The article analyses selected Holocaust memorials in several Central and East European countries. Using the approaches of historical and visual sociology, it identifies processes and agents that shaped the present-day memorials during communism and after. These were: commemoration by Jews; memorialization, marginalization, suppression and the obliteration of Jewish victimhood by the communist authorities; making minor or substantial changes to the existing monuments after communism and developing them; and creating new Holocaust memorials both public and private, and by domestic and foreign agents. The article concludes that the Holocaust memorials in the region are primarily a result of legacies of communist times. They were also shaped by transnational influences. By and large they are national developments.
Memorials – monuments, plaques and other commemorative objects – belong to the most tangible manifestations of collective memory as understood by Maurice Halbwachs (Halbwachs  1992) and other scholars of social and cultural memory studies (Erll and Nünning 2008; Olick, Vinitzky-Seroussi and Levy 2011). The memorials are also the epitomes of remembrance or, to use the words of one of the most prominent memory studies scholars, the visible ‘products of mnemonic practices’ (Olick 2008). While mostly official and public, some are unofficial and private. Therefore, the study of memorials best reveals the characteristics and development of collective memory and public remembrance of a given event by various social groups. This article will account for the main findings of a study of memorials to the Holocaust, that is, the persecution and murder of Jews by Nazi Germany, its allies and collaborators during the Second World War. The study concerned major Holocaust memorials in several countries of Central and Eastern Europe. It was carried out as a part of and a follow-up to a larger research project entitled ‘The Europeanization of Holocaust memory in Eastern Europe’ funded by the European Union, and in the context of the COST action ‘In Search of Transnational Memory in Europe’. 1 The study was conducted from the perspective of historical and visual sociology. The author of this article carried out the study between 2013 and 2016, including extensive fieldwork – an on-site exploration and a written and photographic documentation of the selected Holocaust memorials, museums, and sites in selected countries of Central and Eastern Europe – in 2014–15. The main objective of the study was to account for the processes and agents that shaped the present-day Holocaust memorials in the region. This article will discuss some of the objects covered by the study that best illustrate the patterns discovered. They belong to or are the most important Holocaust memorials in their countries. All empirical evidence given in the article comes from the author’s field research carried out in the spring and summer of 2014, unless otherwise indicated.
The region, countries and objects discussed in this article were chosen for three reasons. First, the Holocaust has had a special historical significance for Central and Eastern Europe. It is there that the murder of Jews largely took place. The vast majority of Holocaust victims were the Jews of Central and East European countries. Some states of the region and some people engaged in the Holocaust as accomplices or perpetrators. As a result of the Holocaust, Central and East European countries lost nearly all their Jewish populations. Coping with the Holocaust has been a major challenge for the people and states in the region. Secondly, the collective memory and commemoration of the Holocaust have been increasingly important for the countries and people in the region as they have for other countries and people, and, indeed, all humanity. These processes were accounted for in the social sciences theories capturing various aspects of transnational Holocaust memory and in the works of historians. Jeffrey C. Alexander (2002) showed that the Holocaust has come to be recognized globally as the epitome of the universal evil. Thus Holocaust memory has become universalized and globalized. Daniel Levy and Nathan Sznaider (2002) indicated that following the development of national memories of the Holocaust in such countries as (West) Germany, Israel and the USA from the 1950s to the 1980s, Holocaust memory also became cosmopolitan in the 1990s and 2000s. The cosmopolitanization of Holocaust memory involved its universalization, de-territorialization, de-contextualization and mediatization. Authors such as Larissa Allwork (2015) and Marek Kucia (2016) highlighted the role of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), the European Union (EU), and other international organizations for the internationalization and Europeanization of Holocaust memory. Kucia (2016) also analysed the impact of these processes on Central and East European countries. Authors in the volume edited by Jean-Paul Himka and Joanna Beata Michlic (2013) and others (e.g. Steinlauf 1997; Sniegon 2014) discussed the development of Holocaust memory in the counties of the region, particularly on the demise of communism. The third reason for studying Holocaust memorials in Central and Eastern Europe was that this is an under-researched topic. There were publications covering the most important Holocaust memorials, particularly ones in the region (e.g. Cole 2003; Kopówka 2002; Marcuse 2010; Milton and Nowinski 1991; Toronyi 2013; Young 1989, 1993, 1994). Holocaust memorials were also addressed in the broader studies of Holocaust memory or Holocaust sites, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe (e.g. authors in Himka and Michlic 2013; Huener 2003; Kucia 2005; Wóycicka 2013). Several institutions have catalogued Holocaust memorials online (e.g. Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, 2016; Topography of Terror Foundation, 2016). There does not, however, exist a publication that would comparatively and diachronically analyse the Holocaust memorials in Central and Eastern Europe during and after communism. This article will attempt to fill this gap.
The perspective that the article will take will be regional rather than national. The analysis of selected memorials in several countries of Central and Eastern Europe will aim at identifying patterns of Holocaust remembrance common to various countries of the region where the Holocaust happened, instead of comparing memorials in order to find differences in Holocaust (non-)remembrance among the various nations. Thus on studying national developments in Holocaust memorials, the article will try to show their transnational aspects. The article will look at Holocaust memorials in Central and Eastern Europe rather than across Europe or the wider (Western) world. The main reason for that will be to demonstrate the legacies of communism upon Holocaust remembrance in the area where the Holocaust largely took place.
The article will proceed as follows. First, it will discuss the processes of Holocaust (non-remembrance) at the communist times, analysing cases of the present-day memorials and memorial sites of the Holocaust. Secondly, the article will highlight the processes and examples of transformations of the commemorative objects from the communist times after 1989–91 and the development of new ones ever since. In both periods, mnemonic agents will be identified. In the conclusions, the article will assess the role of various processes and agents for shaping the present-day Holocaust memorials and will discuss the relevance of some theories of transnational Holocaust memory in accounting for the memorials.
Holocaust (non-)remembrance during communism
Literature on Holocaust memorials (e.g. Milton and Nowinski 1991; Young 1989, 1993, 1994; Marcuse 2010) and that on Holocaust memory (e.g. Himka and Michlic 2013; Huener 2003; Steinlauf 1997) dealt with icons of Holocaust memorials located in Central and Eastern Europe that were created during communism, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, the memorial in Treblinka or the International Monument in Auschwitz-Birkenau. At the same time, this literature conveys the view that there was little, hardly any or no remembrance of the Holocaust in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe under communist rule. This section will explore and attempt to both challenge and corroborate this view by identifying and discussing various processes and cases of Holocaust memorialization, marginalization, suppression and obliteration in those countries between the end of the war there in 1944–45 and the demise of communism in 1989–91.
Chronologically and analytically, the first process that took place throughout Central and Eastern Europe in the early years after the war consisted of attempts at commemorating the murdered Jews by Jewish survivors, the returning families and friends of the victims and the Jewish communities or organizations. Some of these attempts were spontaneous and unofficial. Others were organized and involved obtaining permission from the local authorities to create memorials. Many of the attempts were successful. Examples of successful memorialization included objects commemorating the mass graves of Jews on the sites of killings carried out by the Einsatzgruppen (death squads and local auxiliaries) in Nazi-invaded Soviet Union, such as those in the Rumbula Forest near Riga in 1941, monuments of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, the Jewish monument in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp, and a cemetery of the victims of the Budapest Ghetto.
The objects commemorating the victims of mass killings buried in the mass graves in Rumbula and other sites in the then Belarussian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republics included memorial signs, piles of stones, wooden tablets and Stars of David (Young 1994). Most of these early memorials no longer exist. Many were torn down by the local authorities. Others decayed after the Jews who installed them and were looking after them had emigrated. However, photographs of many of these ‘unofficial memorials’ may be seen in literature (e.g. in Young 1994, 27–28) and in some exhibitions. For example, the early attempts at commemorating the Rumbula killings are documented in the exhibition ‘Rumbula: Anatomy of a crime, 1941’ in the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in Riga.
Two monuments of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 are the most remarkable examples of the early Holocaust memorials that last until today. They are located on a large square established on the ruins of the ghetto in the centre of the capital of Poland. The process to erect the monuments was initiated by the surviving and returning Polish Jews. The monuments were commissioned by the main Jewish organization in early post-war Poland – the Central Committee of Polish Jews [Centralny Komitet Żydów w Polsce], which was granted permission by the authorities. The first of the two monuments is little known. It was unveiled in 1946 to mark the third anniversary of the outbreak of the uprising. It is a modest tablet on a pedestal, created by the architect Leon Suzin. On the tablet is an inscription in Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew. The powerful inscription reads: ‘19 April 1946 / To those who fell / in the unprecedentedly / heroic struggle / for the dignity and freedom / of the Jewish people, / for a free Poland, / for the liberation of man / The Polish Jews’ [Tym, którzy polegli / w bezprzykładnie / bohaterskiej walce / o godność i wolność / narodu żydowskiego, / o wolną Polskę, / o wyzwolenie człowieka / Żydzi polscy]. Thus, the text defines the commemorated event by giving its starting date. Those commemorated are conceived as the fallen, fighters and heroes. The text also defines the causes of their fight referring to lofty universalist, Jewish national and Polish patriotic values. Lastly, those who commemorate are signed – ‘The Polish Jews’.
The second of the two lasting early memorials is the famous Warsaw Ghetto Monument, referred to in Poland as the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes [Pomnik Bohaterów Getta]. It was created by the sculptor Nathan Rapoport and the designer of the first monument, architect M. Suzin. The monument was unveiled on 19 April 1948, during an official ceremony marking the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Ever since, the memorial has been the site of official and unofficial, Polish and Jewish anniversary commemorations (Young 1989; Steinlauf 1997), which has become the main Holocaust commemoration in Poland. The monument resembles a wall, with a sculpture at the front and a relief at the rear. The sculpture, entitled ‘The Fight’ [Walka], shows insurgents. The relief represents the march of the Jewish men, women and children to their annihilation. The structure stands on a plinth, with two menorahs either side. A short inscription in Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew beneath the sculpture on the front of the monument defines the commemorating and the commemorated: ‘The Jewish people – to its fighters and martyrs’ [Naród żydowski – swym bojownikom i męczennikom].
The Central Committee of Polish Jews also initiated and succeeded in installing the Jewish monument in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The monument was erected by the ruins of one of the gas chambers and crematoriums in the former Birkenau part of the Auschwitz complex in 1948 (Huener 2003; Kucia 2005; Wóycicka 2013). The memorial, however, does not exist any longer. It was dismantled during the construction of the current International Monument unveiled in 1967.
Although an organization of Polish Jews was successful in installing the Jewish monument at the largest site of the Holocaust, it failed in its attempts to memorialize the main killing site of the Jews of Poland – the death camp of Treblinka. Despite the organization’s efforts, the authorities refused to grant permission for a monument that they believed would be ‘too Jewish’ (Young 1989; Wóycicka 2013).
The cemetery of Holocaust victims from the Budapest Ghetto, located in the garden of the Dohány Street Synagogue complex, also referred to as the Great Synagogue, the main synagogue of Hungary, is another significant example of the early Jewish commemorative objects. It is a rare case of an unintended Holocaust memorial. The garden near a synagogue that had been in the ghetto became a burial place for some 2,000 Jews by order of the authorities in the first days after the liberation of the ghetto by the Red Army on 18 January 1945. This was against the Jewish tradition as it was impossible to use the Jewish cemeteries due to warfare. The makeshift graveyard, however, became perpetual; the corpses were never exhumed and transferred from the mass graves in the garden.
Over the years, the cemetery has become a Holocaust memorial site – ‘the most authentic Holocaust memorial in Hungary’ (Toronyi 2013, 1).
From the 1950s to the 1980s, the families of the victims, Jewish activists and organizations developed some of the earliest Holocaust memorials and created new ones. This process – like all aspects of social, political and economic life under communism – was controlled by the communist authorities. Much of this continued and new Jewish memorialization was confined to the Jewish community spaces. For example, in the late 1950s, the Jewish Museum in Prague made the Pinchas Synagogue into a Holocaust memorial by inscribing the names of almost 80,000 Czech Jewish victims onto its walls (Frankl 2013, 176). In Hungary, the cemetery of the Holocaust victims from the Budapest Ghetto in the garden of the Dohány Street Synagogue complex became the core of a growing Holocaust memorial site. Over the years, individual Jews and Jewish organizations placed various Holocaust memorial objects in the garden. Until the collapse of communism, these were: a plaque marking the exact spot where the Soviet troops first entered the former Ghetto, plaques and bouquets commemorating the identified victims buried in the mass graves in the garden and individual and group victims of other sites of the Holocaust of the Jews of Hungary, and a ‘memorial wall’ (Toronyi 2013). A white marble plaque with an inscription was affixed onto this memorial wall by the sculptor István Zana. The inscription read: ‘As an eternal reminder of the day forty years ago when the walls surrounding the only Ghetto remaining in Europe were broken down by the Soviet Army, liberators of our homeland. 18 January 1945 – 18 January 1985’ [örök emlékeztetőü l arra a 40 évvel ezelőtti napra, amikor az egyetlen megmaradt európai gettót körülvevő falakat lerombolta a hazánkat felszabadító szovjet hadsereg. 1945. január 18 – 1985. január 18] (Toronyi 2013, 7). Thus, this central memorial object placed in the hidden memorial garden lacked a reference to Jews and their Holocaust, and focused on the Soviet ‘liberators’, which was typical of most of Hungary’s memorials of the Holocaust at that time (Cole 2003).
Alongside the Jewish spaces, Jewish memorialization also took place in more general, freely accessible public spaces. For instance in the Rumbula Forest, in the then Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, the authorities granted permission to the Jewish community of Riga to install a monument that replaced the early commemorative objects. The monument that stands to this day is a simple medium-sized granite stone resembling a Jewish tombstone, with a carved inscription in Latvian, Russian, and Yiddish in the Hebrew script, the Soviet symbol of sickle and hammer and the years 1941–44. The Russian part of the inscription ‘жертвам фашизма’ translates ‘To the victims of fascism’, which is a typical way of universalizing Holocaust victims and referring to the perpetrators in the Soviet bloc at that time. Only the form of the monument and the Hebrew letters of one of the inscriptions evoke the Jewishness of the commemorated. The form and content of the monument exemplify the implicit character of most Holocaust memorials placed in public spaces during communist times. In the middle of the monument, there is a small metal plaque that must have been affixed after the fall of communism as the text on it in Latvian and English states, ‘This monument was erected in 1964 under the Soviet totalitarian regime by activists of the Riga’s Jewish community. It was the only Jewish memorial to the victims of Nazi terror in the territory of the USSR.’ The plaque does not expound that the Jewish activists had to obtain permission from the authorities. It seems then that the implicit Holocaust references and Soviet symbols were a compromise between the two parties. However, explicit Holocaust memorials free from communist elements were also built in communist-ruled Central and Eastern Europe during that era.
The memorial at Treblinka, comprising a monument and a memorial park, is the major of the rare examples of Holocaust memorialization by communist authorities. Located in Poland, on the site of the second largest former death camp (after Auschwitz) that claimed the lives of some 700,000 to 900,000 Jews, the memorial at Treblinka is considered ‘the greatest of all Holocaust memorials’ (Young 1994, 25). It was commissioned by the Polish Ministry of Culture and Arts when various events and sites of Poland’s history were being memorialized, in a period of monumentalization across the communist bloc. The Treblinka Memorial was created by the architect Adam Haupt and the sculptors Franciszek Duszeńko and Franciszek Strynkiewicz between 1959 and 1964. The monument was dedicated by high representatives of the Polish government during a rally attended by 30,000 people in 1964 as a sign of ‘the nation’s martyrdom’ (Young 1993, 188; cf. Rusiniak 2008, 51, 53), which was as an attempt to include the murder of (mostly Polish) Jews into the usually Polish ethnocentric narrative of suffering and death of Poland’s nationals during the Second World War. Since its dedication, the monument and the surrounding memorial park are the major components of the Polish public institution called the Museum of Struggle and Martyrdom in Treblinka [Muzeum Walki i Męczeństwa Treblinka].
The monument and the memorial park in Treblinka are overt about the Holocaust. At the entrance to the memorial park, there are six blocks with inscriptions in different languages – German, French, English, Russian, Yiddish and Polish. The inscriptions explicitly state: ‘More than 800,000 Jews from Poland, USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Austria, France, Belgium, Germany and Greece were here murdered.’ The monument and the surrounding memorial park are full of subtle yet overt Jewish symbolism (Young 1988; Marcuse 2010). The reliefs of the monument contain motifs used on Jewish tombstones, and a menorah. The blocks on which the monument is built bear resemblances to the Wailing Wall (the wall of the Temple of Jerusalem). The monument is surrounded by over 17,000 stones resembling Jewish tombstones, 213 of them bearing names of places in the surrounding districts from which the Jews were deported to the death camp (Kopówka 2002). Eleven stones show the names of the countries of deportation (Belgium, USSR, Yugoslavia, France, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Germany, Austria, Greece and Macedonia). One stone commemorates ‘the martyrs of the Warsaw Ghetto’ [Męczennikom getta warszawskiego], and another the individuals: ‘Janusz Korczak (Henryk Goldszmit) and children’. By the monument, there is a stone with the Polish inscription ‘Nigdy więcej’ [Never again] and its translations into Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, English, French and German. This is a universalist call, and critics could claim that it obliterates the Jewish history and symbolism of Treblinka. They may also claim that the inscription in such a place should be explicit, for example, ‘To the memory of hundreds of thousands of Jews murdered at this site.’ However, given the historical and remembrance context, the universalist call of the inscriptions carved on the stone at the Treblinka monument has a Jewish meaning: it does not only refer to genocide but to the Jewish Holocaust. Overall, the memorial at Treblinka is the prime example of Holocaust memorialization.
Another process regarding Holocaust remembrance that may be identified consists of the marginalization and suppression of remembrance of the Jewish victims through their universalization, nationalization and internationalization in the memorials to the victims of the Second World War sponsored by the communist authorities and created in the 1960s and 1980s.
Universalization referred to the Jews murdered during the Second World War by means of general categories such as ‘humans’ or ‘victims’, without mentioning that the humans or victims were murdered as Jews and because they were considered Jewish. Universalization was also conveyed through the use of such terms as ‘murder’ and ‘genocide’, again without specifying that the murdered were Jewish. It also entailed the usage of the universalist call ‘Never again!’ without any reference to what and, especially, to whom it was meant to never happen again. Universalization also entailed the use of universalist visual representations of human suffering and death while no Jewish symbols were used. The most memorable examples of the universalist suppression or marginalization of the Holocaust included: the ‘urn-monument’ in Auschwitz-Birkenau (1955–66); the International Monument and, particularly, the multilingual inscriptions on the plaques there (1967–90); the monument ‘To the memory of the victims [...]’ on the site of the Bełżec death camp (1963–95); and the abstract monument with a memorial tablet ‘To the heroes of Majdanek [...]’ on the site of the former concentration and death camp unveiled in 1969. Those monuments, no matter how artistic they are, were devoid of any Jewish symbolism. The text of the Auschwitz-Birkenau plaques was the best example of Holocaust suppression through universalization (and, as it proved, it also misrepresented the number of the camp’s victims): ‘Four million people suffered and died here at the hands of the Nazi murderers between the years 1940 and 1945.’
Nationalization in regard to the Holocaust comprised the commemoration of Jews not as Jews but as citizens of a given country. This way of suppressing the Holocaust was typical of the Soviet Union. The Soviet symbol of sickle and hammer engraved on the Rumbula monument of 1964 was an example of such nationalization by means of a symbol.
Holocaust internationalization represented Jews as citizens of various countries. This means of suppression was used at the Holocaust sites to which the Jews were deported from various countries of Europe, mainly at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The main monument there, unveiled on 19 April 1967, was called the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism in Brzezinka. Most of the nineteen languages used in the universalizing inscriptions on the monument’s plaques were the main languages of the countries from which the deportees arrived. Most of the flags flown on the monument during commemorations were in the national colours of the deportation states. Some internationalization of the Holocaust also took place in Treblinka where the memorial acclaimed as the greatest Holocaust memorial had (and still has) stones cut with the names of the countries from which the Jews were deported.
Finally, a process relating to the Holocaust that took place in much of Central and Eastern Europe under communist rule was its utter obliteration. It seems that this process was the most widespread at that time. The authorities of the countries of the region did not memorialize the Holocaust in the many sites of camps and ghettos, deportations and executions. They also did not allow the survivors, families and friends of the victims, Jewish and non-Jewish organizations or anyone to commemorate the dead. Thus, there were no or hardly any Holocaust memorials in the public spaces in such countries as Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania. For many years there were no commemorative objects in such former camps as Bełżec or Sobibór in Poland. Most former ghettos in this country were not commemorated at all, unless streets or squares in the former ghettos were named after the ‘ghetto heroes’, which referred to the Warsaw Ghetto rather than the local ones. The site of the former ghetto-camp of Theresienstadt in Terezin, then Czechoslovakia, was not commemorated. The deportation sites in post-war Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania were (on the whole) not memorialized. In the USSR, once the early memorials on the mass graves at the execution sites had decayed, new ones were not installed in most of these places.
Given the evidence from the study of Holocaust memorials presented above, one may corroborate the view conveyed by literature on Holocaust memorials and Holocaust memory that there was no or hardly any Holocaust remembrance in Eastern Europe during communism. There was little, far too little, Holocaust remembrance in terms of Holocaust memorials given how many sites of persecution and murder of Jews called for commemoration over such a huge area covering so many countries. Although some of those sites, largely the most notorious ones, were commemorated through memorials of various kinds that were usually initiated by the surviving Jews, there was little, far too little, Holocaust memorialization initiated and carried out by the authorities of the nations of the region where the Holocaust largely took place. There was little, far too little, Holocaust remembrance in the sites where not only Jews suffered and died. The state-sponsored memorials too often universalized, nationalized, internationalized or even totally obliterated the Jewish Holocaust. There was no or hardly any Holocaust remembrance in the countries that had been wartime allies of the Third Reich and in some that had been occupied. In post-war Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania, Holocaust remembrance was by and large confined to the spaces used by the Jews. There were no overt Holocaust memorials in the public spaces there. Some important Holocaust sites throughout the region did not have any Holocaust memorial. This situation of absence or deficit of Holocaust remembrance changed only in the period on the demise of communism.
Transformations and development of Holocaust memorials after communism
Field research into the existing Holocaust memorials supported by the study of existing literature reveals several processes that unfolded after the communist regimes had been replaced by democracies in Central and Eastern Europe. These were: (a) making minor changes to the existing memorials; (b) developing the existing memorial sites; (c) removing the old commemorative objects and replacing them with the new ones; (d) supplementing the existing memorials; and (e) creating new Holocaust memorials.
The first process whereby minor changes were made concerns only a few, but important pre-existing memorials where substantial transformations either were not necessary (e.g. Treblinka) or were not considered as such (e.g. Majdanek). In Treblinka, no change was made to the monument and a few minor additions to the memorial park can be noticed. These include a stone for Macedonia added in 2008 to the pre-existing stones with the names of deportation countries; almost a hundred stones with the names of deportation sites outside post-war Poland were added in 1998 (Kopówka 2002) along with the Hebrew inscription ‘! אל דוע ’ on the Nigdy więcej [Never again] stone. More has happened in the area adjacent to the memorial. The museum is now housed in a refurbished and extended building. A new exhibition can be viewed there. A keystone was set for an educational centre. In Majdanek, the impressive abstract monument with the memorial tablet that universalized the victims still stands at the centre of the memorial museum of the former camp. However, new signs and inscriptions first placed in the early 1990s and the open-air exhibition arranged in the early 2000s adequately represent the history of the camp, including the murder of Jews there.
The second process consisted in developing the existing Holocaust memorial sites by creating new, additional memorials. This process concerned, inter alia, the three sites discussed above – the area around the monuments to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Budapest garden in the Dohány Street Synagogue complex and the memorial site in the Rumbula Forest by Riga. In Warsaw, the square where the two monuments sponsored by the Polish Jews have stood since 1946 and 1948, became a peculiar memorial park with objects placed by (ethnic) Poles rather than (Polish) Jews commemorating not the Holocaust, but people, organizations and events related to it and which were important from a (non-Jewish) Polish perspective. The objects are: (a) the Tree of Common Memory of Poles and Jews planted in 1988; (b) stones marking the Memorial Route of Jewish Martyrdom and Struggle placed from 1988 to 1997; (c) an obelisk commemorating ‘Żegota’ – the Polish underground organization that rescued Jews – unveiled in 1995; (d) a monument to the West German Chancellor Willy Brandt unveiled in 2000 commemorating his famous Warsaw Genuflection [Kniefall von Warschau, in German] in front of the Warsaw Ghetto Monument in 1970: (e) a statue to Jan Karski – a Polish underground officer who first brought the news of the Holocaust to the Allies – unveiled in 2013; and (f) the sign ‘Irena Sendlerowa Avenue’ commemorating a Polish nurse who rescued approximately 2,500 Jewish children from the ghetto. The symbolic meaning of the square, once a part of the ghetto, with so many objects from a Polish perspective is somehow balanced by the spectacular building of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened in 2013.
In Budapest, the Hungarian Jewish community continued developing the garden of the Dohány Street Synagogue complex as a Holocaust memorial site. The most remarkable monument was dedicated in 1990 – a weeping willow tree made of steel whose leaves are engraved with the names of Holocaust victims. It is the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs by Imre Varga, commonly called the ‘Emanuel Memorial’, which is a reference to its major donor (Toronyi 2013, 11). At the foot of the monument, there is a red marble stone with a golden inscription in Hungarian ‘emlékezzünk’ [remember]. In 2008, another remarkable object was installed in the garden – a large glass window designed in 2004 by Claire Szilard for the Holocaust Memorial Centre in Budapest, but never used there (ibid.). In 2012, the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park [Emlékpark] was established, with a tablet and a plaque commemorating the Swedish diplomat, who rescued thousands of Budapest Jews, and other Righteous among the Nations.
In the Rumbula Forest, the memorial installed by the Jewish community of Riga in 1964 became just one of many commemorative objects that created an exceptional memorial park. The objects, as the inscriptions indicate, were sponsored by various public and private, domestic and foreign agents. The access road to the memorial site is marked by a striking structure of steel and stones funded by a survivor. The memorial is to ‘thousands of Jews’ driven to death from the Riga Ghetto, including the named members of the family of the funder. At the entrance to the memorial park, there are two pairs of memorial stones. The first names the site in Latvian, Hebrew, English and German in a universalizing way as a ‘Memorial to the victims of Nazi terror’. The stone also tells us about the reconstruction of the site in 2002 and lists public and private donors from Latvia, Israel, the USA and Germany. Another stone standing next it is ‘in memory of the Jewish victims’. This memorial was unveiled by the presidents of Latvia and Israel in 2005. Two further stones give information about the history of the site. Further up a road, obelisks and a menorah surrounded by smaller stones with names of the victims marks the place of executions. The Jewish memorial from the Soviet era stands by the stones.
The third process concerning many key Holocaust sites in Central and Eastern Europe consisted in removing the old commemorative objects that suppressed Holocaust memory and replacing them with new ones that are explicit about the murder of the Jews. These changes were made at such sites as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bełżec and Sobibór. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, the tablets with multilingual inscriptions universalizing the Jewish and other victims that were unveiled with the International Monument in the former Birkenau part of the camp complex in 1967 were removed in 1990 and replaced with new ones in 1994 (Kucia 2005, 30). The changes were made by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum after its International Council had agreed the text. The new text remains universalist in its calling, but, at the same time, clearly referring to the Jews: ‘For ever let this place be / a cry of despair / and a warning to humanity, / where the Nazis murdered / about one and a half / million / men, women, and children, / mainly Jews / from various countries / of Europe / Auschwitz-Birkenau / 1940–45’. In Bełżec, the old monument of 1963 was dismantled in the mid 1990s. Between 2002 and 2004 a new impressive memorial and a museum were constructed through a joint project between the Polish government and the American Jewish Committee. In Sobibór, the multilingual plaques were replaced in 1993 by the newly established museum of the site. The commemorative objects from 1964 to 1965 – an obelisk, a monument and a memorial mound, all without a reference to Jews – still stand on the grounds of the former death camp. However, there are plans to build a new museum and to re-arrange the area of the former camp.
The fourth process consisted in supplementing the existing memorials and memorial sites with the commemorative objects overtly referring to the Jews and their Holocaust. This process concerned the sites where the murder of both Jews and non-Jews took place and where the remembrance of the former was either suppressed or utterly obliterated. Examples included Paneriai (Ponary) in Vilnius and the Ninth Fort in Kaunas – two of the most notorious sites of the victimhood of Jews, Lithuanians, Poles and others in Lithuania. At present, the execution site in the Paneriai Forest is a memorial cemetery with memorials to various groups and individuals erected at various times. The memorials were sponsored by different domestic and foreign agents. Among the memorials, there is a Jewish monument from 1991, with an additional plaque ‘in memory of the Jewish victims’ unveiled by the presidents of Lithuania and Israel in 2005. In Kaunas, the Soviet-time monument is surrounded by a lot of memorial tablets, many of them to different groups of Jews placed by various public and private agents, mostly foreign. Other examples include the Terezín Memorial in the Czech Republic and the Museum of Slovak National Uprising in Banská Bystrica in Slovakia. In Terezín, a large Star of David was erected in 1995 in the National Cemetery established in 1945 for the victims of the Gestapo prison in the Small Fortress, the Theresienstadt Ghetto and the Litoměřice concentration camp (Frankl 2013, 176). Later, the Museum of the Ghetto was opened; its provisional exhibition was replaced by a modern and permanent one in 2000 (ibid.). In Banská Bystrica, at the entrance to the monumental museum building of 1969, among various memorials from different periods, there is a memorial stone with the inscriptions in Slovak ‘Obietiam / Holocaustu / na Slovensku / 1939–1945’/ [to the victims of the Holocaust in Slovakia] and in Hebrew ‘ רוכז ’ [remember]. The reopening of the Pinchas Memorial Synagogue in Prague in 1996 may also be included in this category. This synagogue, which had been transformed into a memorial by the Jewish Museum in the 1950s, remained closed for renovation, which, in turn, was boycotted by the communist authorities (Frankl 2013, 177).
Lastly, there was a process of creating Holocaust memorials at the hundreds of sites where there had been none. These memorials were sponsored by a variety of agents: domestic and foreign, central and local, public and private, collective and individual. In many cases, different agents cooperated with each other. The most significant examples of the new Holocaust memorials are government-sponsored or co-sponsored memorials in the public spaces of Bratislava, Bucharest and Budapest – the capitals of the countries that were allies of Nazi Germany during the war. In Bratislava, the memorial by Peter Žalman and Lucia Žalmanová comprises a sculpture with the motif of a Star of David. On the plinth, there are inscriptions ‘Remember!’ in Slovak [Pamätaj!] and Hebrew [ רוכז ]. Unfortunately, who and what should be remembered is not explained. The memorial, unveiled in 1996, is as implicit about the Jews and their Holocaust as many monuments from communist times. In Budapest, a moving Holocaust memorial was erected in 2005. It is the ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ by Can Togay and Guyla Pauer. Tablets with inscriptions in Hungarian, English and Hebrew explain that it is ‘To the memory of the victims / shot into the Danube / by Arrow Cross militiamen / in 1944–45.’ Who the victims were, however, is not specified, which is surprising given that the perpetrators are. The Bucharest memorial by Peter Jacobi unveiled in 2009 is the most explicit of the three. The main plaque with inscriptions in Romanian, English and Hebrew reads: ‘Government of Romania / Memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Romania [...]’ A large information panel next to it gives an overview of the main facts regarding the persecution and murder of Jews (and Roma) by ‘the Romanian state’. Other smaller panels explain the history and meaning of the artefacts and the symbols comprising the memorial. The large and smaller information panels, however, were only placed in response to severe criticism following the unveiling of the monument.
The current appearance of Holocaust memorials in Central and Eastern Europe is primarily a result of the processes that unfolded under communism – the Jewish commemoration, rare state memorialization and frequent marginalization, suppression or utter obliteration of the Jewish victims of the Second World War. It is these processes that produced such lasting legacies from communist times: modest and more significant Jewish memorials; huge state-sponsored monuments to the Holocaust and other atrocities; organizations dealing with remembrance; ill-judged monuments that later called for dismantling and empty spaces that required proper commemoration. The agents of Holocaust (non-)remembrance were mostly domestic at that time. The work of Jewish individuals and organizations gave way to that of the communist authorities and their agencies, whose became increasingly predominant.
The processes that have transformed the existing memorials and developed new ones since the fall of communism have an important but on the whole a secondary role for what Holocaust memorials in Central and Eastern Europe look like now. In some countries and at certain sites, however, their role has been paramount.
The agents of transformation and development of Holocaust memorials after communism were many and varied. There were numerous foreign, transnational agents such as Jewish diaspora organizations and private Jewish foundations, particularly from such countries as the USA and France. There were the State of Israel and its agencies. There were German and American governmental, non-governmental and private agents. There were international organizations such as the IHRA and its member state delegations. There were domestic agents: government ministries and agencies that ultimately took decisions regarding the memorials, regional and municipal authorities, public and non-governmental organizations dealing with Holocaust memory and Jewish heritage and Jewish communities and organizations. Lastly, there were individuals in or from Central and East European countries, including survivors.
Much of the agency in the transformations and development of Holocaust memorials after communism may be explained through the transnational influences of the universalization/globalization, cosmopolitanization, internationalization and Europeanization of Holocaust memory, as understood by Alexander (2002), Levy and Sznaider (2002), Allwork (2015) and Kucia (2016), respectively. The changes in Central and East European Holocaust memorials, however, also show limitations of the transnational theories. The universalist idea of ‘the Holocaust as the ultimate evil’ that highlights the Jewish dimension of a war crime helped overcome the universalization, internationalization and nationalization of the Jewish victims characteristic of many Central and East European war memorials from communist times. At the same time, some new Holocaust memorials referred to the commemorated Jews in universalist terms only as if the old universalization was superseded by the new one of the same kind. The cosmopolitan ideas of a universal, de-territorialized, de-contextualized, and media-conveyed Holocaust memory prompted much of foreign and a fair amount of domestic memorialization agency. However, the transformed, developed or newly created memorials were particular, territorial, contextual and tangible. The EU, the IHRA and other international organizations produced norms regarding Holocaust remembrance that the Central and East European countries incorporated into their practices. Ultimately, however, Holocaust remembrance days were instituted by particular nations and observed in their countries at their Holocaust memorials on country-specific dates. Thus, although the Holocaust memorials in present-day Central and Eastern Europe combine old communist legacies and new transnational influences, they are on the whole national developments.
The research leading to these results has received funding from the People Programme (Marie Curie Actions) of the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013) under REA grant agreement no. [PIEFGA- 2012–330424]. The writing of the article has been supported by the Skalny Center for Polish and Central European Studies of the University of Rochester.
The author thanks the participants of the International Workshop ‘Remembrance of the Holocaust and Nazi Crimes in Post-1989 Europe: Reflecting on Competition and Conflict in European Memory’ held at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna in December 2014, the International Summer Academy held at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim in August 2015 and July 2016 and the conference of the COST Action 1203 ‘In Search of Transcultural Memory in Europe’ (ISTME) on ‘Locating and Dis-Locating Memory’ held at the University College Dublin in September 2016 as well as the anonymous reviewers of Remembrance and Solidarity for insightful comments on the earlier versions of this paper.
Marek Kucia is associate professor at the Institute of Sociology of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. In the academic year 2013–14 he was also Marie Curie Fellow at the Centre for European Studies of Lund University. In the spring term of 2015–16, he was visiting professor at the Skalny Center for Polish and Central European Studies of the University of Rochester. He studied in Kraków and Oxford. He holds a MA in Political Science and a MA, PhD and venia legendi [Habilitation] in Sociology. He serves as chairman of the Council of the International Centre for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim.
1 COST is the longest-running European framework supporting transnational cooperation among researchers, engineers and scholars across Europe.
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This article has been published in the fifth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of Holocaust/Shoah.