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Last week, the Remembrance and Future Foundation (RFF) announced the five finalists competing to design a controversial Warsaw monument to Poles who helped Jews during the German occupation of Poland from 1939–45.
The proposed site of the RFF memorial has been the crux of the controversy. The foundation’s website calls for it to “be built in the vicinity of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews,” which is located in the area of the former Warsaw Ghetto. A January 26 article in the Jewish Daily Forward chronicles opposition to the monument, including three published letters, two from Simcha Rotem and Pnina Grynszpan Frymer, survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. A February 8 article in the Forward explains that Rotem has since retracted his criticism of the memorial, stating that he had been misled about its details. In a letter from April 2013, professors at the Polish Academy of Sciences summarized concerns about site: “These few streets and squares are a one-of-a-kind zone of silence, where Jewish suffering, not Polish heroism, should be commemorated.” Such fears are perhaps validated by competing plans for a proposed Grzybowski Square monument to honor 10,000 Poles who rescued Jews; this project is backed by Poland’s Nationalist right and has been interpreted as an attempt to whitewash histories of collaboration.
The five finalists’ proposals for the RFF memorial demonstrate both thematic and abstract approaches toward monument design. Andrzej Bulanda and Jadwiga Gajczyk’s proposal consists of a massive, rotating door. The jury’s description states that the renderings “suggest a heavy bronze object requiring significant effort to be rotated — an impression reinforced by hand and finger imprints on its surface.” The open door, a symbol of safety and the acceptance of refugees, functions here as a powerful, if obvious, metaphor. Studio Pez‘s (Pedro Pena Jurado and Daniel Zarhy) proposal is even more literal. It consists of the foundations of a typical Warsaw tenement building constructed from salvaged bricks.
As clearly as the first two proposals are metaphor, the final three are pure abstraction. Grzegorz Dutka and Szymon Wróblewski’s proposal calls for a series of spiraling plates that create subtle differences in ground — the final effect is reminiscent of Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty.” Similarly landscape-oriented, Eduard Freudmann and Gabu Heindl’s approach is simply to plant a forest of Aspen trees on the site, with two interior meadows that could be used by the local community. Finally, Mateusz Tański‘s plan, a 90-degree corner that rises out of the land, would alter a visitor’s experience of the site’s elevation in a way reminiscent of Maya Lin’s understated, sloping Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.
The finalists’ proposed designs for the RFF monument demonstrate two very different approaches to memorials — one allegorical and subject-specific, the other abstract and landscape-based. None includes names of Poles who rescued Jews — Yad Vashem has counted 6,454. Instead, each proposes a monument to the universal values of courage, resistance to tyranny, and self-sacrifice.