Framing the Urban: An Introduction to Sites of Memory

11.06.2019, Isabel Syrek

As part of Krakow’s [Artboom Festival](http://www.artboomfestival.pl/en/80/3/99) in 2013, an art historian and an anthropologist overlaid the empty rooms of World War II commanding officer's Amon Goeth's former residence with findings from archival materials as literary and visual narratives on the occurrences in the building and the adjacent grounds of former Plaszow concentration camp. At the time, I was visiting Krakow as an exchange student at the art history department of Jagiellonian University and attended community consultation events which discussed the future of Plaszow and more importantly, the complexity of giving physical form to memory. Six years later, this experience has become the starting point for *Framing the Urban*. This monthly column will document sites of memory - monuments, museums, events, symbols or even street names which preserve and spatialise collective memory - by applying the Panofksy method from art analysis to the urban environment. The Panofsky method separates the study of art objects and images into three levels: factual descriptions of what is seen, a deeper understanding of images by linking them to artistic motifs and finally, decoding their deeper contextual meaning. This column is deeply personal by intention. It is a space to unpack the many places and experiences that have been significant in my move from the interpretation of societal change on canvas to the built environment. Therefore, in the third step of my analysis of sites of memory I will comment on these places from the perspective of a young person, who decodes visual information to understand how we navigate the world around us rather than delving into its wider contextual meaning. It will by no means be a comprehensive account of historical events, but much rather a collection of impressions. Thus in a three-step process this column will provide small biographies of sites of memory by describing, reflecting and commenting on sites of memory I have encountered on my travels. This first post is dedicated to memory making in Plaszow. In 2013, the site in Krakow's district Podgorze bore almost no traces of the former work and concentration camp. The space is embedded in a residential area, surrounded by Bonarka nature reserve and adjacent to Krakus mound (a popular destination for panoramic views of the city). On my first visit, I was guided through the site by a lecturer from Jagiellonian University. As part of a study group, we were taken on a route where smaller paths and outlines of former built structures drawn in the ground were pointed out to us. Had I visited the area by myself without knowledge of its history, it would have been easy to mistake the vast grassland for a piece of greenery in the city. {{Img1:Visit to Plaszow, June 2013.}} This lack of legibility and identity caused tensions among the local population. At the consultation events I attended, the city was accused by some not to have invested enough funding in creating a commemorative site that would narrate its past well into the future, while others criticised the lack of green space in Krakow and defended the site's current use as a leisurely, openly accessible space. The space triggered memories to some, but no broader agreement could be found for its future at the time. Although first monuments have been installed in the 1960s, such as the "Memorial of Torn-Out Hearts" by Witold Ceckiewicz with the Polish inscription "[To the memory of the martyrs murdered by the Nazi perpetrators of genocide in the years 1943-45](https://www.inyourpocket.com/krakow/c-dolek_112728v)", the site differs significantly from other memorial sites I had visited until then. There were no professional guides or instructions on how to navigate the space. It resembles an open field, fully open to interpretation. Four years after I left the city, the municipality agreed to build a museum. As online research and recent [views on Google Maps](https://www.google.com/maps/place/Płaszów,+30-716+Kraków,+Poland/@50.0300407,19.9675476,18.55z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x471644b706e76003:0xa1d15ba65b5ff117!8m2!3d50.0446081!4d19.986768) indicate, signage has been installed around the guide visitors. Simultaneously, [Amon Goeth's former residence has been sold to a private developer who seeks to renovate the house into a family home](https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4197060/Schindler-s-List-House-Horrors.html). Memory is an active process of recollection. In preparation for this blog post, I searched my own notes, photographs from the time and the internet for descriptions and images to make sense of what I still remembered and what I had experienced six years ago. While my own memory of the installation is fragmented, I remember the questions this installation and several site visits during my time in Krakow raised: questions of how we make meaning from visual information. {{Img2:Memorial of Torn-Out Hearts, Witold Ceckiewicz.}} A module on iconoclasm at Jagiellonian University expanded on this idea, arguing that objects never only are material things, but are transparently and immediately linked to what they represent. While images are not words and it is not clear that they actually say something, they are indeed worth 'a thousand words' because their meaning is so indeterminate and ambiguous. Yet, collectively we frequently agree on ways of communicating shared ideas about the past to the present, historical narratives that ultimately shape our identity. The community consultations on the future of Plaszow I attended in 2013 voiced different needs from different generations to the city: the need for history to be remembered and the need for space to build future memories. With a background in art history, I often compare my experience of cityscapes to the curation of exhibitions. Contrary to museums that we choose to enter, architecture is a public form of expression that presents the backdrop to our everyday lives. Voicing one’s need for this backdrop to be adapted is to take ownership of the story that is told and how it ought to progress. With this in mind, the activation of Amon Goeth's house as part of [Artboom Festival](http://www.artboomfestival.pl/en/80/3/99) in 2013 asked for the integration of history where spatially it had been neglected and with its recent renovation will write an entirely different history. [Isabel Syrek](https://www.facebook.com/isabel.syrek)