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Philanthropist and Jury Clash Over Design of Controversial Warsaw Memorial

Rendering for a memorial design by Eduard Freudmann and Gabu Heindl (courtesy the architects)
Rendering for Eduard Freudmann and Gabu Heindl’s “The Monument May Be a Memorial” design (courtesy the architects, via Tumblr)

A controversial competition to build a monument in Warsaw to Poles who helped Jews during the Holocaust just got a little more controversial after the founder of the organization behind the project denounced the winning design.

An international jury of 10 architects, artists, and curators called upon to pick a winner from a short list of five proposals selected Austrian artist Eduard Freudmann and architect Gabu Heindl‘s proposal “The Monument May Be a Forest,” which envisions the planting of a grove of trees (including lime, aspen, birch, field maple, norway maple, and common oak) near the site of the the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

“The main motive behind planting a forest in a city to be a monument is the ambiguity represented by the forest,” Freudmann and Heindl told Hyperallergic. “This ambiguity parallels the ambiguity of saving Jewish lives and the ambiguous history of how those actions have been dealt with in Poland from the end of the German occupation to the present day. The forest was a place of death, where Jews were killed by execution. The forest was a place where many Nazi concentration camps were located. But the forest was also a hideout, a place of survival, and a place of resistance. Who helped Jews, who saved Jews? It will never be possible to set ultimate criteria; it will never be possible to pinpoint exact numbers. These questions can only be answered with ambiguity. And that very ambiguity should be represented in the monument.”

But Sigmund Rolat, the 84-year-old New York–based Holocaust survivor who founded and is the chairman of the Remembrance and Future Foundation (RFF), would rather the monument not be a forest.

“The jurors are not blind, they liked this sixth project,” Rolat told the Jewish Daily Forward, insisting that Freudmann and Heindl’s proposal has changed so much since its original submission that it now constitutes an out-of-competition sixth proposal. “On the other hand, they overlooked the fact that this was not one of the five finalists that should have been voted on.” He plans to meet with his attorneys before deciding on the next step for the memorial and his foundation. In the meantime, the creators of the winning proposal see the current disagreement as yet another of the conflicts that their design aims to address.

Rendering for Eduard Freudmann and Gabu Heindl's "The Monument May Be a Memorial" design (courtesy the architects, via Tumblr)
Rendering for Eduard Freudmann and Gabu Heindl’s “The Monument May Be a Memorial” design (courtesy the architects, via Tumblr)

“We have been in constant exchange with the foundation and we had a meeting with one of its representatives,” Freudmann and Heindl added. “We believe that the debates and controversies are not a bitter pill to be swallowed but rather a unique asset that we incorporated into the monument. First and foremost, erecting the monument is urgent. Time is passing and both those who saved and those who were saved are dwindling in numbers. We should open the monument as soon as is feasible. On the other hand erecting a monument “From Those You Saved” requires time — both for the creation of a ‘we,’ that is, those who desire to establish the monument, and for joint decision-making regarding important issues such as to whom the monument is addressed or selecting the best location for the monument.”

Disputes over designs have done little to quell preexisting criticisms of the project. Opponents of the project have noted that there are already three monuments to Righteous Gentiles — the term used to describe non-Jews who helped save Jews during the Holocaust — near the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and that to add another will redefine the little that remains of the Warsaw Ghetto site as a space devoted to Polish non-Jews.

“We fail to understand why such a monument should be erected on the grounds where hundreds of thousands of people died a lonely death before any help arrived and in proximity to the monument, which is their symbolic gravestone, and a place dedicated to preserving their memory,” wrote Pnina Grynszpan Frymer and Simcha Rotem, the only remaining survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, to the Polish President and Warsaw Mayor in an open letter earlier this year. “Warsaw is a large city. It is certainly possibly to find many noble places to serve the deserving memory of the Righteous.”

Rotem subsequently wrote the president of Poland again, this time withdrawing his signature from the earlier open letter and affirming his support for the RFF memorial project. “I consider the idea to create an anonymous symbol of the peak of humanity reached by the Righteous – encapsulated so beautifully in the words ‘From Those You Saved’ – to be worthy and right,” he wrote. “Thus, I CANCEL my signature under the protest from January 2015. I will confirm my opinion publicly and in person should such a need emerge.”

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