The Architecture of Places of Memory
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Places of Memory, Monument to Struggle and Martyrdom in Majdanek (Lublin), photo: Slawomir Olzacki / Forum, center, pomnik_walki_majdanek-forum.jpg
Creating memorials in spaces where humanity witnessed painful tragedies requires great sensitivity and an ability to unveil the truths of history. Polish architects and artists have these necessary qualities, and the proof is in the memorials dedicated to extermination camps located in Poland.
An austere black path
The use of architectural-sculptural memorials in Poland first flourished in 1958, when a jury led by Henry Moore announced an international contest for a memorial to Victims of Fascism in Auschwitz. From the 426 proposals, three finalists were chosen – of those, the highest scoring project was designed by Oskar Hansen (with a team made up of Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz, Zofia Hansen, Julian Pałka, Edmund Kupiecki, Lechosław Rosiński and Tadeusz Plasota). During the jury’s deliberations, Henry Moore supposedly said that the cataclysm that took place in Auschwitz was impossible to portray in a sculpture – unless its creator was Michelangelo or Auguste Rodin.
For this reason, the jury selected an abstract project, which made use of the concentration camp’s space, operating with symbolism and atmosphere rather than literal representations. Hansen’s team cut through the camp’s expanse with a skewed path – symbolically crossing it out. Visitors to the camp were meant to walk the grounds on the austere black path, which would be occasionally swallowed up by plants. This symbolic gesture would tell a greater story than a classic sculpture, or a written record of wartime events. Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz explained:
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In this way we turn the viewer, a person visiting the camp, into a part of the memorial, while our role is that of an escort, or perhaps director, who maps out a guide, emphasising the weightiest elements of this dramatic spectacle.
The vision of Hansen’s team was innovative and surprising, breaking through traditional expectations of a memorial.
Though the project was never realised, it went on to influence future sculptural works. It showed that tragedy doesn’t have to be depicted literally, instead highlighting the strength that comes from the landscape and environment when it is complemented by symbolic elements, not overly ‘talked out’.
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Concrete in the forest
In 1964, a new memorial was created on the grounds of the former Treblinka extermination camp. Its creators – sculptors Franciszek Duszeńko and Franciszek Strynkiewicz as well as architect Adam Haupt – had to adapt the terrain anew, as the retreating Nazi German army destroyed all the camp’s buildings. The project was chosen in a contest. Franciszek Strynkiewicz spoke of their work:
Polish Art and the Holocaust - Image Gallery
We knew this memorial couldn’t be a conventional sculpture. It had to invoke drama, recreate the feeling of sorrow and danger.
On the 17 hectares of land, the creators built a symbolic necropolis with railroad tracks, recreated using concrete blocks, paths laid out with sharp rocks and a symbolic cemetery made of boulders – which have the names of countries and towns people were deported from into this extermination camp (one of these rocks memorialises the murdered Janusz Korczak). The space where the crematorium used to stand is now a pit filled with melted basalt, while the 22,000 square metre space where victims were buried has been covered with a giant flat concrete slab, surrounded by 17,000 sharp and angular stones that look as if they have been broken.
The extermination camp, hidden within the forest – no longer containing any buildings or infrastructure – creates a powerful impression, creating a sense of danger, the remnants of pain and death. The abstract stones, the symbolic gestures, the deliberately laid paths, leave no doubt as to the scale of the tragedy witnessed here.
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The stones will scream
There remain few signs of the Stutthof concentration camp, built near the town of Sztutowo and liberated in May 1945. After the war, it was decided that some of the buildings would be reconstructed: in a few of the barracks, a display was put up, and the gates, watchtowers and crematorium were opened to the public. At the beginning of the 1960s, architect and sculptor Wiktor Tołkin (himself a prisoner of Auschwitz) designed a monument for the remaining space. It was unveiled in 1968, on the anniversary of the camp’s liberation.
On a large, raised plaza, Tołkin placed two large stones. The vertically placed stone 11 metres high, and its surface is covered with rough carvings meant to symbolise the prisoners’ fight for survival. The horizontally placed stone lies on a narrow column – it’s almost 30 metres long and 3.5 metres high. Inside the stone is a collection of ashes of murdered prisoners –they can be seen through glass at the back of the sculpture. The front of the sculpture is covered in a bas-relief with dynamic but abstracted shapes, in which you might notice a hint of human silhouettes. The sculptor wanted to memorialise the Stuthoff prisoners’ suffering. In the middle of these abstracted shapes, Tołkin included a quote from Franciszek Fenikowski’s poem:
Lego Concentration Camp - Zbigniew Libera
Let our voice call from this to another generation
For memory, our shadows plead, not retaliation!
Our fate is your warning – not a legend or dream.
Should man grow silent, the very stones will scream!
Wiktor Tołkin is the creator of another memorial – the Monument to Struggle and Martyrdom at the Majdanek concentration camp in Lublin. In terms of cubic metres, it is one of the largest memorials in Poland. In 1967, a contest for the memorial was announced; out of 140 proposed projects, the jury selected Stanisław Strzyżyński and Juliusz Kłeczka’s project. Yet it was the third place winners, Wiktor Tołkin and Janusz Dembka, whose project was finally used. They designed an enormous memorial, in which the sculptural elements point to crucial locations in the sprawling landscape.
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At the entrance of the former concentration camp, they placed a powerful, abstract sculpture – a symbolic gate. The overwhelming stone – inspired by Dante’s famous words, that those who enter here abandon all hope – grants access through a narrow passageway sunken into the earth which continues on for 1300 metres across flat land. At the end of the path, where the crematorium once stood, the creators placed a large domed mausoleum. It provides cover to the site where victims’ ashes were piled. Wiktor Tołkin referred to it as a ‘reliquary’ inspired by the Roman Pantheon.
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Around the dome is a bas-relief frieze, stylistically similar to the bas-relief in Sztutowo, with the haunting inscription ‘Our fate is your warning’. Tołkin’s heavy rock sculptures are meant to intimidate, creating discomfort and fear. The entire design, with its long path in the middle, is meant to invoke feelings of discomfort, tiredness and oppression. In this way, the memorial’s creators wanted to keep the memory of the place alive.
Along the length of the path are rebuilt concentration camp buildings – watchtowers, fences, barracks. An exhibition about the history of the camp is housed in the latter.
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A monument doesn’t need to be massive to properly memorialise a place of tragedy. More important is its location. In 1960, the Kraków-born architect Witold Cęckiewicz created a sculpture to commemorate those who lost their lives at the concentration camp in Płaszów, on the outskirts of Kraków. On an elevated space where murders were carried out, previously an Austrian sconce, the architect placed a nine-metre-tall sculpture.
The limestone rock was carved into a cubist composition, the shapes resembling human forms. The geometric, roughly hewed sculpture shows five figures, meant to symbolise the five nationalities of victims here. The bowed heads are weighed down with a massive cornice.
The Monument to Victims of Fascism, as it is known, towers over the area, visible from afar. Placed near the road to Kraków, it is now surrounded by supermarkets, warehouses and chaotic suburban sprawl. Yet it creates an even more unsettling effect with this backdrop.
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A contemporary memorial
The majority of concentration camp memorials were created in the 1960s. But their influence is still felt by contemporary creators. In 1963, on the land of the Bełżec extermination camp, a modest sculpture was placed, while the museum itself opened 40 years later – a place of memory in the form of a sprawling memorial. Sculptors Andrzej Sołyga, Marcin Roszczyk and Zdzisław Pidek, in collaboration with the Architectural Firm DDJM, created the winning design for a 1997 contest. Much like earlier projects of this type, the creators, combing sculpture and architecture, designed something that impacted the entire landscape.
The museum is accessible through a narrow passage, surrounded by rusting rebar and crushed stones; the creators placed a large concrete sign in the thin path, containing the names of the first victims and a quote from the Book of Job: ‘Oh earth, do not cover my blood, and let there be no resting place for my cry’. This symbolic grave – the resting place for almost half a million victims – was covered with a dark layer of slag. This barren earth held a few oaks that had been growing since WWII – silent witnesses of the past. Another important element are the symbolic side rails, which are integrated into the memorial’s walls, as well as into the austere, flat, windowless museum exterior.
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Nazi concentration camps
Originally written in Polish, April 2019, translated by AZ, Jan 2020
Source: Agnieszka Gębczyńska-Janowicz, Polskie założenia pomnikowe. Rola Architektury w Tworzeniu Miejsc Pamięci od Połowy XX Wieku, Neriton Publishing, 2010.