Dear Mr. President,
We represent FestivALT – a collective of Jewish artists and activists from Krakow, for whom contemporary Jewish issues in Poland are the central point of reference. We would like to present to you, Mr. President, with our opinion on the current discussion around the area of the former German labor camp and KL Plaszow concentration camp. It is a fascinating case study, from which other similar places in Poland and Europe will potentially draw conclusions about working with Places of Difficult Heritage. This is why we decided to write to you today Mr. President, and it is because we see many very important future consequences of the decisions that are currently facing both the President and the City Council.
We are not surprised by the tense situation around this place. For the paradox of heritage is that each one carries the potential for disagreement and conflict. However, there are places where disagreement and conflict do not potentially exist, but are part of them. This tension appears especially in the so-called ‘dark sites’ marked by a tragic history and referred to as Places of Difficult Heritage. The Rabbinical Commission for Cemeteries estimates that in Poland there are approximately 1,400 Jewish cemeteries and 1,000 unmarked burials for victims of the Holocaust. Most of them are the Sites of Difficult Heritage. Unfortunately, there are no standards for working with such places, especially with the simultaneous involvement of local governments, residents and the voice of minorities. As Sharon McDonald, the author of the term ‘difficult heritage’, writes, it carries the risk of opening social divisions. This trait is revealed especially in cities, in the reality of fierce competition for space and residents’ resistance to limiting green areas. As a result, the topic of ‘foreign memory’ often appears in the context of a scandal, is taken up by local governments with reluctance and postponed, or is taken up without taking into account the nuances, leading to antagonization of the inhabitants.
We believe that various voices should be included in initiatives aimed at identifying, protecting and promoting heritage, especially the inhabitants of the areas affected by the activities – their understanding, commitment and sense of shared responsibility for (common) heritage are the most important: “Although heritage protection has never been easy in relation to the past, it seems more than ever that it should be seen as a strategy for the future“.
Meanwhile, our conversations with various people inside the city administration and experts dedicated to work on the emerging museum show that they see many mistakes made in last year’s consultation process and moreover, that many bridges have been burned. There is also opinions that the possibility of further talks with the residents have been exhausted. This is potentially a dangerous situation that could lead to an even greater escalation of tensions. The state of uncertainty that has lasted for many years (in fact since 2009) only increase the tensions and negative moods of the local residents. Therefore, in this situation, it is necessary to undertake actions aimed at dialogue and work with local residents, focused on constructive dialogue aimed at respectful and civic minded resolution of differences.
We believe that the key to ensuring a meaningful future for KL Plaszow is to look at this place in all its complexity, to listen to each other and to impartially testify to each other’s opinions, to accommodate the various narratives and needs of all concerned and to develop a shared vision of the future. In our opinion, introducing memory by force and in an atmosphere of conflict may make the heritage of KL Plaszow even more difficult and, as a result, bring about an effect contrary to the assumptions and the idea of the facility to be established. As a result, this may harm Polish-Jewish relations and the local memory of the Holocaust. FestivALT tries to find an approach that combines various points of view: both the unquestionable need to commemorate Płaszów and similar places, and drawing attention to their contemporary complexity and significance for the inhabitants. As a minority organization experienced in conducting difficult dialogue with respect for various parties to the dispute, as well as an independent organization and so far not directly involved in the dispute, we can be an effective mediator in talks between the city and the local residents.
We are presented with an extraordinary opportunity using new technologies and modern tools of participation (participatory planning, real social consultations, group process, etc.) to work through the tensions surrounding KL PLaszow and create a common place of remembrance, the custodians of which will be able to feel the local residents. The significance of this place, its recognizability, dramatic past and physical present beauty together form an object whose future commemoration can bring spectacular effects. The use of new means, talents and procedures may give Krakow a chance to turn the KL Plaszow area into a groundbreaking commemoration, in place of today’s – only correct, conflict-laden and endless compromise project. Therefore, I am asking you, Mr. President, to consider postponing the implementation of the field project and resuming talks with residents and a wider representation of the Krakow Jewish community, by a newly established institution (which will probably happen at the next meeting of the City Council). We are happy to support this process with our in-depth knowledge and broad expertise.