How Plans To Build a Monument to Righteous Gentiles in Warsaw Fell Apart


By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philantrhopy

“From Those – You Saved” was a simple enough idea: a monument and memorial to Poland’s Righteous Among the Nations on the grounds of Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews (POLIN). Originally to be built by autumn 2015, it has faced opposition from museum officials and Polish Jewish intellectuals, while the bungled planning process saw the project’s principal backer overrule the conclusions of the jury his foundation appointed to select a design.

In 2013, the Polish-Jewish American businessman and philanthropist Zygmunt Rolat established the Remembrance and Future Foundation. Its task was to implement his idea for “a Commemoration of Poles who rescued Jews during the German occupation,” to be built “in the vicinity of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.” The memorial “will be entirely financed by private donations from the Jewish community in Israel and abroad.”

“The monument is about sixty or seventy years too late – but better late than never,” Rolat, who was born in Częstochowa, Poland in 1930 and is a survivor of the Holocaust, told me. He is the chairman of the North American Council of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and one of POLIN’s major benefactors. “It is a payment of our debt as Jews who were saved by the gentiles in Poland, the only country where the death penalty was administered not only for saving Jewish lives but for helping Jews.”

The Remembrance and Future Foundation asserts that the project has received the support of the leadership of POLIN. Rolat told me that throughout the process he has worked closely with the museum’s architect, Rainer Mahlamäk, to ensure the selected monument – to be built in a space on the west side of the museum – complements the building and its surrounds. But those connected with POLIN I spoke with expressed reservations about “From Those – You Saved.”

“The issue is not about whether or not to create a monument to the Righteous. Their heroism should be fully honored. The issue is about the impact of locating the monument in the memorial space surrounding the museum and, most important, the impact on the museum itself,” Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, advisor to the director and chief curator of the core exhibition at the museum, told me.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett argues that the museum is “being encircled with Holocaust memorials and most recently with monuments to the Righteous.” POLIN was never intended to be a Holocaust museum, but now “visitors will have a constant reminder of the Holocaust thanks to the view of the Monument to the Righteous from the large window in the museum’s main hall.”

The location of POLIN is “a very important place for Jews and Poles but especially for Jews because of the tragic history of the ghetto. There are a lot of monuments surrounding our building,” deputy director of POLIN Zygmunt Stępiński explained to me, including the Ghetto Heroes Monument which one is partially able to see from the museum’s atrium. “A space which is so sensitive should be free of any other form of commemoration.”

The furor surrounding the location was a concern for the leadership of the official Jewish community. “We deeply regret that it was impossible to find another site for the monument that would allow on one hand to honor the Righteous Among the Nations and on the other to avoid controversies and disagreements on this very important subject,” Anna Chipczyńska, President of the Jewish Community of Warsaw, told me in a statement.

“The location of the monument is an act of propaganda rather than a respect for history,” Bożena Keff of Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute said to me. Keff worries that the proposed location of the monument – in a space that was sealed off from the rest of the city during the war – will have the effect of distorting the history of the Holocaust in Warsaw. “It is not a very optimistic story. It was much easier to get denounced by Poles than to get help,” she said.

Regardless of this opposition, Rolat chose to continue to pursue the project on the grounds of the museum where, he asserts, visitors will be able to see the story of the Righteous Among the Nations in context. “There is some opposition though I would say they are a very tiny minority,” Rolat said. “I’m not really very impressed with them because where were they when a monument was built to Willy Brandt? Where were they when a bench to Jan Karski was built?”

“The argument that this place should be for Jews only, well, that’s like building another ghetto. That’s what Hitler wanted, a place only for Jews. To me, it makes no sense at all,” Rolat concluded.

Following a competition initiated in September 2014, on April 23 the following year an international jury of artists and architects appointed by the Foundation announced that, out of 154 entrants, a project entitled “Forest” had been selected as the winning design for the monument. The work of Vienna-based designers Eduard Freudmann and Gabu Heindl, it would involve would involve the planting of a forest nursery by volunteers on a small plot on the western side of POLIN.

“The forest as a monument represents ambiguity. The forest was a place of death, where Jews were killed by execution and in Nazi concentration camps. But the forest was also a hide-out, a place of survival and a place of resistance,” the project brief states. Remaining in place for eighteen months, the success or failure of the monument would then depend on how well it was nurtured. If the nursery grew into a forest, the aim was to have it planted permanently in an urban location in Warsaw.

The jury praised its “novel concept of commemoration via processual aspect rather than monumentality of imposing physical presence,” as well as the fact that it was ‘participatory’ and had “the potential to disseminate the commemoration through time and space.”

Officials from POLIN looked favorably upon the forest proposal, in spite of misgivings about the monument idea itself. “It was a good idea because, for the museum, it opened up space for a huge educational program that we could spread all around the country. It was a great opportunity,” Stępiński told me. While acknowledging that its design would be more difficult to implement, he considers it “much more complex and wide and lasting than just setting a monument in front of the museum.”

But in spite of its innovative character and support from the jury and museum, “Forest” would never be realized. On April 25, two days after the winning entry was announced, the Remembrance and Future Foundation released a statement which concluded, “The Board has been informed of the jury’s verdict, and will announce its own the decision in a due time.” On May 2, The Forward reported that Rolat had renounced the verdict of the jury. He claimed the Forest design had been “radically changed” since its selection as a finalist in January 2015, deeming it a new “sixth” entry that could not be considered with the five original finalists.

“It was Rolat’s attempt to delegitimize the project,” one of the designers, Eduard Freudmann, told me. What had happened was that during the first round of applications, Freudmann and Heindl presented a proposal for a permanent forest outside the museum. After shortlisting in Febuary 2015 came the second round of applications, when the Foundation made it clear to the architects that their design had to be changed for it to stand a chance of winning. “They told us, ‘We had to pull a rabbit out of the hat.”

Karolina Szykier-Koszucka, director of the Remembrance and Future Foundation, told me that after the first stage of the application process, the Foundation had meetings with all five shortlisted entrants to discuss technical issues. “We met in Warsaw with [Freudmann and Heindl], we spoke for two hours about the situation of Jews and history and political issues. We told them the Forest from their first project is impossible in this place.” Szykier-Koszucka asserts that the designers were not consultative or communicative enough during this second round.

So the problems predated jury selection, but after Rolat’s remarks in The Forward, a three-month period elapsed that was witness to a number of letters, conversations, and face-to-face meetings between the designers and the Foundation when the whole project fell apart. On May 7, Konstanty Gebert, a spokesperson for the Foundation, went to Vienna to tell Freudmann and Heindl that they were not happy with the proposal. The Foundation was concerned about what would remain of the forest at the site, what it would look like as it evolved, and how its maintenance and replanting would be financed.

On June 3, Freudmann and Heindl wrote to the Foundation, stating they had worked out a possible concept for how to proceed with “Forest,” refined according to their concerns. “We take your concerns very seriously and want to go through a creative process to see how to solve the issues,” they said. A workshop in Warsaw having been included in their original proposal for the monument, Freudmann and Heindl suggested holding one near POLIN in early July to iron things out.

On June 11, Freudmann says the Foundation rejected the idea of a workshop, stating of their own concerns about “Forest,” “We do not think that holding workshops to discuss them would help to put forward solutions.” The Foundation also rejected proposals for a meeting between Rolat and the designers. Szykier-Koszucka denied rejecting workshopping with the designers, but told me that meeting Rolat was not a realistic proposal considering his age (he is 85) and the requirement that he fly to Warsaw.

“These conversations were fruitless,” Rolat said of discussions between the Foundation and the designers. “The differences between us were just too big.” It wasn’t clear that any changes the artists could make to their design would be enough to address Rolat’s concerns. On July 15, Szykier-Koszucka made a final trip to Vienna, during which Freudmann states she informed them that the “Forest” would not be built. Their proposal would never be realized.

The affair officially concluded on July 31 when the Foundation published a fresh statement. “The Foundation regrets that it will not be able to execute the winning project, as continuous allocation of additional maintenance funds, beyond those allocated to realization of the Commemoration, would be necessary to ensure its ongoing presence,” it stated. They added, “Ever since the jury reached its decision, the Authors and the Foundation had been engaged in negotiations on overcoming the obstacles in the execution of the victorious project. Unfortunately, no satisfactory solution could be reached.”

Simply put, Rolat as the initiator and main backer of the project did not like the design the jury chose – and elected to overrule them. “I personally rejected it,” he said. “The idea of the forest I personally found unacceptable but also it could not have been built. Members of the city council very strongly told me that they would never agree to issue a permit for what is in effect a forest in the middle of the city.

“It was something that was not really a monument. It was a proposal – perhaps in itself a very interesting proposal – that would have required continual funding. Who would provide that funding?” he asked. For the reasons outlined, upon invitation Rolat said before the jury voted he told him that the forest proposal was unlikely to proceed. “This project was a non-starter,” he said finally.

Heindl believes “it was definitely possible to realize this project,” otherwise they wouldn’t have submitted it and agreed to work on it with the Foundation. “The problem was that, from the beginning on, Rolat and the Foundation were against the project – from the meeting of the jury on,” Freudmann and Heindl agreed. Rolat, Freudmann added, was simply not experienced enough in artistic or architectural philanthropy to allow the jury to reach its own conclusions, be satisfied with their findings, and enact their proposals accordingly.

Rolat and the Foundation are in the process of selecting a new design for “From Those – You Saved,” to be announced before the end of the year. Whether Rolat’s vision is ever realized remains to be seen, but suffice it to say that the controversy over the very idea of a privately funded monument to the Righteous Among the Nations on what is both public ground and Jewish ground – the site of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, within what was once the Warsaw Ghetto – has raised a number of important questions about how we memorialize the Holocaust in the twenty-first century.

The first of these is architectural; the form a modern Holocaust memorial should take. The tension between the visions of the designers – a participatory, transferable monument whose eventual success was very much undetermined – and the funder, who still desires a more traditional memorial of stone, steel, and concrete, is representative of a generational struggle between older and more contemporary forms of memorialization. It is question of how memory functions in architecture: whether memory is symbolized by permanence, or comes from participation in the act of memorialization itself.

The second question concerns to what extent philanthropists – as the ones who, through their donations, make memorialization possible – are entitled to determine the outcome of certain processes regardless of how other actors are affected by their decisions. In the case of “From Those – You Saved,” the funder in overriding the independently selected choice of design threw out the work both of the designers and the jury. Those who in fact initiated it undermined the selection process.

The third, and perhaps most important, is one of ownership, not just of land but also of memory. Neither the intentions nor generosity of the backer behind “From Those – You Saved” should be doubted. But, it is the case that private money is being spent on public land. More than that, it is being ploughed into earth that was once part of the Warsaw Ghetto and is now the site of a Jewish museum. In that sense, symbolically, historically, and in memory, the Jewish community of Warsaw has a collective ownership of the land upon which this memorial is to be built—and Polish Jewry has a stake in how Polish Jewish land is used.

Holocaust memorials being a physical manifestation of collective memory and identity, the question, then, is who exactly has the right to determine how the Holocaust is remembered.