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0123 Wojciech Szymański, A place of memory – monument – counter-monument. Artistic strategies of commemoration in Krakow's district of Podgórze (English version)

RIHA Journal 0123 | 17 June 2015 | Special Issue "Contemporary art and memory"

A place of memory – monument – counter-monument

Artistic strategies of commemoration in Krakow's district of Podgórze

Wojciech Szymański

Peer review and editing managed by:

Katarzyna Jagodzińska, Międzynarodowe Centrum Kultury, Kraków / International Cultural Centre, Krakow

Peer reviewers:

Magdalena Saryusz-Wolska, Joanna Wawrzyniak

Polish version available at / Wersja polska dostępna pod adresem: (RIHA Journal 0122)


In recent years, Krakow's district of Podgórze has witnessed the erection of several works in public space that are concerned with the memory of the place. A monumental piece erected by Witold Cęckiewicz in the 1960s in the former Płaszów Concentration Camp has been joined by contemporary works. It is especially the Ghetto Heroes Square and its direct vicinity that have been addressed by artists and designers who, through their works, i.e. Mateusz Okoński's Purification, Łukasz Skąpski's 10 cubic metres of Krakow's wintertime air, and a structure in the form of multiple chairs by Lewicki and Łatak's studio entered into a dialogue with the paradigm of counter-monumentality and postmemory. For common viewers and casual passers-by, as well as for residents of the district, these works are hardly evocative of recent history, or the events they are meant to commemorate. Do these works, with their consciously taken position on the verge of the visible, that is, on the verge of what can be considered art, fulfil their commemorative role? Can the excess of the invisible change at some point into the visible? These questions offer a starting point not only for the discussion of the above-mentioned works in the context of analogous creations in contemporary art of the last two decades, but also for a wider discussion of monumental and counter-monumental art after the Shoah.


Podgórze as a place of memory

  1. The history of the district of Podgórze, separated by the Vistula River from the old Krakow, suggests a paradox of sorts: Podgórze was granted city rights in 1785, while one hundred and twenty years later, in 1915, it found itself within the administrative borders of Krakow. Therefore, the history of this town / district seems short and marked with few significant events. However, it has accelerated significantly in the period of the Nazi occupation in the years 1939–1945. The present perception of the history of the district centres around the tragic events of the Second World War, while the space of Podgórze is seen most of all as a realm of Polish-Jewish-German memory. Why? Since this very space is defined by places which – as Cicero once suggested – "possess evocative power"1..Let me add that these memories are very specific and characterised by very particular qualities. Hence, following a distinction introduced by Aleida Assmann, I will address these places as traumatic places of memory.

  2. Reflecting on the relations between memory and history, the German scholar has distinguished two types of memory places: places of memory and places of trauma. Both types are characterised by a break of history.

In contrast to places characterised by continuity, fixity of given traditions, and narratives or forms of life – Assmann writes – places of memory exemplify a lack of such continuity. In other words, there is a gap between the past and the present. […] Places filled with memories suggest discontinuity, for they store remnants of what has passed, yet can still be reactivated through memory.2

  1. According to Assmann, traumatic places differ from "ordinary" places of commemoration because of the emotional content that they impose on memory. Therefore, while in case of commemorative places we are dealing with affirmative memory and remembering meant to "make use of the past to make the present brighter", traumatic places resist this kind of interpretation of the past. "A place of trauma – Assmann writes – is characterised by the fact that telling its story requires the highest kind of effort, as well as overcoming biases and social taboos"3.

  2. The paradoxical nature of the history of Podgórze that has been indicated in the opening paragraph consists in it (meaning history) being limited to the moment in time when continuity was broken. This break of history is, in fact, the very essence of the history of Podgórze. According to Assmann, such cracks give rise to places of memory. Podgórze served as the Krakow ghetto from 1941 to 1943, while from 1942 to 1945 it was a site of the Forced Labour Camp, later transformed into the Płaszów Concentration Camp, including the famous branch of Oskar Schindler's Enamel Factory. Due to their tragic history, Podgórze's places of memory have been gradually changing into traumatic places, while Podgórze itself is being transformed into a space of unhealed wound characterised by its very own topography.

Here, broken history materialises in ruins and relics whichstand out as foreign bodies and remnants of the past. Broken history is petrified in these remains and exists with no connection to the life of the local present which has moved on. What is more, it has learned to accept the relics of the past.4

  1. The above-cited remarks could also be referred to the district of Krakow, where some relics (e.g. fragments of the ghetto wall) and ruins (e.g. of a Jewish funeral home in Jerozolimska Street) are, in fact, preserved.5 They were and still are objects of collective forgetting (e.g. labour camps in Bieżanów and Prokocim, as well as branches of Płaszów Concentration Camp Julag II and Julag III),6 as well as objects of numerous and diverse commemoration practices emerging throughout the postwar period. A list of those would include: ceremonial name-giving (e.g. the name of the Square of Concord [Plac Zgody] was changed into the Ghetto Heroes Square), bestowing museum status (e.g. the former buildings of the so-called Schindler's Factory were transformed in 2010 into the branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, Oskar Schindler's Enamel Factory, while the former "Pod Orłem" Pharmacy was changed into a museum in 1983), performative rituals of memory (e.g. the March of Memory organised annually every March in Podgórze to celebrate the anniversary of the closing of the ghetto), and finally – commemoration through monuments: both in traditional monumental form, as well as following more contemporary models of counter-monument, introduced in the second half of the 20th century.

  2. In the following parts of this text, I will focus on the form of monumental and counter-monumental works that construct and sustain memory. My reflections on their form and meaning will critically address concepts introduced by those researchers whose writings on memory cultures and their changes after the Shoah have provided a significant counterpoint in the debate on monumental sculpture. Authors in question include: the already cited Aleida Assmann, Frank Ankersmit, who introduced several interesting and controversial theses in his Remembering the Holocaust: Mourning and Melancholia, a crucial text for the debate on the art of commemoration, as well as James E. Young – a scholar commonly considered a founder of the theoretical framework for the discussion of monuments and counter-monuments after the Shoah. My decision to choose these three scholars as my intellectual guides does not mean, however, that I do not draw from concepts introduced by other important theoreticians who address the issues of memory, postmemory, and trauma.7

  3. The significance of monuments for memory studies is apparent on several levels. Firstly, it seems that monuments in public space are much more prone to interact with potential viewers on an everyday basis than museums (which can but do not have to be visited) or performative events related to memory culture, such as marches (in which one can but does not have to participate). The form of monuments and, above all, the way they are being perceived by passers-by, seem to reflect in the most accurate way the condition of collective and cultural memory, for, notably, monuments are elements that are the first to emerge in those places where, according to the intention of their authors, the memory of people or events is to be preserved.8 Monuments are also the first to disappear, which is quite clear at the time of revolutions and sudden shifts of power, leaving behind nothing but empty plinths. Secondly, monuments are usually intended as art works (at least the ones I shall discuss were intended as such). Therefore, they can be used to analyse the links between the private / individual memory of an artist and the conventional – that is, stemming from the taste and style of the period – understanding of the structure of sculpture, sculpture and landscape, or sculpture and architecture. Thirdly, monuments, as formally structured messages etymologically related to remembering, require an addressee; whereas museums – homes to muses, treasuries, and mausoleums all in one9 – are institutions focused on the distribution and storage of unintended traces.10

  4. I will address the particular significance of monuments as forms of commemoration of traumatic places by discussing four monuments in Podgórze, created directly or indirectly in response to the moment of the break of history which characterises the history of the district. I will also consider how particular commemorative works use individual memory (of artists, designers, and witnesses of history whose private experience served as an artistic inspiration) to produce or attempt to produce long-term social memory.11

Monumental metaphor: Płaszów monument by Witold Cęckiewicz

  1. The first commemorative work created in Podgórze was the Monument of the Victims of Fascism, also known in Krakow as "the monument of the torn hearts", unveiled in September 1964 (Fig. 1). This nine-metre-high structure, a monumental, or even gargantuan project, as James E. Young described it,12 was designed in 1962 by Witold Cęckiewicz and erected from 1962 to 1963 by the sculptor Ryszard Szczypczyński from the Karsy limestone. The monument, located on the site of the former Płaszów Concentration Camp, was a part of a larger project that included sculptural elements and landscape design and meant as the main element and setting for the celebratory rituals of memory related to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. Its monumentality was emphasised by its location on top of a hexagonal earthwork constructed from 1855 to 1856 as a part of the fortifications of the Krakow Fortress (marked with the symbol FS-22, Fig. 2). Included by the Nazis within the framework of the Płaszów camp, the earthwork was used as one of two sites of mass executions of prisoners and as a mass grave described in literature as C-Dołek [C-Hole]. This spatial and historical context indicates that the location of the monument was to commemorate the traumatic place of memory, or even to construct it as such. What means and what forms were used to sustain and construct this memory?

1 The Monument of the Victims of Fascism, Kraków-Płaszów, photo: the archive of Witold Cęckiewicz