eighty years after the time of the camp—the length of a full human life—and the hills and fields of Płaszów keep asking me:  in what senses does the inheritance of history require something other than knowledge—but also imagination?  Imagination as against (mere) knowledge:  is it not the case that the more we grasp factually about the Holocaust’s mechanisms and patterns and structures, the more unfathomable they become?  And is it not the case that the more we try to describe it, the more we realize that everything we say is both too little and too much?  And if so, it seems to me that there is a meaningful distinction to be made between memory and remembrance, akin to the distinction between knowledge and imagination.  (Perhaps I can frame it as a syllogism:  memory is to knowledge as remembrance is to imagination.)  Where memory is concerned with the accuracy of our stories of the past, remembrance is concerned with the adequacy of our feeling for the past. Where memory is concerned with the past on its “own” terms, remembrance is preoccupied with the past on the terms of the present that keeps coming.  And where memory is frequently hard and polemical (in the case of traumatic history, reinforcing nationalist agendas according to the logic of competitive victimhood), remembrance is pacific and invitational, created in the spirit of ethical welcome.
I have been photographing Płaszów actively since 2010.  With a large format camera, I have photographed the land itself through all the seasons, coming to know the physical terrain in great detail; with a handheld digital camera, I have also photographed a wide range of activities that go on there, from the ignorant and disrespectful to the mindful and inquisitive.  The resulting photowork, “The Camp in its Afterlives,” stages a dialectical exchange between these two types of images—in what is, I suppose, the most extensive and intensive visual investigation that anyone has attempted concerning the complications of Płaszów.  Beginning in 2016, my thinking about remembrance of Płaszów took a new turn, as I became interested in the idea of a museum of practices—not of inert objects but of action and conversation that might stimulate remembrance at deep levels.  I had become convinced that ordinary museological processes, in which didactic materials take the active role and visitors the passive role, were likely not capable of breaking the low grade taboo around the Jewish in Poland, much less the fear within it.  My Polish teacher, Piotr Słomian, put it to me this way:  “When someone, especially a Jew, approaches a Pole and starts to talk about the difficulties of a place like Płaszów, the first thing the Pole wants to know is, ‘am I being blamed for something?’—and if the answer is yes, the response may be defensive or possibly open-minded, and if the answer is no, the response might be fresh curiosity or the topic’s quick descent into irrelevance.”  I was interested in how artistic initiatives might be capable of short-circuiting habitual responses like the ones Piotr named.  In my mind was an insight from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who in 1972 distinguished guilt from responsibility this way: “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, [and] in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
On a walk through Płaszów in 2016 with a friend who knows something about medicinal plants, a question took shape in my mind:  “What forces of healing is the genocidal earth of Płaszów itself generating?”  And from this question, other questions:  “Is it possible to use practices of natural healing for social healing?” and “How might the land of historical trauma allow a space for eco-mourning in this era on the cusp of climate disaster?”
FestivALT––the Kraków-based experimental artist’s collective that I co-founded in 2016 and that I currently serve as a member of the curatorial oversight group––decided to take up the project as part of the 2018 summer program.  With FestivALT and especially Magda Rubenfeld Koralewska, 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.
Beginning in 2018, Polish ethnobotanist Karol Szurdak began leading guided walks through Płaszów for FestivALT and the MOPS community.  An expert in plant-based medicine, Karol taught the identification and uses of common medicinal plants growing at Płaszów, from which medicinal tinctures, teas and compounds can be made.  As Karol spoke of natural medicine and plant pharmacology, I and others spoke of Płaszów’s history, so that the two types of awareness––the medicinal and the genocidal––were brought together in a single braided encounter.  That summer, we collected eighteen species of medicinal plants growing at Płaszów––the number that corresponds to the Hebrew word for life—and brought them back to MOPS, transplanted the specimens, and 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.  At the opening reception for the garden’s dedication, the skies opened and rain came to water our garden in what seemed an impossibly poetic moment.
My own text for the exhibition included this paragraph:
“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.”
In the summer of 2019, we did the whole thing again, almost from scratch, as the garden we built had to be dismantled over the winter during renovations at MOPS.  We continued with the botanical walking tours—incorporating the tour Adam Schorin had developed telling Płaszów’s history in connection with the experience of his grandfather, who was a survivor of the camp and the Kraków ghetto.  That summer the rebuilt garden/exhibition hosted other of FestivALT’s programming, notably an experimental work by composer/guitarist Alex Roth.  The garden that summer retained a distinctly quixotic character—still improbable, still fragile—but seemed poised to evolve into a durable experiment.
The global pandemic shuttered FestivALT’s in-person summer program, and a year-round online program of works emerged instead, and the garden faltered as a physical destination.  However, Magda, Karol and new FestivALT staff moved forward with what had been a tacit part of the concept of the garden:  with the harvested plants from Płaszów, they created actual teas, tinctures, and creams for actual use.  By the time of FestivALT’s next live edition in the summer of 2022, these preparations were available to viewers and participants in FestivALT’s activities, including the resumed botanical/historical tours of Płaszów.  These preparations pushed the envelope in what I consider to be critically important ways.  If the predicating question of the project is a conceptual one about the ways genocidal earth grows the ingredients of healing, the next question concerns our willingness to implicate our own bodies in that process.  In this way, the project in this latest, possibly last stage has found its way to an abruptly difficult question:  would you yourself drink tea or ingest a tincture or apply a cream made from a plant from Płaszów—a plant that in some real sense contains trace elements of the dead and the murdered?  Would you bring your own body into an act of remembrance, extending—perhaps completing—the work of the remembering mind and heart?   Or on the contrary, would the body’s involvement break that remembrance, even corrupt it?  The question is personal, precisely so.
It is also symbolically charged from different directions.  From a certain Jewish perspective, making medicine from the earth of genocide follows the logic of the traditional Jewish blessing over bread, which praises God and ends הַמּוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ, “ha motzi lechem min ha-aretz,” “…who brings forth bread from the earth.”  The point of the blessing’s wording, at least as I understand it, is that bread itself is not what grows from the earth, rather bread is the nourishment that human will and effort make from the things that grow from the earth.  And if so, to make and actually to use the earth of genocide for medicinal purposes follows the same Jewish logic of creating one’s own blessings, perhaps with an added redemptive aspect—understanding collective historical trauma as a heritable spiritual pain in need of healing.  On the other hand, actually using medicine made from genocidal earth also follows a Christian logic of salvation, an essentially mystical act of healing through consumption of the transmogrified body of the dead (i.e. Jesus, who of course, for the Christians, later becomes undead, though no less incorporeal).  And if so, the project sits on a cusp between Jewish and Christian mythopoetics, belonging to both and provoking both.***

It is now the autumn after the summer of 2022, and the Medicinal Plants of Płaszów seems, somehow all at once, to have run its course and to be ripe for reimagination.  To have run its course:  if conceptual art begins as idea and then goes through the palpable in order to return a different idea to the realm of ideas, Medicinal Plants as originally conceived seems to me to have done that.  To repeat the project in the coming years, hopefully in a meaningfully post-pandemic world—further ethnobotanical/historical walking tours, plant collection, garden making, medicine crafting—would have the benefit of inviting greater numbers of people into the project’s predicaments.  There are benefits to such a direction, especially in the social praxis that it stands to build.  Me, I feel restless toward the prospect of repeating the project, its strengths notwithstanding.  Two ways of reimagining the work stand forward for me, from an understanding that an interesting project is ultimately a curated set of prompts worth responding to, more than it is any of the responses those prompts generate.
First, I see vital connections between the premises of Medicinal Plants and other forms of collective grief, specifically concerning climate change.  “What forces of healing is the genocidal earth itself generating?” gives way to the question, “Is genocidal earth uniquely situated to address future grief as much as past grief?”  Most popular attention to the climate crisis, after all, focuses on the parts of the planet where the consequences of warming are most visible (polar ice melt, extreme ocean weather, flooding from rising seas, wildfires, sometimes the evidence of mass extinction of flora and fauna).  Those discussions are, of course, essential.  But the urge to grieve the coming catastrophe is only partly met by good science.  I would argue that scientific learning is at most half of what is required to meet this moment.  Affective will is the other part, which requires new forms of lament, not defeatist lament but the reverse, the kind of lament by which a civilization matures, what I would call disobedient lament, mischievous lament, subversive lament, mutinous lament.  The critical piece of this kind of lament is the recognition of the way it shatters normal temporal distinctions:  grief for the future of the carbon-wrecked planet is precisely grief for the carbon-wreaking present, just as grief for our inaction and alibis and stupidity now is grief for the capitalist cult of competitive advantage, limitless growth and (paradoxically) limitless scarcity that we have accepted from our ancestors as our inheritance.  In this sense, Płaszów and places like Płaszów allow a special receptivity to the trans-temporal dimension of civilizational disaster.  The place of genocidal grief might well be, I think, the place for environmental grief.****  A place that summons moral imagination as historical imperative might just as well direct that imperative toward the unfated future as much as to the unrequited past.
Second, it seems to me that there are personalist directions for Medicinal Plants, which might link Płaszów to other vanished or disappeared geographies, or to specific stories of losing and finding, or of something-else from nothing-left, or alternately to the dangers of storytelling and the inadequacies of narrative to handle human experience.  I can imagine new forms of this project that draw on personal mapmaking or atlasing, which themselves come from walking Płaszów in relation to other walks in other places—walking or dance, or other forms of proprioceptive discovery—and all manner of gathering, sifting, and sorting at Płaszów that result in new kinds of healing arts for the mind and body alike.  The earth of the camp, in this sense, stands to become the body of the remembering imagination.
It is not long now until the winter of 2022, and I am walking Płaszów in my mind.  I see:  what will grow next summer from the earth of genocide will depend a great deal on what curative powers we decide are not worth regaining.

*  I confess I have wanted pandemic consciousness to linger beyond the pandemic itself—seeing in the pandemic a rare example of what a global focus might look like concerning threats to humanity as a whole.  Does pandemic consciousness not help us to evolve more meaningfully toward, say, eco-consciousness and proactivity on climate change?
**  A similar Jewish blind spot exists concerning Polish losses, and a similar problem of dismissiveness results—with the difference being that Jewish perspectives live at a distance from the sites of the Holocaust, and Polish perspectives in proximity to those sites.
***  Some might turn to Halacha (orthodox Jewish law) to arbitrate what is permissible and what is not about making and consuming medicine from the flora of Płaszów.  I, though, I am not one of them, in part because Halacha presents more questions than answers.  Some rabbis argue that it is forbidden to collect any herbs, plants and flowers from a cemetery, while others argue that this prohibition applies only to plants that grow on graves.  Likewise, some poskim argue that is is permissible to collect and sell the herbs and fruits of a cemetery for medicinal purposes, while others argue that this is permissible only if medicine cannot otherwise be found or purchased nearby.  Płaszów is, however, a double cemetery—the prewar cemetery in which graves exist in distinct locations, and the Holocaustal cemetery in which the ashes of the dead were scattered everywhere.  While it may seem obvious that a place of the mass killing of Jews and the cremation their bodies is a cemetery, this is not the case if a Jewish cemetery is understood as a place of bones rather than ashes—indeed, as a community of bones signifying Jewish belonging “forever.”  Along these lines I have heard it argued that a Holocaustal place like Płaszów or Auschwitz is something other than a Jewish cemetery.  Speaking personally, I cannot countenance the position that a Holocaust site deserves the ethical status of a place of mourning but not the legal status of a cemetery.  In any case, Halacha seems the wrong place to turn for a different reason.  Why should Halacha should have any authority over conceptual art?  What sense does it make to consider law binding on poetry?
****  I am ruminating on the Hebrew word מקום, “makom,” or “place” as in spatial location, as well as non-literal qualities of place (things being “in place” and “out of place”), and also spiritual qualities of place—Jewish tradition takes HaMakom, “The Place” as a name for god who is not in any place, as if to liken god’s presence to a dwelling place for the heart and mind.  Is it a coincidence that it The Place is the divine name traditionally used for mourners: הַמָּקוֹם יְנַחֵם אֶתְכֶם בְּתוֹךְ שְׁאָר אֲבֵלֵי צִיּוֹן וִירוּשָׁלַיִם, “May The Place comfort you…”