The Benefits of Creating a Museum Space at Płaszów

Introduction

The former Płaszów forced labor camp can be found in the Podgórze district of Kraków, Poland; that is to say, on the southern edges of the city center. During the Second World War, Płaszów was constructed near the Jewish ghetto in Podgórze and it was built on top of two Jewish cemeteries. The Nazi’s managed the camp and its inmates, which were mainly Jews but also other prisoners from across occupied Poland. In the camp’s peak period in 1944, it is estimated that the number of inmates exceeded 20,000 (Kotarba 6). One year later, Płaszów was ‘liberated’ by the Soviet Army. The Płaszów camp was completely dismantled in an effort to hide the Nazi’s crimes and since then, the place has remained largely untouched. The empty Płaszów campscape looks no different than a public park today, because it has become overgrown with bushes and trees.

Only remnants of the original camp remain, including parts of the barbed wire fence, some foundations of the barracks and the former house of camp commandant Amon Göth (Drozdzewski 256). At the entrance of the camp, the ‘Grey House‘ still stands, which was used by the SS as a prison and torture chamber. It was here that Göth had his office, from which he was known to take potshots at the prisoners working nearby. The area that once constituted the Płaszów camp has turned into a nature reserve that is perceived and used as a recreation area. It is understandable that people take delight in the natural surroundings of Płaszów, but it is also a bit unsettling because Płaszów holds the remains of many Holocaust victims. It is estimated that the remains of 8,000-10,000 predominantly Jewish victims are still located within the area of the camp (Sendyka 188). These victims were mostly due to individual and mass shootings on site.

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The ‘Grey House’ at Płaszów, Kraków, Poland © Geke Dijkstra

A number of monuments have been placed on this former site of terror. The first monument was a wooden cross crowned with barbed wire, which marks the area of one of Płaszów’s most notorious mass execution sites: ‘H Górka‘. The wooden cross was erected in 1947 together with a Jewish monument. A few years later, in 1964, a large socialist-style memorial was unveiled in the south-west corner of the site: the ‘Memorial of Torn-Out Hearts‘ (Charlesworth and Addis 232). In 1984, a memorial commemorating thirteen Poles who were executed by the Nazi’s was added to the site. In 2002, a small monument was placed near the ‘Memorial of Torn-Out Hearts’ which commemorates Hungarian Jewish women passing through Płaszów on their way to Auschwitz. A small matzot for Sara Szenirer was placed in 2004 and an obelisk which honors members of the collaborating Polish Blue Police was added in 2012. The monuments at Płaszów seem to be lacking a coherent narrative. It becomes hard for the visitor to make sense of the multiple messages conveyed on site.

Płaszów’s mosaic of monuments reflects the current state of confusion about what to do with the site. Płaszów has many complex histories to tell, that is why it is hard to establish one narrative that includes all perspectives. The Historical Museum of the City of Kraków, the Faculty of Polish Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage are formally in charge of the management of the site. However, many monuments were informally erected on site and they commemorate different social groups for different reasons. These narratives sometimes contradict one another. In 2017, Dr. Roma Sendyka installed a series of black-and-white information boards with her team from the Jagiellonian University. This is an important step towards the integration of perspectives. The parties in charge are still investigating what should be the next step. Plans are underway to open the Grey House to the public in the form of a museum. This blog post aims to elucidate the benefits of such a museum.

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‘Memorial of Torn-Out Hearts’ at Płaszów, Kraków, Poland © Geke Dijkstra
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Students in front of H Górka monument at Płaszów, Kraków, Poland © Geke Dijkstra

Popularity of Płaszów

If we approach the subject from a visitor’s perspective, a museum space would enhance Płaszów’s ‘popularity’. The Płaszów forced labor camp has gone through different phases of ‘popularity’ and it is safe to say that since the release of Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List (1993), people’s awareness of the site has increased (Charlesworth and Addis 230). During the Communist era, the former Płaszów camp did not receive much attention. Tourists would use Kraków as a jumping-off point for visiting Auschwitz, without realising there used to be a concentration camp in the southern district of the city. The people who did visit Płaszów focused on the large socialist monument, and later the smaller Jewish monument, without seeing or walking through the camp proper. This all changed when Schindler’s List put forward the story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved lives of more than a thousand mostly Jewish refugees from the Holocaust by employing them in his factory. Płaszów is the location for a number of key scenes from this film.

Schindler’s List became a huge success worldwide, which resulted in a stream of tourists wanting to see Schindler’s Factory. Schindler’s Factory opened its doors as a branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków in 2010. Whilst Schindler’s factory is currently overflowing with visitors, few people realise that the former Płaszów camp is just a few tram stops away. The former Płaszów camp is not branded as a touristy must-see, nor is there a lot of information and guidance available. People who would like to see Płaszów are puzzled about how to get there and how to ‘experience’ the place. The memory of Płaszów’s forced labor camp is not actively promoted to the public.

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A father and daughter taking a stroll at Płaszów, Kraków, Poland © Geke Dijkstra

People who do visit Płaszów seem to be unaware of the site’s grievous past. They behave in ways that are usually attributed to urban spaces, for example by playing ball games, having a picnic or taking a stroll. This behavior and accompanying experience of visitors at Płaszów can be compared to visitors’ experience of the ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’ in Berlin, Germany. Most people at the Berlin memorial move around freely; they are running around and laughing, they sit on the monument eating food, take their shirts off to enjoy the sun, chat on their smartphones, eat ice cream and carry balloons (Stevens 34). Both Płaszów and the Berlin memorial demonstrate an ‘unexpected’ experience of a Holocaust site. The sites seem to inspire visitors into lively and playful behavior, instead of leaving a sad and dark impression.

A comparable experience of a Holocaust memorial is the Majdanek death camp, situated in the suburbs of Lublin in eastern Poland. Soon after the war ended, in 1947, the newly appointed museum authorities decided that they would plant small trees in one part of the camp, in order to create a landscape comparable to what the site had been. The local residents took this to be the creation of a park, so with good weather they began to use the space accordingly by sitting down and sunbathing there. The museum authorities could not allow this behavior, especially since the war had ended two years earlier and the matter was highly sensitive, therefore they cancelled the plan and the small trees were removed (Charlesworth and Addis 247).

The example of what happened at the Majdanek death camp illustrates how much people welcome green spaces in their environs. In fact, it is not surprising that people enjoy public parks and use it for recreational purposes such as playing ball games, having a picnic or sunbathing. It remains shocking to realize that locations which once marked the terrors of the Holocaust, have turned into public spaces that visitors appreciate for their nature and beauty. At the same time, it is hard to control the wide diversity of things people choose to do in public open spaces, many of which are spontaneous and unpredictable.

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Picture of Płaszów, Kraków, Poland © Geke Dijkstra

Museum Space?

The site of the former Płaszów camp is a specific case study since the green field is part of a growing city with the consequent pressures for recreation space and development property (Drozdzewski 259). The site is used by locals from neighboring houses and high-rise complexes who are desperately looking for free space to walk their dog or let their children play. As was mentioned before, Dr. Roma Sendyka made an effort to maintain the memory of Płaszów by installing a set of information boards, which provide context about the Płaszów forced labor camp and black-and-white photographs of what the camp used to look like. The boards present an overarching narrative that integrates the contradictory narratives of the monuments. Unfortunately, the information boards are quite spread out on the grounds of Płaszów, that is why visitors can still get confused whilst walking around on site.

A more concentrated presentation of the overarching narrative could help clarify the story of Płaszów. For example, if the Grey House would host an exhibition about the multi-layered memory of Płaszów, this would further integrate perspectives and increase visitors’ understanding of the site.  A museum space would also bring more exposure to the site, which would spur the amount of visitors, because at the moment ‘neither tourist centres nor locals know or seem to care about its existence’ (visitor’s testimony). Therefore, creating a museum space at Płaszów would have a positive impact on visitors’ numbers and their experience. It would also prevent the site from fading into oblivion. Plans to turn the Grey House into a museum are already being discussed by the managing parties of Płaszów — let’s wait and see what the future holds.

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Dr. Roma Sendyka (Assistant Professor in the Polish Studies Department at the Jagiellonian University) in front of an information board at Płaszów, Kraków, Poland © Geke Dijkstra

Bibliography

Charlesworth, Andrew, and Michael Addis. "Memorialization and the Ecological Landscapes of Holocaust Sites: The Cases of Plaszow and Auschwitz-Birkenau." Landscape Research 27.3 (2002): 229-251.

Drozdzewski, Danielle. "When the everyday and the sacred collide: Positioning Płaszów in the Kraków landscape." Landscape Research 39.3 (2014): 255-266.

Kotarba, Ryszard, Dorota Plutecka, and Kamil Budziarz. A Historical Guide to the German Camp in Płaszów 1942-1945. Institute of National Remembrance. Commission of the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation, 2014.

Sendyka, Roma. "Prism: Understanding Non-Sites of Memory." (2015): 13-28.

Stevens, Quentin. "Visitor Responses at Berlin's Holocaust Memorial: Contrary to Conventions, Expectations and Rules." Public Art Dialogue 2.1 (2012): 34-59.

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