Memory and forgetting in Poznan, part 2

Monument to the victims of the Poznan labor camp
Monument to the victims of the Poznan labor camp

Despite the cold, Anka, Małgosia and I visited a few other sites associated with Jewish culture and history. The monument to the victims of the Poznan labor camp is on Królowa Jadwiga Street even though the actual detainment site was a block away in the old football stadium. The socialist-era monument is a tall concrete pillar with what looks like a menorah at the top. Anka pointed out the dedication on back of the monument stating it was erected on the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; even sites commemorating local events reproduce the idea that the Holocaust happened elsewhere—in cities such as Warsaw and Krakow.

The actual stadium was abandoned in the 1990s when a new one was built for the Warta football team. Warta is Poznan’s smaller club, rival to Lech, who got a big new stadium for the European football championship Euro 2012. Małgosia conducted ethnographic research in which Warta fans turned out to be the only ones who know the function the stadium served during the war. Essentially, it was a work camp where Jews were briefly held before being shipped off to the death camps. Many detainees were shot right there on the spot. We walked through the broken down gateway, up a set of stairs to an earthen berm surrounding what used to be the playing field. Today, the site is covered with trash, and trees grow everywhere including where the bench seating used to be. Only the concrete supports of the benches are left. Goal posts stand on the field, left over from 2012 when local teams competed in a kind of lighthearted protest against the massive outlay of funds for Euro 2012.


Looking out from the old football stadium toward the outdoor market and new high-rises.
Looking out from the old football stadium toward the outdoor market and new high-rises.

For the most part, this is forgotten space, despite its proximity to the center of the city. It is separated from Królowa Jadwiga Street by a dilapidated outdoor market. On this frigid day, there were no customers, just very cold sellers who urged us to their buy their wares. I was told the outdoor market used to be bigger. When they were in high school, it was the place to get real Adidas and blue jeans. With all the competition from new shopping centers, the market has shrunk. There is an ongoing debate about what to do with the old stadium—what primary purpose should the space fill? Should it be a place for sports activities? A nature preserve? A place of commemoration for those who suffered and died there? Or should it become another housing development or mall?

What is the origin and meaning of this sculpture? Why is it in the newly named Square of the Righteous among Nations of the World?
What is the origin and meaning of this sculpture? Why is it in the newly named Square of the Righteous among Nations of the World?

Heading back toward the center of the old city to thaw out at a café, we chanced upon an unmarked, decaying stone sculpture. I think it was Małgosia who said it suggests some sort of Holocaust memorial. Then we noticed the sign designating the area as “Square of the Righteous Among Nations of the World.” I’ve since learned that this is a new name, approved by the city just this year.

We made two more brief stops on our tour. We peaked into the Church of the Most Holy Blood of Christ (Najświętszej Krwi Pana Jezusa) on Żydowska (Jewish) Street, where I showed Anka and Małgosia the ceiling frescos depicting Jews profaning the host.

Frescos over the alter depicting the profaning of the host
Frescos over the alter depicting the profaning of the host

In Sinners on Trial, Magda Teter outlines the historical context in which this story was told:

On Fridays, as late as 1926, and perhaps even up to the eve of World War II, in a small Catholic church on what has been known as “the Jewish street,” a few meters off the main market square in the city of Poznań, the faithful did not sing the prayer Kyrie Eleison, “God Have Mercy, Christ Have Mercy.” Instead, the church followed a liturgy that diverged markedly from the approved official liturgy of the Catholic Mass. The song’s text that replaced the words of the Kyrie Eleison told of Jewish desecration of the host in Poznan:

O, Jesus, unsurpassed in your goodness,

Stabbed by Jews and soaked in blood again

Through your new wounds

And spilled springs of blood

            Have Mercy on Us, Have Mercy on Us, Have Mercy!

The hearts of stone from the Jewish street

In the house once known as the Świdwińskis’

Sank their knives in You

In the Three Hosts, the Eternal God

            Have Mercy on Us, Have Mercy on Us, Have Mercy!

The song recounted the story of three hosts stolen by a Christian woman from a Dominican church in Poznań in 1399. According to the story, she delivered the three hosts to Jews who desecrated them, “stabbing” them with knives. Unable to dispose of them, the Jews took them outside the city and buried them in swamps. The hosts miraculously emerged to reveal themselves to a shepherd boy. The Christian woman and the Jews were punished by the magistrate, and the Church of Corpus Christi was constructed on the site after the miracle (2011: 89-90).

Teter goes on to suggest that this story might have been used as a rationale for building a new church on Żydowska Street. Pani Alicja, the head of the Poznan Jewish Community, told me that she has been waging another battle to have an informational plaque installed in the entranceway of the church explaining that the story of the profaning of the host is a legend, not historical fact. To date, church representatives have only agreed to post an explanation in the basement where most people will never see it.

The exterior of the former "new" synagogue in Poznan. The words "Pływalnia Miejska" (City Pool) can be made out above the long windows. The pool was closed just three years ago in 2011.
The exterior of the former “new” synagogue in Poznan. The words “Pływalnia Miejska” (City Pool) can be made out above the long central windows. The pool was closed just three years ago in 2011.

Our final stop was the former synagogue near the end of Żydowska Street. When built in 1907, it was considered the “new” synagogue. It could hold 1200 worshipers, and was richly ornamented with a copper dome. During the war, the Nazis stripped off the dome and transformed the synagogue into a swimming pool. It continued to function as a pool even after the Jewish Community regained possession of the building in 2002. Małgosia has seen the interior. She described how the bottom of the sanctuary was tiled with the pool at the center, but the upper part remained just like a synagogue. She also said she has been in the attic above the wooden beams of the sanctuary which is still filled with old papers and books. The building is in bad shape and in need of major renovation. Efforts have so far failed to turn it into a Center for Dialog and Tolerance (see this essay by Janusz Marciniak, which includes photos of the exterior in 1907 and today. An essay by Teddy Weinberger describes his visit to the synagogue when it was still a pool; he includes photos of the interior as a place of worship and as a swimming pool).

Memory and forgetting in Poznan

Małgosia and Anka at the Jewish cemetery. The building in the background holds trash bins for surrounding apartments. The resident we spoke with felt uncomfortable about having them in a cemetery.
Małgosia and Anka at the Jewish cemetery. The building in the background holds trash bins for surrounding apartments. The resident we spoke with felt uncomfortable about keeping the trash in a cemetery.

Author Marysia Galbraith has kindly let the Bama Anthro Blog Network repost from the original site here.


In early December, I visited the Poznan Jewish Cemetery for a second time with Anna Weronika Brzezińska, a professor at the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at Adam Mickiewicz University, and Małgosia Wosińska, a doctoral student at the same institute. We chose the coldest day of the season for our tour of sites associated with Jewish culture. Still, it was great to get the perspective of other ethnographers on some of the places where Jewish heritage is marked and unmarked in Poznan.

The gate into the courtyard was locked as usual, so Anka pushed the buttons on the intercom until a resident answered and buzzed us in. Anka shared her knowledge of the history of the cemetery (see some of this in my previous post). On a copy of a map from 1900, she pointed out how large the Jewish cemetery was, and how it abutted two large Catholic cemeteries. All were established in what at the time was the outskirts of the city to make room for development of the city center.

Commemorative graves and old tombstones recovered around the city. The apartments overlooking the site were built just outside the cemetery walls in the early 20th century.
Commemorative graves and old tombstones recovered around the city. The apartments overlooking the site were built just outside the cemetery walls in the early 20th century.

Poznan continued to expand so that by the early 20th century, there was another initiative to reclaim these cemeteries for other purposes. First, buildings were built along the roads, including the apartments on Śniadecki Street (visible on the other side of the wall behind the tombstones) and the Poznan Trade Center (Targi Poznańskie) on Głogowska and Grunwaldzka Streets. During World War II, the Jewish tombstones were removed and repurposed for roadways, sidewalks, and other building projects. The Catholic cemeteries (which already seem to have been at least partially missing in the 1927 photo) were also damaged, though they were not the object of systematic wartime destruction as was the Jewish cemetery. After World War II, in the 1950s, the socialist government liquidated what remained of all of the cemeteries in this area. This served a dual purpose for the secular socialist regime—so the land could be developed, but also because the cemeteries were affiliated with religions.

It changes things to realize it was not just the Jewish cemetery that was redeveloped, but also Catholic ones. Later, when we passed a park across from the train station, Anka said it used to be yet another Catholic cemetery. Taken together, they indicate a general attitude about the past—a willingness to forget, especially when specific ties to specific people are broken. State socialism also had its effects—the challenges of normal everyday life that made Poles reluctant to look to the past or the future, and the authoritarianism with which urban development was realized. This isn’t to say that Jewish memory wasn’t deliberately erased from the city landscape, but rather to put those practices into a broader context of erasure and rebuilding.

The commemoration project was controversial. Months earlier, Pani Alicja at the Gmina Żydowska explained to me that they can’t reclaim land that has been built on. This would have ruled out most of the former cemetery land because it is under the Poznan Trade Center. The only alternative was in the courtyard, but some residents protested against putting it there. I asked Anka if residents had known beforehand that their homes overlook a cemetery. She said maybe, but they would have had other things on their minds. Also, many families moved into the area after the war ended so they would not have ever seen the cemetery.

As we headed to a back gate to look at the other side of the cemetery wall, an elderly man approached on his way out from his apartment. He gladly unlocked the gate for us and paused to chat. He said he has only lived there since the 1970s, but his wife remembers playing in the empty field behind her apartment when she was a child (in what used to be the cemetery). She sometimes came across human bones sticking out of the sand.

He said some residents didn’t like the idea of the memorial, but he had no objection. On the contrary, it was a neglected space before, with broken-down garages and lots of trash. He tries to tell people about the history of the place when they visit. However, there aren’t many visitors. The few who come are usually from abroad. He hasn’t witnessed any ceremonies occurring in the courtyard. This seems odd to me. Surely some heard the prayers and chants during the Kaddish in September, but I didn’t see a single person look out their window. When asked Anka and Małgosia about this later, Anka defended the residents, saying only bathrooms and kitchens face the courtyard. Most people have no reason to look out those windows.

The resident also told us about a large wooden cabinet adorned with three carved roses that his wife’s family found in their apartment when they reclaimed it (during the war, all Polish residents were forced out and Nazi officers lived there). Once, they had a visitor who asked if they had Jews in the family, explaining that the cabinet probably came from a prosperous Jewish family around Lviv. Perhaps a German officer liked it, claimed it, and brought it back to Poznan. The number of roses (one, three, or five) represents increasing status within the Jewish community.

As we prepared to leave, Małgosia remarked that Jewish culture remains hidden in plain sight, even in places like this where the effort has been made to preserve it. Because of the locked gates, most people can’t come in.

How do you remember Jewish lives when nothing remains?

Author Marysia Galbraith has kindly let the Bama Anthro Blog Network repost from the original site here.

A defining question of my study is turning out to be: How do you remember Jewish lives in Poland when nothing remains? Or when there are only scattered traces?

I certainly started with next to nothing when I began the search for my own family story. Since then, I have found so much—most extraordinarily many living relatives. I’m gathering up the fragments of the past—a half remembered story, a photograph, a birth record. And pieced together, something fuller is emerging. It’s still impossibly far from the rich lives that have passed, but it nevertheless gives me a much better sense of where I come from.

All this resonates with an article I read in the Atlantic, which although it is about the tension between science and belief in God, makes the point that the more knowledge we gain the more we become aware of how much we still do not understand (“Why God Will Not Die” by Jack Miles, December 2014, pp. 96-107). Miles explains, “Scientific progress is like mountain climbing: the higher you climb, the more you know, but the wider the vistas of ignorance that extends on all sides” (p. 100). Maybe this is what my search is destined to be like. Every relative I find points to many more ancestors and descendants who remain to be discovered. Every historical artifact hints at another vast realm of Jewish culture that remains hidden.

So how do you remember Jewish lives when nothing remains? When I met pani Alicja Kobus, the head of the Gmina Żydowska (Jewish Community) in Poznań, she told me about numerous ways in which the Gmina has fought to commemorate Jewish heritage throughout the region. Pani Alicja calls herself a bulldozer; she keeps at it no matter what obstacles she faces. She doesn’t give up. She also attributes her success to cudy (miracles), and to the material and spiritual support provided by numerous allies. Among the projects she described to me, one stands out—the reclaiming of a section of the Jewish cemetery. The story is pretty extraordinary.

The Jewish cemetery on Głogowska Street was established in the early 1800s, in what at the time was the outskirts of the city. The Poznan city leaders liquidated a number of cemeteries in the city center, including the old Jewish cemetery near what is now Plac Wolności, so the city would have room to expand. A photo taken in 1927 (on the webpage of the Poznańska Filia Związku Gmin Wyznaniowych Żydowskich w RP/ Polish Branch of the Union of Jewish Communities in the Republic of Poland) shows the Trade Center in the foreground and the Głogowska Street cemetery in the background.The cemetery was devastated by the Nazis during World War II, and the tombstones were either destroyed or carted off for construction projects. During the communist period, the adjoining Targi Poznańskie (Poznan Trade Center) was expanded into the former cemetery site.

Pani Alicja says it took something like eight years to create a memorial at the cemetery site. She focused her energies on a strip of land between some apartment buildings and the Trade Center, where a row of mismatched, ramshackle garages stood. Reclaiming the space for a cemetery memorial required the support of city officials, local residents, and international interest groups, including the descendants of Rabbi Akiva Eger, a highly regarded Talmudic scholar who was buried in the cemetery in 1837.

As pani Alicja tells it, opponents to the project were slowly persuaded, or they met with misfortune. One elderly woman refused to sell her garage, saying “I don’t want Jews in my courtyard.” Alicja responded, “You already do have Jews in your courtyard” (pointing out that the whole space was within the cemetery grounds). Not long after, the elderly woman passed away. A member of the city government who opposed the project got caught up in a scandal and resigned. Other residents were swayed by the promise that the neglected space would be renovated, with new gates and building facades. Finally, in 2007, the commemorative site was completed.

The memorial site is hard to spot from the street. The best clue is the Stars of David that ornament the new metal gates closing off the courtyard from the busy street. Inside the gate, granite plaques mounted on the archway wall outline the history of the cemetery, the rabbis who were buried there, and the international sponsors of the project (Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, and the British descendants of Rabbi Eger). The text is repeated in Polish, Hebrew, and English. In a narrow strip of grass sloping up to a plaster-covered brick wall (where the garages used to be) stand six tombstones commemorating Eger, his wife, and other descendants who were also rabbis. The black stones are inscribed with Hebrew writing. White gravel fills a rectangle in front of each stone, the foot marked by a metal roofed glass enclosure for candles. Old stone tombstones lean against the wall, while a few stones with large, rough writing are scattered on the grass. These grave markers were found around the city, many dug out of roadways and other wartime construction projects.

The site is closed to the public because it is in a private, locked courtyard. The first time I visited was when rabbis and others came from Zurich and England to say the kaddish on the anniversary of Eger’s death. They gathered around the grave and sang and prayed for about an hour, nodding as they read in unison. The visitors were all male; they wore black hats and long coats, their payot curled in front of their ears. Observers from the Poznan Jewish Community watched at a respectful distance, except for a few key members including Pani Alicja who stood with the visitors.

Kaddish for Rabbi Akiva Eger, October 6, 2014

It struck me that throughout the kaddish, I didn’t see a single resident of the surrounding buildings. As it got dark, I could see the lights in many apartments. Didn’t they hear the singing? Weren’t they interested in what was happening right outside their windows?