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'You could feel an air of antisemitism at the meetings'

Jewish group seeks to stall plan to finally commemorate Krakow concentration camp

Fear of an antisemitic backlash causes some local Jews to join residents and environmental activists in pushing back against municipal plans to mark the notorious Plazsow site

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

  • Magda Rubenfeld Koralewska (front) on a walking tour of the site of the former Plaszow concentration camp in Krakow. (Stan Baranski/FestivALT)
    Magda Rubenfeld Koralewska (front) on a walking tour of the site of the former Plaszow concentration camp in Krakow. (Stan Baranski/FestivALT)
  • The largest memorial at the site of the former Plaszow concentration camp, dedicated to all victims of fascism. (Jason Francisco)
    The largest memorial at the site of the former Plaszow concentration camp, dedicated to all victims of fascism. (Jason Francisco)
  • A portion of the old Jewish cemetery on the grounds of the Plaszow concentration camp in Krakow, Poland. (Jason Francisco)
    A portion of the old Jewish cemetery on the grounds of the Plaszow concentration camp in Krakow, Poland. (Jason Francisco)
  • The area just outside the Plaszow concentration camp before (left) and after (right) the trees were cut down to make way for a future museum. (Action Rescue for Krakow; Krakow Residents Association)
    The area just outside the Plaszow concentration camp before (left) and after (right) the trees were cut down to make way for a future museum. (Action Rescue for Krakow; Krakow Residents Association)
  • A memorial at the Plaszow concentration camp to the Jewish victims of the site. (Jason Francisco)
    A memorial at the Plaszow concentration camp to the Jewish victims of the site. (Jason Francisco)

KRAKOW, Poland — Seventy-five years after the end of the Holocaust, passersby who wander through the site of the former Plaszow concentration camp on the outskirts of Krakow may not have any idea of the area’s significance.

Many who come to walk their dogs, ride their bikes or have a picnic on the grassy knolls are unaware that the grounds contain mass graves, remnants of Nazi barbarity and not one but two largely destroyed Jewish cemeteries.

Today, city officials are working to change that with a plan to construct a memorial museum next to the site and properly commemorate the atrocities committed on the 37-hectare (91-acre) swath of land. But the proposed plan has raised the ire of local residents, environmental activists and at least one Jewish group.

Those living in the area surrounding the camp are concerned about an influx of tourists, environmental groups are furious about the razing of hundreds of trees and the FestivALT Jewish group is worried that local backlash to the idea will foment antisemitism and cause unnecessary tensions. So far this year, the site has already become a flashpoint of tensions. There have been complaints over the installation of unauthorized park benches, and multiple protests have been staged by an environmental group over the demolition of the trees.

Magda Rubenfeld Koralewska, co-director of the FestivALT Jewish arts collective, said her organization supports the creation of a memorial at the site, but believes city officials have not properly consulted with either residents or Jewish groups over the plans. Plowing ahead with the construction, she said, will only engender further animosity among residents of the areas surrounding the camp.

The dialogue in local consultation meetings, she said, was often heated and uncomfortable.

Magda Rubenfeld Koralewska (front) on a walking tour of the site of the former Plaszow concentration camp in Krakow. (Stan Baranski/FestivALT)

“[There] was this rhetoric, of like, ‘For Jewish memory, we have to sacrifice the way that we live, and that you’re prioritizing their needs against ours,’” she recalled. The FestivALT co-director and Krakow native said she did not believe that all the residents protesting were antisemitic, “but it was the atmosphere that was built, which was not allowing the residents [to feel that they] actually have any agency. Plus, the lack of transparency was really kind of spiraling into something really, really negative.”

“You could sort of feel this air of antisemitism in these consultations,” Rubenfeld Koralewska added. “I hadn’t seen anything like this before, this aggressive and this thick.”

Rubenfeld Koralewska said she was unsure how much the city was consulting with other rabbinic and Jewish groups, in particular over securing the areas thought to contain mass graves.

But Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich — who also serves as head of the Polish Rabbinical Commission for Jewish Cemeteries — said that the commission has been “very involved” with the activity at the Plaszow site.

“We have ensured that both prewar cemeteries on which Plaszow was built will be secured and protected,” Schudrich said. “We are securing the area of all mass graves.”

He said that the area where the museum building will be constructed — and where the trees were cut down — “is not on the area of the prewar cemeteries nor mass graves.”

Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich speaks during an event in Warsaw, Poland, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Schudrich noted, however, that the commission is “sensitive to ecological concerns.” He said that he is aware of clashes between museum officials and residents and environmental groups, and he encourages “both sides [to] sit down to find a wise solution.”

City officials also noted that in addition to consulting with Schudrich and the rabbinic commission, Tadeusz Jakubowicz — the president of Krakow’s Jewish community, and a native of Krakow who was imprisoned in Plaszow as a child — also sits on the museum’s council.

Authorities say that the majority of requests from local residents are being honored in the plans.

The city of Krakow has a “strong commitment both to the victims and to those inhabitants of Krakow who still remember the Second World War and the Holocaust as well as to contemporary Krakow residents and the international community,” said Robert Piaskowski, the plenipotentiary for culture to the mayor of Krakow.

‘The Jews want the trees cut down’

Piaskowski said that the main demands of those who participated in the consultations included free, non-ticketed entry to the site, not fencing off the area and not removing greenery from the former site of the concentration camp. Those concerns, he said, are being honored in the city’s plans.

The issue that made the most headlines, however, was a series of protests against the razing of hundreds of trees on the area that will house the future museum building. Days after a protest was staged at the concentration camp site earlier this month, the vice mayor of Krakow, Andrzej Kulig, confirmed to activists that the razing of the trees had been completed.

Environmental activists claim that more than 500 trees were removed, while the city says 275 trees were removed from an area that was “overgrown” and “unmanaged,” along with another 300 seedlings or bushes. Piaskowski said that in response, “295 trees of noble species will be planted in the immediate vicinity of the site.” Michal Niezabitowski, director of the Krakow Museum, which is overseeing the entire project, said the new trees will be planted by the city before the end of this year.

The area just outside the Plaszow concentration camp before (left) and after (right) the trees were cut down to make way for a future museum. (Action Rescue for Krakow; Krakow Residents Association)

Following the trees’ removal, Action Rescue for Krakow, the group that staged the protest at the site, expressed anger at the decision. The city rushed into cutting the trees, the group claimed, to stymie further discussion. “They simply chopped them down and left it that way just so not to give us, the residents, at least a scrap of space to discuss the future of this place,” the group said in a statement.

Artur Hofman, president of the cultural group TSKZ, the oldest Polish Jewish organization, scoffed at the idea that tree removal should be an obstacle to the preservation of Jewish memory at the site.

“We are living in idiotic times,” he said of the recent protest. “Everything is controversial… young people know nothing about history.”

We are living in idiotic times. Everything is controversial… young people know nothing about history

Rubenfeld Koralewska said that in the series of consultation meetings that took place — which included residents, activists and museum representatives — she felt that officials sought to portray the initiative as being specifically pushed for by Jewish groups.

“It’s creating this rhetoric of like, ‘The Jews want the trees to be cut down,’” Rubenfeld Koralewska told The Times of Israel, hours before the city confirmed that all tree removal had already been completed. “And then that’s going to cause a backlash that’s going to resonate, I think, very negatively in the community for a long time.”

She and the FestivALT group repeatedly pushed for a 90-day pause in any activity at the site before the trees were razed, but the request ultimately fell on deaf ears.

A portion of the old Jewish cemetery on the grounds of the Plaszow concentration camp in Krakow, Poland. (Jason Francisco)

Still, she said, she is concerned that some residents will be so angry at the influx of tourists and the upheaval at the site that they could take things into their own hands and attack visiting groups once the museum opens.

“There was a letter from one of the residents that said, ‘So far we’ve been nice to the tourists, but that might not always be the case,’” Rubenfeld Koralewska said, adding that she “might be exaggerating,” but she worries that an angry resident “will throw something… at a group, hopefully not hurting anybody, but that will cause a huge backlash.”

Because we’re antagonizing the community, we can anticipate something will happen

That backlash, she said, could cause the city to in turn reverse its promise not to fence off the area, which would “create even more animosity.” The situation, she said, feels like a “self-fulfilling prophecy — that because we’re antagonizing the community, we can anticipate something will happen.”

Rubenfeld Koralewska wants plans for the site to slow down and be more responsive to the requests of local residents.

“This is a process that needs to happen in small steps, and that needs to happen gradually,” she said. “After decades of not doing anything with the site, it’s a question of whether we need to rush now and really transform the way that the site functions, or can we try to — for the benefit of this having a long-term effect on the community that is positive — can we afford to go a bit slower?”

An aerial map of the site of the former Plaszow concentration camp prepared by the FestivALT organization. (FestivALT)

“In a sense, this entire process has been incredibly, sort of, revealed in stages,” she added. “Which is also what I think is not helpful in terms of building a relationship with our local community.”

But city and museum officials say that the idea has been germinating for years, and the municipality is moving forward only following a series of consultations with residents, activists and other involved groups.

Hurry up and wait

For decades the site of the former Plazsow camp was largely ignored. In 2002, it was entered into Poland’s list of historical monuments, and in 2006 the Krakow municipality announced a competition for a plan for development and commemoration of the area. In 2017, the city of Krakow signed a letter of intent along with the Polish Culture Ministry to create an institution, overseen by the Krakow Museum, to commemorate the Plaszow site.

In 2018, the plan for the site was modified to fit a plan for a memorial overseen by the Krakow Museum, and in early 2020, said Piaskowski, public consultations with residents over the site were completed. On January 1 of this year, the organization that will ultimately oversee the Museum KL Plaszow was officially formed. According to city officials, new tenders will be issued next year, building will begin in 2023 and the museum should open to visitors by 2025.

The camp was built on the site of two Jewish cemeteries and operated by the Nazis between 1942 and 1945. The Nazis destroyed most evidence of the camp and its operations, though historians believe as many as 8,000 Jews may have been murdered there, and that the site houses multiple mass graves. Notorious SS commandant Amon Göth, who oversaw the camp, was known for his sadistic treatment of prisoners and for arbitrarily shooting inmates on a daily basis.

The planned memorial, said Piaskowski, will include “leaving the site of the former camp as unchanged and authentic as possible.”

The largest memorial at the site of the former Plaszow concentration camp, dedicated to all victims of fascism. (Jason Francisco)

He said the plans only entail adding informational plaques at relevant sites, including mass graves; the construction of a museum adjacent to the camp with a permanent exhibition on the history of the site, along with a parking lot for tour buses; and the restoration of the infamous “Grey House,” which was once used by the Jewish chevra kadisha burial society and was co-opted during the war as housing for SS officials.

Niezabitowski said the goal is to “preserve and manage the area” of the former camp. The grounds that were once part of Plaszow, he added, will be treated as the “genuine witness of death and suffering of the victims.”

Piaskowski noted that toward the end of the war, “the Nazis ordered the bodies of the victims extracted from the mass graves to be burned.” Therefore, he added, “since the] ashes of murdered people were scattered over the entire area, the camp area is formally a cemetery,” he added.

‘[Since the] ashes of murdered people were scattered over the entire area, the camp area is formally a cemetery

Niezabitowski said that the area on which the new museum will be constructed was “selected deliberately because there are no human remains there” — neither from the prewar Jewish cemeteries nor the victims of the Nazi concentration camp.

The Plaszow concentration camp was also made infamous in the 1993 Steven Spielberg film “Schindler’s List,” and several scenes from the movie were shot next to the site. The film crew recreated portions of the camp nearby, since nothing remained of what was in operation during the Holocaust. Remnants of the film set still remain in place at the site, just outside the grounds of the former concentration camp.

But today there is little sign of the former atrocities at the site, and many residents utilize the grounds for walks, sports, and leisure activities. The vast majority of evidence of the concentration camp is gone, and signs marking the area and explaining its horrific history were only erected by the city in 2017. One large memorial — dedicated to all victims of fascism — and several other smaller monuments and plaques can also be found at the vast site, although visitors would not necessarily come across them.

A memorial at the Plaszow concentration camp to the Jewish victims of the site. (Jason Francisco)

After exiting a meeting with the Krakow vice mayor earlier this month, during which activists discovered that the trees in question had already been removed, Rubenfeld Koralewska said she felt defeated and “disillusioned.”

But several days later, she told The Times of Israel that she and her organization would be taking up the vice mayor’s offer to submit their suggestions and take part in future consultations about plans for the site, “especially as we are concerned these animosities will just continue to grow and undermine the future of this site’s dignified commemoration.”

We are concerned these animosities will just continue to grow and undermine the future of this site’s dignified commemoration

While FestivALT is not proposing an alternative plan, Rubenfeld Koralewska feels that the city needs to rethink the current proposal, especially because the planned museum is very small, and is limited by laws restricting building on the existing green area. The current plan, she said, doesn’t leave room for temporary exhibits or the storage of artifacts or a venue for educational events.

“Why not do a museum that is going to fulfill these functions?” she asked. “Not on this plot, but there are plots on the other side of the street… there might be other solutions.” FestivALT, she said, does not “have a preference; our preference is mostly that, whatever the solution is, that it’s worked on with a variety of stakeholders.”

Rubenfeld Koralewska also noted that she did not feel that many of the residents who live near the former Plaszow camp had any idea of the gruesome history of the site. “For decades, there were hardly any markings there; there are a few scattered monuments,” she said. “It was a site that was meant to be forgotten.”

Though she regrets the community backlash around the plans for the memorial, she believes there is still a silver lining to the controversy.

“Despite the scandal, right now, the consciousness of what the site is is much greater,” she said. “And that’s a really big success in a sense. I just wish we would have gotten there differently.”

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