05 April 2011

Sites of Forgetting II, by Andriy Portnov

Somewhat unexpectedly for me, my text about how a ‘Death Tower’ of a Nazi concentration camp for Soviet POWs was transformed into a five-star hotel in Lviv, published a week ago at the ‘History Lessons’ portal, in English translation on the 'Memory at War' collective blog, and in Ukrainian at Polit.ua, prompted a broad response. I received a great many letters and comments, and these have shaped the theme of this essay: the problem of reflecting on sites of forgetting.

The most unexpected argument in favour of continuing this theme was an open letter to the President of Ukraine calling for the Lviv Citadel to be assigned the status of a national monument and inter-ethnic memorial, a development which came six days after the publication of my article (I don’t claim any credit for this whatsoever, incidentally; the most likely explanation for this coincidence is the fact that is problem really is ‘in the air’ and on people’s minds today). The letter was signed by Lviv residents and Heroes of Ukraine: the writer Roman Ivanichuk, the museum scholar Boris Voznitskii, the dissident and former deputy Stepan Khmara, and the son of Roman Shukhevich, commander-in-chief of the UPA, Yurii. The letter’s authors also mentioned the multi-ethnic nature of the victims of Stalag 328, and the absence of a memorial plaque in a hotel built on top of bones.

So far there has been no news of any reaction to this letter from President Yanukovych. But for my purposes, what is much more important and intriguing here is the spectrum of public reactions to the information about the Citadel. Unfortunately, in this concrete case, as in the majority of others, we lack sociological and oral historical data about the attitudes held by the residents of Lviv with regard to this site of memory/forgetting. All we can say for sure is that there were no significant public protests against the construction of the hotel.

I view my previous article on the Citadel as a very personal text. The text is the product of an individual experience arising out of an encounter with a ‘site of forgetting’ -- an encounter which was unexpected and painful for the author. It’s interesting to see that the responses to this text (each of which I’m deeply grateful for), can be conditionally separated into three groups: human empathy, amplified by a sense of just how emblematic this story is for the post-Soviet space; descriptions of analogous or very similar stories from other sites; and reactions which we might loosely group together under the heading ‘so what?’.

What I found most interesting here were the ‘analogous cases’, on the one hand, and the problem of ‘indifference’ to this topic, on the other. Sometimes the analogous cases offered up related to all places where the dead have not received the treatment they deserve: the garages, stadiums, and subway stations built on top of mass graves, the cemeteries which have simply been inundated to make way for hydro-electric stations. Some of the responses mentioned additional examples of ‘controversial’ hotels. In particular, the ‘Pas Bazilijonus’ Hotel opened in Vilnius in the 1990s, located within the walls of a Basilian monastery where figures of the Polish Romantic movement, including Adam Mickiewicz, were held after being arrested by the Russian authorities in the first half of the nineteenth century. ‘Konrad’s cell’, described in the third part of Dziady, which is deeply symbolic for Poles, was turned into hotel rooms. True, it should be emphasised that for all the ambiguity of the decision to create a hotel on a site with such importance for Polish memory and martyrology, in this case the hotel administration made no attempt to conceal the site’s history. ‘Konrad’s cell’ itself was ‘moved’ into a specially constructed passage-way linking the monastery and the Church of the Holy Trinity; a memorial plaque, untouched in the Soviet period, was left intact in the building; and finally, the Basilians themselves gave their agreement to part of the complex being turned into a hotel, in the interest of ‘saving the monastery walls’ from demolition.

Yuliia Kantor has provided a convincing description and analysis of the example which is closest and most directly relevant to the Lviv Citadel: the construction in Pskov of residential housing on the site of Soviet POW fraternal graves. Earmarked for officers of the Pskov landing division, the white multi-storeyed homes with their blue roofs were quickly nicknamed ‘the blue berets’. These ‘berets’ are being built on the territory of Stalag 372, where 75 thousand Soviet soldiers died.

The Pskov and Lviv stories have a great deal in common. In both cases we find an absence of Soviet memorials marking sites where Soviet citizens died in extreme suffering. Both cases are marked by indifference to the memory of the victims on the part of local authorities. The words of a Pskov official: ‘With regard to concentration camps: the world isn’t perfect, but the main thing now is to finish building, so that the people who have invested money can get their flats!’, are undoubtedly consonant with the arguments made by his Lviv colleagues about the ‘vital necessity’ for hotels and the lack of funds for new museums. In both cases, the human remains discovered during construction suffered the same fate. In Pskov they were taken to a rubbish dump on the outskirts of the town. Something similar must surely have happened in Lviv, since an official inquiry by one of the international Jewish organisations on this issue a year ago has gone without response.

There are also substantial differences between the Lviv and Pskov stories, however. First, an obelisk, albeit a very modest one, was built on the territory of the former concentration camp at Pskov in 1995, with the inscription: ‘Here, on the territory of the military station, during the occupation of Pskov from 1941 to 1944, 75 thousand prisoners of war and civilians were exterminated by the fascists in a concentration camp’. There is currently talk of re-locating this obelisk so as to protect the feelings of the happy owners of the new flats on the site. Modest as it might be, however, at least some marking out of this site of memory did take place -- something which has yet to happen in Lviv to this day. Second, in Lviv, unlike Pskov and unlike the absolute majority of other Soviet POW camps, the buildings where the torture, interrogations and executions took place have been preserved. We are dealing here with a ‘site of memory’ in the most literal, physically palpable sense. Moreover, I’ll go so far as to say that the Lviv Citadel is unique among the sites of former Nazi concentration camps for Soviet POWs, for two reasons: its massive scale, and the degree to which the buildings have remained physically intact.

I don’t know what (if anything) went through the minds of the hotel investors, or the construction workers, who saw the bones being extracted from the earth, about the people on top of whose remains they were building the city’s most expensive hotel. I don’t know how many potential clients of the hotel might be repelled or, on the contrary, attracted by the idea of living within walls which were known only a few decades ago as the ‘Tower of Death’. It is certainly the case, however, that the socio-psychological phenomenon of being habituated to violence and forgetting is something that distinguishes many former Soviet republics from their Western neighbours (including those in the countries of the former socialist camp).

Perhaps the particular historical experience of these lands has produced a type of predominant historical sensitivity somewhat different from its Western counterparts. Timothy Snyder’s ‘Bloodlands’ metaphor reflects the twentieth-century history of this region quite accurately. Snyder reminds us, in particular, that mortality in German camps for Soviet POWs was no lower than 57.5%, at a time when camp mortality rates for POWs from Western countries stood at no more than 5%; and that in autumn 1941 more Soviet POWs died on a daily basis than the total number of deaths of American or British POWs throughout the entire war.

Snyder directs our attention to another important circumstance, which those of us who live on the territory of the ‘Bloodlands’ today often forget: for many Soviet POWs (including those held in the Lviv Citadel), the terrible starvation in German captivity, including cases of cannibalism, was the second experience of manufactured starvation (the first having taken place in 1932-33 in the Ukrainian SSR, the North Caucasus, Kazakhstan, and the Volga region), and many sites where the Nazis murdered people had been sites of NKVD crimes a few years earlier.

Multiple serial experiences of terror, lawlessness, violence and violation of human dignity could not fail to leave their mark on the social structure, on moods in society. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by (and we certainly have no right to judge) people in contemporary Ukraine, Russia or Belarus who dream of owning their own homes, and who don’t want to think about their fellow countrymen who died at these sites, or who easily forgot about the Polish, Jewish or German owners of the flats into which they moved after the war was over. Another important factor here is the fact that a society, a significant section of which is fighting for physical survival on a daily basis, is unable to devote the degree of attention to problems of memory or ecology which these issues receive in more prosperous, stable and secure societies. And moralising on such issues (as certain Western authors do) seems to me to be the most erroneous and cynical approach.

At the same time, for me, as a citizen of a post-Soviet state who lives on the territory of the ‘bloodlands’, it seems that memory and attention to the millions (!) of fellow citizens who were tortured, shot, deported, deprived of rights and property (irrespective of their nationality, religion, class, gender, etc) is essential for the living. It is essential for the development and reform of these societies and, however banal it might sound, it is essential for preventing the repetition of such horrors in the future.

The question is, what kind of memory is possible and desirable in a region where thousands of square metres of urban and rural space comprise sites of mass martyrdom? Where should we draw the line between space where some kind of normal life is possible despite this history, and space where only monuments and museums are appropriate? Can memory exist and be reproduced without transforming the site in question into a museum? These were questions which arose in the case of post-war Warsaw. A whole residential district in the very centre of the city – Muranów – was built on top of the ruins of the Jewish ghetto. After the end of the war Muranów comprised kilometres of completely destroyed buildings. There was neither the human nor the financial capacity to sort through the rubble. The authorities decided to build a completely new quarter on top of the three- to four-metre-deep layer of rubble. This layer contained thousands of corpses and a whole system of underground communications. During the initial post-war years the question of the ethics of constructing new buildings on top of the bodies of the ghetto’s prisoners simply didn’t come up. Systematic exhumations such as those carried out in the ‘Aryan’ part of Warsaw were never conducted on the territory which one historian has called ‘one big cemetery’. The people who perished in the ghetto had simply left nobody behind to take up this cause. And the majority of Polish society, exhausted by war and violence, evidently did not perceive the Jews as ‘fellow countrymen’ or ‘fellow citizens’ – memory, like fate during the German occupation, could be ‘ours’ or ‘theirs’. In addition, in the conditions of the formation of the communist system and the imperative to rebuild Warsaw (which had been destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising), there was quite simply no time for remembering, awful as that may sound.

Communist propaganda described the new Muranów as a ‘wonderful neighbourhood of the new life’, built specially for workers and standing in stark contrast to the previous district of ‘baronial feudal privileges, and later – of race hatred’.

In 1979 Jerzy Ficowski – a Bruno Schulz scholar – wrote a poem which included these lines:

Muranów stands
On layers of dying.
The foundations are dug into bones,
The basements – into a void,
Cleansed of screams...

I would like to simply be silent,
But in staying silent – I lie.
I would like to simply walk,
But in walking – I trample.

Ficowski’s poem is an acute posing of the question: how and where it is possible to proceed in such a way as to avoid ‘trampling’ the dead? How can one live in a terrible place and remember the events and the people connected to it? In post-communist Poland completely new preconditions for ‘remembering’ the past have emerged, and a fundamental expansion of the frames of what is ‘ours’ in the past has become possible. Websites devoted to Muranów now contain a huge volume of texts, photographs and commentary. Works dealing with the Holocaust have been made a compulsory part of the school curriculum. A few years ago the ghetto border was drawn along the streets of contemporary Warsaw. If you drop your gaze to the footpath as you walk, it’s easy to make out this line. Much more difficult is the task of imagining the pre-war and wartime city, with its utterly different street grid. It’s easy to step across the border which once divided ‘our’ world from ‘theirs’. One can try to grasp the fact that, ultimately, the line dividing the space where life is nevertheless still possible from the space which should by rights only be marked by monuments and museums, passes through our consciousness and is expressed through our attitude to the past and the present.

Andriy Portnov

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