“There is so much that could be gained here—and certainly too much to lose. “
FestivALT, a local arts and activism organization of Polish Jews, is asking the City of Kraków to pause its development of the new museum and memorial site at KL Plaszow for 90 days.
After decades of neglect of the site of KL Plaszow, a concentration camp in Kraków, the city is rushing to build a new museum despite local protests.
FestivALT is deeply concerned that a series of decisions made in this process are polarizing local residents, destroying the fragile ecosystem of the site, and sacrificing a real opportunity for a more meaningful project of commemoration.
A petition against the museum in its proposed form has garnered over 11,000 signatures, largely due to frustration with the lack of transparency around certain elements of the project and the fact that 554 trees on the site will be cut down by mid-November.
FestivALT implores the city administration to pause development of this project for 90 days in order to sit down with stakeholders in the site’s future and discuss alternatives for how it could be treated.
We hope that through a collaborative process with local residents and other stakeholders, the city can move forward with a commemoration project based on widely recognized best practices, setting an example for how to engage with complicated or unrecognized sites of the Holocaust throughout Europe.
Read on for some 6-8 minutes to get a picture of the cultural and historical importance of the site
The site of KL Plaszow, a concentration camp in Kraków, has been one of the focal points of FestivALT’s work since our founding in 2016. Several of our projects deal with the public memory of KL Plaszow, the way the site is treated today, and educating people about its history. As the City of Kraków moves to build a museum on the site, we feel we have a responsibility to voice our concerns—and amplify the concerns of local stakeholders—with how the city has conducted this process. We believe the museum in its current design sacrifices an opportunity to create a unique site of memory at KL Plaszow, which could set a gold standard for how to engage with poorly commemorated Holocaust sites around the country. Instead, the project raises serious ecological, ethical, and ideological concerns. We ask the city administration and the museum council to halt development on the project for 90 days and take this time to sit down with stakeholders in the site’s future—local residents, representatives across the Jewish community, educators, and descendants of victims and survivors—to discuss alternatives for how the site could be treated. We believe such solutions exist and would greatly contribute to the quality and impact of the commemoration site. This is a complicated place marked by several layers of history: proceeding without meaningful dialogue, even with the best of intentions, is a big step in the wrong direction.
THE LAYERS OF HISTORY
KL Plaszow is a site that has had many past lives. Once the location of Austro-Hungarian military earthworks, two Jewish cemeteries (where thousands of people were buried) were later built on another part of the site—by the time World War II began, the combined burial complex was the main burial place for the Jews of Kraków. From 1942 to 1945, the site held a Nazi labor and concentration camp. Originally intended for only 4–5000 prisoners, it quickly exceeded this capacity: at its peak of operation in the summer of 1944, it held about 25,000 prisoners on an area of 80 hectares. That summer, the Germans began to liquidate the camp, dismantling the infrastructure and evacuating prisoners. By the time the final group of prisoners marched from the camp on January 14, 1945, about 6–8000 people had died or been killed there and the remains of an additional 2000 victims from the Kraków Ghetto were interred in the camp.
In the year after the camp was evacuated, the Red Army further demolished the remaining infrastructure, and locals took whatever raw building materials they could use. Very little of the infrastructure of the camp remained. For decades, the site was largely unmarked, a kind of no man’s land just a twenty-minute tram ride from the city center. Over time, part of the site was developed and the remaining space was used as a park and recreation area, which is primarily how it functions today. In fact, the current green space constitutes the less than 50% of the camp’s original area that is included in the city’s register of landmarks—the rest, which had mostly been the administrative and industrial sectors of the camp, is now covered in apartment buildings, a gas station, a supermarket, playgrounds, a McDonald’s, and local businesses. Since the late 1940s, several signs and monuments have been erected on the site devoted to its history as a concentration camp. The most recent of these is a series of signboards commissioned by the Museum of Kraków that were erected around the site in 2017, providing information about specific areas of the camp along with testimony from survivors, and greatly increasing public awareness of the camp’s history.
The site’s layers of history, the unclear markers of its borders, the various claims on its memory, and its current use as a park and recreation space make it a prime example of what the International Council of Museums (ICOM) calls a contested site. The differing views on the nature of the site and its history can present an opportunity for meaningful conversation, education, and growth, bringing people from different perspectives together through the process of interpreting the site and planning for its future. However, any action taken with the site and any conversation around it “needs special attention and care,” according to the ICOM, “in order to avoid deepening divides.”
An overlay of an approximate map of KL Plaszow over the area as it exists today
In 2006, the city announced a public design contest for a museum to commemorate the history of the camp. In 2019, after many modifications, the chosen design was presented to the local community through several public consultations. But many residents felt these consultations were meaningless and that their opinions were not being taken seriously—not least because the city had already secured a building permit for a specific design before even beginning the consultations. The decision to build the museum has been confirmed, in spite of a petition launched by residents that has garnered over 11,000 signatures in opposition. While this petition seems to have been initiated mainly from a desire to preserve the site primarily as a recreation area, many locals now agree that further commemoration of the site is needed and have proposed a number of solutions to address the current lack of adequate commemoration. These have included asking for more plaques and signage, clearer guidelines for how the space should be treated, and turning the area into a “park of memory”—a green space for learning about and reflecting on the history of the camp.
The boundary of the planned museum in the context of the full area of the camp
The current iteration of the city’s plan involves the construction of a museum building just outside the western perimeter of the former camp area, in a space designated as a green area by the city’s zoning regulations. To circumvent this regulation, the museum will be built largely underground and grass will be planted on the roof. As for the part of the site registered as a landmark, the city’s plan includes marking it with further plaques and memorials, though the specifics of what they will say or how they will be designed have not yet been revealed. It is also not clear how the camp’s three execution sites will be marked, nor the space of the Jewish cemeteries. There will be an exhibition in the Grey House, a building that was originally built for the New Jewish Cemetery and that was also used by the Nazis as an administrative building and holding cell. The plan also includes an educational centre in the northeast corner of the camp area, but no details have been given about it.
The lack of transparency regarding certain elements of the project, combined with mixed messaging and the slow release of information, has contributed to a negative perception of the project and a feeling of disempowerment among local stakeholders.
OBJECTIONS AND CONCERNS
FestivALT, like the city and many local residents, agrees that further and better commemoration at the site of KL Plaszow is needed and long overdue. Local activists and academics have raised several objections to the city’s plan, which we believe deserve proper consideration. These objections can be divided into the ecological, the ethical, and the ideological.
The ecological objection concerns the fact that in order to build the museum in the proposed site, 554 trees would have to be cut down. (In fact, over 30% of these are fruit trees, which the Torah expressly forbids cutting down.) In order to offset this damage, the city plans to plant new trees around Kraków, in addition to sowing grass on the roof of the museum. But “sowing grass and planting young trees cannot replace the destruction of an ecosystem that has been shaped over several decades, producing mature trees, a wide range of habitats for many animals, fungi, and microorganisms, and a whole network of interaction between all the organisms living there,” explains Dr. Zofia Prokop, from Jagiellonian University’s Institute of Environmental Sciences. Furthermore, as the environmental crisis worsens, “each mature tree cover plays a role limiting the overheating of the city, which, quite literally, kills. Young plantings would take several decades to achieve the same function” and would not be able to meet the current environmental challenges. Removing the mature trees and razing the green space will leave an irreplaceable void in the city’s ecology. The local chapters of several international youth movements focused on climate change, including Extinction Rebellion, Earth Strike, and Youth Strike for Climate, have been organizing protests specifically against the cutting-down of these trees.
The proposed museum building design
The ethical objection to the plan is in response to how the city has treated residents. From the beginning of its consultation process with the local community in 2019, the city has failed to be upfront, often making misleading or vague statements about its plans. One such example concerns the fencing-off of the landmarked area of the camp. While the original project proposed using concrete posts to mark off the area, the city has repeatedly stated that the area will not in fact be fenced. However, the building permit the city obtained for the site includes a plan to fence it off, and the museum website states that the site will be marked off but that the specifics of this will be determined in the future. The city has also not been able to engage in meaningful dialogue with the community. For example, in an apparent attempt to appease concerned residents, the city created two positions on the museum council to be held by residents of Kraków. But as with the consultations held after the building permit was already secured, this gesture appears to have been meaningless: instead of letting residents nominate their own representatives, the city filled the positions with two people who had already voiced their support for the museum plan.
Local residents have been made to feel like they have only two choices: either they support commemorating the site or they care only about saving their local green space. But this is a false binary. “We support the commemoration of this tragic history and of the victims of this place with all our heart,” says Maciej Fijak, a local activist with Rescue Action for Kraków (the largest city-wide urban activism initiative) who has long been involved in negotiating the shape of the museum. “But we believe that ecology and contemporary challenges don’t have to stand in opposition to memory.” The city, for its own part, has been inconsistent in its treatment of the site and its valuing of memory. It continues to issue new building permits within the historical borders of the camp, often without prior archaeological investigation. What’s more, the city’s official jogging path runs directly through the area of the camp.
FestivALT’s biggest concern with the city’s plan, however, is an ideological one. The city’s plan seems to not consider recommendations and good practices for heritage institutions and sites of memory that have been applied across the world, particularly in the European Union. There is a growing consensus among heritage professionals and policymakers that heritage institutions should play an active role in society: rather than merely being custodians of memory, they should empower the local community to engage with it. The Faro Convention (Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society, 2005) emphasizes that “objects and places are not, in themselves, what is important about cultural heritage. They are important because of the meanings and uses that people attach to them and the values they represent.” As such, the way the local community interacts with heritage sites and institutions is a key element of their impact. Since 2007, Communities has been included as one of the five strategic objectives of UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention, stating that “the identification, management and successful conservation of heritage must be done, where possible, with the meaningful involvement of human communities, and the reconciliation of conflicting interests were necessary. It should not be done against the interests or with the exclusion or omission of local communities.” The ICOM’s Code of Ethics adds that museums “should create a favorable environment for community support[,] recognize their contribution and promote a harmonious relationship between the community and museum personnel.” When the site in question has such a contested history, it seems especially important to abide by these values, which the city has not.
With all these concerns and a lack of local support, the city is missing a real opportunity to create a unique site of memory at KL Plaszow. The proposed project sacrifices what could have been (and perhaps still could be) a non-destructive, collaborative, and deeply educational approach to memory conservation and heritage. The conversation of what else could be done with the site and how else its memory could be honored is indeed a much longer one, and one that should actually be had.
The city plans to start cutting down trees in the coming days: the time to have this conversation is now. We implore the city to pause its operations for 90 days in order to have a meaningful dialogue with the site’s stakeholders and find a constructive, collaborative path forward. There is so much that could be gained here—and certainly too much to lose.
November 4, 2021