Comparing the past at 2, Pomorska street: A successful strategy or a futile exercise?

 

During WWII, Pomorska Street was a well known place in Krakow. The name was associated with violence and death because the Gestapo had their headquarters and prison there. Nowadays the street has no particular meaning to the people of Krakow. The building where the Nazis used to imprison political opponents is mostly rented to private residents, except for a few of the former prison cells, and other spaces which host a branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow (MHK). ‘People of Krakow in Times of Terror 1939 – 1945 – 1956’ is the permanent exhibition at 2, Pomorska Street since 2011. The exhibition and the nearby Nazi prison cells are part of MHK’s ‘Remembrance Route’, together with Oskar Schindler’s Factory and The Eagle Pharmacy (MHK, 2013). Unlike the exhibitions at these other two sites, ‘People of Krakow in Times of Terror’ also focuses on the events that took place in Krakow after the end of the war, until 1956. Although part of the Silesian House at 2, Pomorska Street has been part of the museum since the 1980s the previous permanent exhibition did not focus on the post-war period.

2, Pomorska Street represents an intriguing case of the musealisation of a site of memory, which can be used to gain an understanding of the ways in which the heritage of WWII, and of the communist period, is treated in Poland. The two main elements of the site are the permanent exhibition and the prison cells, which are separated from the exhibition space physically- they are in a basement across the courtyard- and also curatorially. This is because the exhibition is not about the cells, or about what they represent, or what life was like in them during the Nazi occupation, but instead, it is dedicated to the struggles of Krakowians during the war, and in the following years until 1956. The exhibition takes place in a 100mq room in the basement of the building that used to be known as Silesian House, and it is divided into three parts (Jezowski, 2011). The first section is located in the hall before the main room where the rest of the exhibition is mounted, and it is dedicated to the history of the building itself. The Silesian House was built in the 1930s to host students from the region of Silesia that moved to Krakow to pursue their studies. This segment of the exhibition is very small, and only made up of panels that describe the layout of the building and its function as a living quarters for students. There are some pictures of the inauguration of the Silesian house and of the place as it was before the war, in order to complement the text (pictures 1-2). Although the MHK consider the exhibition as being made up of three parts, the first section does not seem to be connected in any way to the rest of the display, both spatially and conceptually. The fact that it is in the hallway before the main room where the exhibition takes place, and as a result of the small number of panels dedicated to the history of the Silesian House, it is difficult to consider this narrative as part of the exhibition. In addition, the title ‘People of Krakow in Times of Terror 1939-45-56’ does not refer to this first part of the exhibition, instead focusing its attention on the ‘double occupation’ narrative.

1

Picture 1:The entrance hall where the history of the building before 1939 is displayed. Available at:https://www.mhk.pl/exhibitions/people-of-krakow-in-times-of-terror-1939-1945-1956 .

2Picture 2: The entrance hall where the history of the building before 1939 is displayed.

The exhibition continues, or rather really starts when we enter the main space, a wide rectangular room that has been organised to guide the visitor through a linear path that begins in 1939, and ends in 1956 (pictures 3-4). This timeline is also reiterated by having the main dates displayed on a trail marked on the floor. The whole capacity of the room is taken advantage of, with a combination of panels on the walls, artefacts displayed in cases, reconstructions and multimedia booths, at the centre of the room. There is also the option of consulting the archive relating to the people that were imprisoned during the Nazi and communist regimes on two screens located within the exhibition (pictures 5-6). Visitors are confronted first with the chronicle of the events that took place during WWII, when Krakow was under the control of Nazi Germany. Various artefacts not linked directly with Silesian House, but instead with a nearby prison, are displayed in order to illustrate the pastimes of the people that were imprisoned there. There are also different panels dedicated to victims of the regime and members of the resistance, the theme of violence is present, but is not overly stressed (pictures 7-8). Five graphic pictures of executions are displayed behind a wood panel, and visitors have the option of uncovering them or not (pictures 9-10). A reconstruction of the interrogation room is also present, complete with related artefacts and a ‘stamping station’ provided by the MHK. Here visitors can stamp a card related to the site and take it with them, the same option is available at Oskar Schindler’s factory and at the Eagle Pharmacy (picture 11). The first part of the exhibition also shares some artefacts and images with the displays at Oskar Schindler’s factory.

Pictures 3-4: The entrance and exit of the exhibition, the pattern that guides visitors is visible in the foreground.

5Picture 5: Area where visitors can browse the archive.

6Picture 6: Detail of the screen.

Pictures 7-8: Panels dedicated to victims of the regime and members of the resistance.

Pictures 9-10: Visitors can decide to look at graphic images or not.

14Picture 11: Nazi terror stamping station.

The narrative related to the Nazi terror is separated from the narrative connected to communist terror by a barely visible curatorial device. This is a section of a wall-like structure from which a red light emanates, which comes down from the ceiling and stops before reaching eye level (picture 12). The area dealing with the communist regime replicates the previous area. There are artefacts from labour camps, daily life objects and pictures, and a reconstruction of the tribunal stand of the District Military Tribunal, which complements the description of the Krakow trials of 1947 (pictures 13-14). There is also a door which was taken from a nearby place where dissidents were kept and interrogated during the years of communism. This door along with some documents marks the end of the exhibition. Visitors need to leave the exhibition, and cross a courtyard guided by a member of the staff, in order to visit the prison cells still bearing the graffiti of the people that were held at Pomorska Street (picture 15). These small rooms are left as they were during the war, with very little conservation work done to preserve the writings on the walls. Some of the graffiti is explained in more detail on various panels, but overall there is not a great amount of information about this section of the museum (pictures 16-18).

12Picture 12: Visual depiction of the end of Nazi terror and the beginning of communist terror.

13Picture 13: Objects belonging to a prisoner in a communist camp in Siberia.

14Picture 14: Krakow Trials stamping station.

15Picture 15: Entrance to the Gestapo prison

Picture 16-17-18: The interior of the cells.

Exhibitions are usually deemed to have educational purposes, and ‘People of Krakow in Times of Terror’ is no difference in this respect. The strong didactic purpose of this exhibition emerges when it is considered in the light of Stephanie Moser’s paper on the epistemological function of museums’ exhibitions. The scholar highlights how there are different strategies that can be employed to create knowledge through exhibitions (Moser,2010). In the case of Pomorska Street, the layout of the exhibition, as well as the artefacts and the text are used to corroborate the narrative that considers Nazism on the same level as communism. This narrative has been central to political discourse in various Eastern European states, including Poland. This country, now part of the EU, has sought for a long time to make the equation between communism and Nazism a shared European narrative, although arguably not in a very successful way (Malksoo, 2009). It is also interesting that the choice to consider a period of communist ‘terror’ as only comprising the time from the end of the war to 1956. This was the year, after Stalin’s death, when the Polish communist party, in charge of the Polish People’s Republic, was given more freedom from Moscow’s control, but clearly not the year when the communist regime ended in Poland (Kemp-Welch, 2006). The other peculiar aspect of the exhibition is that the place where it is held has no connection with the communist times. Pomorska street was never used as a prison after the war, on the contrary the building used to host all kind of enterprises including a disco club (Jezowski pers.comm.). This is not made clear at any point during the exhibition, understandably creating the impression to visitors that Pomorska Street was a theatre to both Nazi and communist violence.

The educational aim of the exhibition is also stressed on the MHK webpage that states: ‘ The past has to hurt sometimes. Nevertheless, it has to be remembered. The branch of the Historical Museum, located at 2, Pomorska Street in Krakow is not only an exhibition, but it is also a space for social dialogue – the exchange of ideas and views on our common, and not so distant, history.’ This statement is particularly interesting as it implies that the museum is a place where people can interact with and discuss what is presented. Unfortunately, however, there is no real space for discussion within the exhibition. This is because the concept of double occupation is presented as a fact, both by the text, and by the guided tours, and no room for interpretation is given to visitors. In addition, there is no physical room for discussion either, as the small crowded exhibition does not allow this. The MHK has an educational programme in place connected to school students, but according to the curator the Pomorska Street branch is not very popular with them (pers.comm.). It is also important to note that the current exhibition is considered to be more popular with the public than the previous one which focused only on the Nazi occupation, especially with non Polish visitors (Jezowski, 2011).

Clearly, there is a certain interest in the double terror narrative offered by the exhibition, which is also shown by the comments on the guestbook (picture 19). According to the curator the current exhibition was developed in response to the requests of the public, who felt that there was no adequate representation of the terror of communism in Krakow (Jezowski pers.comm.). Whether this exhibition is the right way present this concept is a different matter. As argued by Williams, memorial museums aim to be morally guided and try to teach a lesson to those who visit them (Williams, 2007,131). The message of the exhibition at Pomorska Street, as stated by the curator, is that totalitarian regimes are wrong regardless of the political ideal behind them (Jezowski pers.comm.). However, I would argue that the problem is that there is a disconnection between the message and the place where the exhibition is held. On the one hand, the exhibition aims to make a strong and complex statement in a small and inadequate space. On the other hand, Pomorska street is the actual physical place where only Nazi violence against Krakowians took place, and this is not stressed at all throughout the exhibition. The function of Pomorska Street as a site of memory is not highlighted, but it is instead played down to give more relevance to the double occupation paradigm. This is also augmented by the fact that the artefacts present in the exhibition have no connection with the place itself, but are simply objects that belong to the MHK collection. Clark (2013, 164-5) considers the metonymic function of objects in memorial museums’ exhibitions to be their ability to represent the victims without their presence. This means that the objects displayed in these museums usually have the function of standing in for the people they belonged to and their suffering. This effect does not take place at Pomorska street, as the objects and photos are not linked to the place and to the people that have suffered there.

19Picture 19: Positive comments on the exhibition in the guestbook.

What is astonishing about Pomorska Street is that there could be the possibility to have an exhibition that focuses on Nazi crimes that took place in situ, and that complements the visit to the prison cells. For instance, the exhibition could focus on the daily life of the people that were kept there, and on the reasons why they ended up in the prison. These reasons could also include being denounced by collaborationists, therefore allowing the museum to teach about victims and perpetrators in a less straightforward way. In this way, the exhibition could become the counterpart to the cells that are still covered with the graffiti of the prisoners. More could be done to interpret their writings and to learn about the prisoners’ nationalities, political beliefs, but also their hopes and personal struggles. So called ‘cool objects’ or items that do not have a high emotional impact, but convey an impression of how life might have been at Pomorska Street during Nazi occupation, could be used to create a connection between the exhibition and the cells. These ‘cool objects’ would balance the writings left by the prisoners, which can be seen as ‘hot object’ with a high emotional impact (Williams, 2007, 32-3). Ultimately, the combination of both types of objects and a clear narrative that goes in depth into Nazi terror at Pomorska Street could be used together to convey the museum’s message again totalitarianism.

Bibliography:

Clark, L.B. Mnemonic Objects: Forensic and Rhetorical Practices in Memorial Culture. In Silberman, M. and Vatan, F. Eds. (2013). Memory and Post-War Memorials: Confronting the Violence of the Past. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jezowski, G. (2011) Exhibition Report. Krakow: Historical Museum of the City of Krakow.

Jezowski, G. Personal Comments gathered by Giulia Priori on 4-10-2018 at the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow 2, Pomorska Street branch.

Kemp-Welch, T. (2006) Dethroning Stalin: Poland 1956 and its legacy. Europe-Asia Studies, (58):8, pp.1261-1284.

Malksoo, M. (2009). The Memory Politics of Becoming European: The East European Subalterns and the Collective Memory of Europe. European Journal of International Relations. 15(4), pp.653-680.

Moser, S. (2010). Museum Displays and the Creation of Knowledge. Museum Anthropology. 33 (1), pp.22-33.

Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Krakowa. (2013). People of Kraków in Times of Terror 1939-1945-1956. [online] Available at: https://www.mhk.pl/exhibitions/people-of-krakow-in-times-of-terror-1939-1945-1956 [Accessed 19 Oct. 2018].

Williams, P. (2007). Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate Atrocities. Oxford: Berg.

Pictures by Giulia Priori and Victoria Gonzales.

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