in Reviews | 09 DEC 09

Postcards from Warsaw

There is a raging battle taking place in the capital of Poland. But for the uninitiated visitor, it will probably go almost unnoticed. Unless, that is, they are able to follow Polish-language media, or are lucky enough to have members of the Warsaw intellectual milieu explain it to them (for me, the latter thankfully was the case). It’s a battle over commemoration and the construction of national identity.

I was in Warsaw to give a lecture in connection with a project by artists Agniezska Kurant and Anna Baumgart, which is a temporary monument entitled ‘(…)’, commissioned by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews to be inaugurated in mid December at the precise spot on Chlodna street where in early 1942 a wooden footbridge was in place, a chilling construction that connected the smaller with the larger part of the Warsaw Ghetto, leading over, and separating Jews from, the ‘Aryan’ street where trams were passing.


My lecture took place in the evening at Nowy Wspanialy Swiat (Brave New World), a former KGB club which has been turned into a casual bar and cultural centre very recently, and with support from the city council, by “Krytyka Polityczna”:, a leftist political-philosophical magazine.

the opening of Nowy Wspanialy Swiat in early November

During the day, I had visited the famous Jewish Uprising Monument by Nathan Rapoport,

photograph from 1948, the year the monument was erected

which now is right next to the construction site of the Jewish Museum to be opened in 2012 (its modest design is by Finnish architects Lahdelma & Mahlamäki).


Thanks to the thoughtful guide Kornelia Cecerska, who on behalf of the Jewish Museum also took me the the Umschlagplatz monument – at the site where Jews were rounded up to be taken away on trains to Auschwitz and Treblinka –


and the spot of the footbridge, I learned a lot about the difficulties of commemoration in a spot that was so thoroughly destroyed by the German army, and then further twisted by the changes through post 1950s socialist housing and post-1989 commercialization.

But to come back to that battle: in recent years, there has been a resurgence amongst mainly conservative and right-wing factions of the political landscape that have turned the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 – initiated by the exiled conservative Polish government in London against the Nazi Germany occupiers – into a national founding myth. This is maybe most vividly incarnated with the establishment of the Warsaw Rising Museum, which provides a vivid experience of the insurgents’ desperate fight, largely lead from the underground canal system of the city, until it was devastatingly crushed by the Germans (resulting in more than 180000 deaths), while the Red Army was lying in wait on the other side of the Vistula river. The museum – as Joanna Mytkowska, director of the Museum of Modern Art, told me – has been a big hit with the general audience and has attracted about a million visitors last year, often families with their kids, which the museum caters to with themepark-type instalments (walk, like the fighters did, through a mock sewer). Incidentally, the construction of the Museum of Modern Art – which temporarily resides in a beautiful 1960s building also housing a furniture shop – will take place in the centre of Warsaw right next to the Stalinist Palace of Culture and Science;


the design is by Swiss architect Christian Kerez, again a modest construction from the outside which will only reveal its spectacular roof either from inside, or as seen from above from the top of the Palace.



However, again this is a historically conflicted site: not only are there numerous mostly rightwing factions that would hope to erase the Palace, seen by them as nothing but a reminder of Stalinist oppression, while at the site of the future museum there is still a market hall construction that was put there in the 1990s as an attempt to organise the new anarcho-capitalist street market that had developed there (see image below, to the left).


The street traders, evicted without replacement, organised a protest this summer that resulted in a fierce confrontation with the police.

It’s not the museum’s fault that the city failed to provide alternatives for the vendors. But it seems hard in Warsaw to establish one kind of history – in this case, a contemporary Polish art scene very conscious of its Modernist avant-garde heritage – without simultaneously erasing visible signs of another; in this case, the anarcho-capitalist suitcase economy of the immediate years after 1989.

In this sense the problem with the resurgence of commemoration in regard to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 is not the commemoration as such, but a more complex problem that amounts to a bitterly ironic historical twist. To put it in probably over-simplified terms, distilled from the helpful comments of Agnieszka Kurant, Anna Baumgart, Agnieszka Rudzinska of the Jewish Museum, Kornelia Cecerska, Joanna Mytkowska, Andrzej Przywara of Foksal Gallery Foundation, and numerous others: during socialist times well into the 1980s the Warsaw Uprising was entirely erased from state commemoration – because it was anything but a socialist uprising, and because it was not carried out in the interest, or under the auspices, of the Soviets, quite to the contrary – while the Jewish Uprising was treated as if it was simply and purely an essentially socialist workers’ uprising, in this sense forcefully integrated into Polish state doctrine. After 1989, with the establishment of the marriage between turbo capitalism and catholic conservatism , it has tended to be the other way round: now it’s all about the Warsaw Uprising and the Katyn massacre (the terrible war crime of 1940 committed by the Soviet NKVD, involving the mass murder of thousands of Polish military officers, intellectuals, policemen and civilian prisoners of war), while the Jewish Uprising in the Ghetto of 1943 and the destruction of the Polish Jews connected to it is either silently ignored – or the Warsaw Uprising is even explicitly played off against it. The typical sentence accompanying this attitude, if openly uttered, would probably be: ‘…enough of the Jews, now it’s our turn’. A battle over who deserves commemoration at which point in historic times, underpinned with concepts that take it for granted that these were all separate issues – as if being Polish and being Jewish had always been mutually exclusive states of being. Which is even more disturbing since, according to what Kornelia told me, in fact a substantial number of Jewish fighters who had survived the 1943 Ghetto uprising where again fighting, and died, in the 1944 uprising – all of this against the background that the Home Army also apparently had a lot of anti-Jewish insurgents in their ranks.

Andrzej Przywara pointed me to the literal collision of the ‘competing’ manifestations of commemoration amidst the socialist housing blocks that are now in the area of the former Ghetto (which had been turned entirely to rubble by the Germans during the war). Just a stone throw away from the Umschlagplatz of 1988 is another one entitled Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East, which – unveiled in 1995 –


consists of an open freight car with crosses stacked in it, and a line of metal sleepers, commemorating the millions of Poles sent to Soviet gulags. Again it seems the proximity and signage leading you to either Umschlagplatz or the other monument inevitably suggest an evaluation as to which commemoration is more important, or more urgent. Not that it would be easy to prevent that effect, but nevertheless one wonders whether there had been an open debate about that question.

During socialist times, it wasn’t as if remembering the destruction of Jews of Europe on Polish soil was always held in high regard either. Quite to the contrary, there were anti-Jewish campaigns that led to the exodus of most of the remaining small Jewish community. As Agniezska Kurant told me, her family largely left Poland after the March 1968 events, where a scapegoat logic came into place blaming the protests of students and intellectuals, coinciding with the Prague spring events, on a supposed Zionist conspiracy.

This might be one of the reasons why tours of the former Ghetto for young Israelis – often before their military service, and usually ending with a visit to Rapoport’s monument – today still are often largely shielded off from the surrounding contemporary Warsaw experience. Which is yet another factor that seems to entrench any respective alienation rather than diminishing it, excluding one kind of memory when another kind of memory is concerned. Which makes a work by Pawel Althamer that Andrzej showed me at Foksal – while the Spanish artist Jorge Peris was busy transforming the gallery, with the help of a lot of salt, salt-eating protozoon and dried banana peels, into a strange micro-biotope – all the more interesting: in a session with a hypnotist (as part of a collaborative piece with Artur Zmijewski, the video Hypnosis of 2004)


he imagined himself as being the reincarnation of a small Jewish boy trying to flee from Nazi-occupied Warsaw with a little dog. A few years later Althamer turned this dream image – as kitschy sentimental as it is genuinely heart-rending – into a small bronze sculpture, erected in the suburban housing block where he lives:


Abram and Burus (2007) includes a real-life wooden stick that people can use for playing with their dogs. This piece is interesting in the regard of ‘competing’ commemorations because it inevitably reminds of another sculpture, that of the Little Insurgent (erected in 1981),


commemorating the young boys who fought in the Warsaw Uprising. It seems almost as if, more that 64 years after the war and 20 years after the fall of the Wall, it is only under hypnosis that the destruction of the European Jews by Nazi Germany on Polish soil, and the crushing of the Polish caught in the middle between Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union, can be thought together.

in Reviews | 09 DEC 09