Stacja Muranów traces the story of Warsaw’s post-war housing development, raised on and out of the ruins of the former ghetto. Following the creeping rootstocks submerged in this tellingly parodoxical phenomenon of architecture, the author takes us to places and times distant from the unthinkable horror of the Second World War
Muranów is a housing area that functions in modern day Warsaw, and a home to hundreds of dwellers since its construction after the war. The Stacja Muranów (Muranów Station) book is an extraordinary portrait of an extraordinary place, which draws on the form of reportage and mingles it with a historic monography. Chomątowska takes up the notions of inexistence, lack and disappearance as they function in contemporary discourse, but she attempts to address these issues from the perspective of the living.
The book opens with two maps – one from 1935 and the other from 2012 (which is the year of Stacja Muranów’s publication). The network of streets seems more dense in the first case, but the second one boasts wider avenues, and even real urban arteries although they are fewer in numbers. It is a map of the exact same location. First it is Warsaw’s pre-war Northern District, home to some 300 thousand inhabitants, 70% of whom were Jewish. Then, it is the socio-realist Muranów, built from 1949 onwards across an area of some 200 acres of the former Northern District, over and out of some 4 million square metres of terrifying rubble and human remains that were left after the ghetto's destruction. Between the two moments is the story of the ghetto, which was at its peak moment home to 460 thousand Jews. Nearly all of the dwellers perished, either as they were murdered by German military or dying of starvation and disease. The district itself was almost entirely destroyed during the ghetto uprising in 1943. Chomątowska traces the stories stretched between these two maps and goes deep into the historic and contemporary reality of the space, presenting a paradox world that persists here.
The author starts off with a story that seems to contain in it the seed of all the future complications. Chomątowska begins with presenting the architectural project of the socio-realist Muranów housing area. Its author, Bohdan Lachert designed his modernist vision, highly evocative of Le Corbusier, to be a monument of the Shoah, raised on the plateau of the ghetto’s ruin and out of its remnants of grounded concrete. The houses were meant to remain uncovered with plaster and to forever bear testimony with their rawly exposed material to what took place there. But people were not able to live in this way. Only a few years after the building of Muranów, the dwellers forced plastering and decorating the buildings, and the great process of forgetting began. And although this story could at a first glance be a summary of Stacja Muranów, Chomątowska chooses to follow a much more complex narrative.
A comparison employed by Poland’s literary critic and essayist, Paweł Dunin-Wąsowicz, the book resembles a rhizome, and its author seeks places frequently distant from Muranów by thousands of kilometeres and hundreds of years. This is possible as Chomątowska doesn’t adopt a linear perspective, she allows the narrative to develop and follow individual people and given places.
Thus the story of the construction of Nowotki Boulevard in Warsaw (presently Andersa street) in the early 1950s naturally converges with the story of Berlin’s Stalinallee (today’s Karl-Marx-Allee). Another 'undreground root' reaches all the way to the city of Oradour-sur-Glane in central France, a town that was completely destroyed by Germans and a present-day monument and haunting reminder of this destruction. Yet another one surfaces in the area of the Venetian lagoon, near two islands, the Ghetto Nuovo and Murano. In the 16th century Venetian Jews were displaced on the Ghetto Nuovo, the island whose name is at the origin of the contemporary term. As if by chance, the neighbouring Murano island was once home to the legendary architect and sculptor Simone Giuseppe Bellotti, who designed the Murano palace built in Warsaw in 1668, which would later give the name to the district.
Chomątowska also dwells on an inexistent or rather non-realised future, and the phantom-like projects of transformation, authored by nazis as well as social-realist architects. The location’s difficult historic topography consists in neverending adaptations that at times result in a disappearance. One such exemplary place is located by Gęsia street, where the former barracks of the Stanislaus Augustus era housed the prison of Warsaw’s inter-war era. They were made into a prison of the ghetto, and later partly incorporated into the KL Warschau concentration camp. Following the Soviet army's taking over Warsaw, they served as an NKVD prison with persecutions of members of the Polish AK National Army, and then became a Polish camp for German POWs, and then, a regular prison of the Polish communist state. Its ruins haunted passers by for many years until 1965, when the building was entirely torn down.
It is in this location that the newly opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews takes its headquarters. The Museum provides a guided tour that follows the narrative of Beata Chomątowska's book, which can be downloaded in English at the two following links:
Most of the stories presented by Chomątowska are simply fascinating peoples’ fates, whose biographies are inextricably tied to those of the district itself, often in a tragic but at times also a happy and unexpected way. It also presents the life that continues in the district in a present day Warsaw. The unique value of the publication lies in its courageous attempt at answering questions that are utterly difficult to address, and whose heaviness lies in the way that they cannot even seem to be entirely posable. How does one pose the question "what it’s like to live in a cemetery?" ? And how can one grasp that there are people who are raised in this area and have absolutely no knowledge of what had happened here? It is a matter of the impossible explanation that people have the right to live here in a normal way, and that the children there are allowed to play normally. It isn’t a matter of some political correctness. These are problems that surpass the decorum of any human conversation as well as our ideas as to what can be done about this kind of tragedy. These are the kind of problems that immediately incite a sense of guilt, discomfort and tend to evoke ghosts that return constantly in the testimonies of the district’s inhabitants. (A motif taken up by the young Polish writer and activist, Sylwia Chutnik in her recent theatre play entitled Muranooo)
Stacja Muranów touches upon issues that are not possible to adress in brief and difficult to render an overview of. Such is the case of Poland’s prominent architects, who were filled with a modernist enthusiasm of the pre-war period when they envisioned the tearing down of a poor and derelict district in order to construct an area of contemporary "glass houses". How does one admit that in a way, their dream had come true, in an unimaginable turn of events that lead to the tearing down and destruction of the ghetto that opened unprecedented possibilities for new construction?
Prior to settling in Muranów, Beata Chomątowska lived in Kraków. She wasn’t at all connected to the district but had found a job there, and quite consciously chose to live to also live in the area. This chance occurrence led to her fascination with Muranów, a place in which everyone has to remain to some degree a stranger.
Stacja Muranów is the fruit of Chomątowska’s many years of work and research, including dozens of field trips and conversations with the locals of Muranów as well as people connected with its history. She dug through the archives of numerous press titles from the era and also expanded her research onto the form of questionnaires addressed to the district’s current dwellers. Her anthropological appraoch allows readers to get a glimpse of the life that continues in an area so tragically marked by death, and various motifs indicate a possibly healed character of its future; as the book describes the story of an Israeli that has recently moved into Muranów and the Shalom centre which organises courses of Yiddish. Thus a language that resonated here at old Nalewki street seems to see a chance of return after 70 years.
The human and contemporary perspective of Chomątowska’s book places it among a recently emerging series of fundamental works about the Warsaw ghetto, such as the strictly historic Guide to an Non-Existent City (Przewodnik po nieistniejącym mieście) by Jacek Leociak and Barbara Engelking and Elżbieta Janicka’s Festung Warschau.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser
Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2012
464 pgs, 210x240 mm