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The AJC Newsletter includes an Alumni Reflections section. The Summer 2018 newsletter includes this article by Elysa McConnell, 2017 AJC Fellow and third year PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Ottawa. 

In the thirty years since the fall of the communism, Europe has seen an immense growth in the interest in and representations of the Jewish past and history of the Holocaust. Today, traces of this past can be found – and are still being uncovered – in cities and towns across Poland. As this past becomes more visible in the Polish commemorative landscape, it has also become more entwined in the social fabric of Polish society and increasingly present in debates surrounding Polish history and politics. In his book Holocaust Icons, Oren Baruch Stier writes that “we are living in the age of the Holocaust cultural aftermath… [and] there is nothing we know about the Holocaust that has not already been mediated for us by some interpretive methodology and/or some cultural form.” (Stier 4) But what does it truly mean to live in the “the age of the Holocaust cultural aftermath?” How have cultural and social narratives transformed in the wake of this phenomenological shift? Are these cultural forms fixed, or do they themselves go through transformations according to particular social or political changes? What are the long-term implications of this cultural transformation? And what happens when “interpretive methodologies and cultural forms” diverge and compete?

This essay will analyse the symbolic representations of pre-war Jewish life and the Holocaust as presented in commemorative spaces in the regions of Poland annexed by the Nazis in 1939, specifically the towns and cities on either side of the border between the annexed lands of the Reichsgau Wartheland and Upper Silesia, and the General Government. It will examine the construction and development of “interpretive methodologies and cultural forms” of two “iconic symbols”– the synagogue and the chimney – and discuss how their development and reception have impacted Polish approaches to Jewish life and the Holocaust in the age of this cultural aftermath.

For centuries, the synagogue stood as an iconic staple of towns and cities across Europe, from the wooden synagogue of the eastern shtetl communities to the more modern synagogues in urban centres, such as the Neue Synagogue in Berlin or the Great Synagogue of Warsaw. The synagogue was the epicentre of Jewish religious life and a symbol of the community and its traditions. For the proponents of Nazism, the synagogue represented the grandeur and otherness of resident and international Jewry and was seen as a black mark on the landscape of the racial community. In the late 1930s and throughout the Second World War, these spaces became targets for extremist violence and plunder. The destruction of Jewish spaces and theft of Jewish property was an essential feature of the Nazi anti-Jewish campaign, and became commonplace throughout Europe following the events of Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) on 9-10 November 1938 and the invasion of Poland in September 1939.

During the war, countless synagogues across occupied Poland were burned or destroyed by the Germans, and sometimes by local inhabitants. Among them were the Great Synagogue of Bedzin, set alight by Nazis on September 9, 1939, the synagogue of Tarnów, destroyed November 9, 1939 (Grabowski 189) – exactly a year after Kristallnacht – and the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, demolished on May 16, 1943 in response to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the final liquidation of the ghetto. “Over 90% of the three and a half million Jews who lived in Poland before the war were killed during the Holocaust,” (Gross 28) and only a fragment of that population remained in Poland following the pogroms in Kielce in July 1946 and the anti-Jewish campaigns of 1968.

Accounts of the destruction of synagogues in numerous survivor testimonies have contributed in establishing the image of the burning and shattered synagogue as an essential symbol of the social death of European Jewry. In the post-war period, most of these synagogues were left in ruin, or they were rebuilt and repurposed. However, in the last 20 years there has been greater effort to restore these spaces in commemoration of their Jewish past. In addition to the fall of communism, this movement was inspired by the growing public interest in all “things Jewish” that swept through the country in the 1980s and 1990s. According to Ruth Ellen Gruber, this interest comes from an “apparent longing for lost Jews, or for what Jews are seen to represent” (Gruber 4). She writes that, “by the late 1990s…the “Jewish phenomenon – anything to do with Judaism, Jews, the Holocaust, and Israel – was increasingly recognized as part of a broad national experience, both on the personal level and as part of official policy” (Gruber 5). This exploration into Poland’s Jewish past, or “memory work” as Gruber calls it, has become an essential part of the Polish national experience, in which the “memory of Jews is employed as a vehicle of self-discovery and self-exploration” (Gruber 9). These efforts are often supported by European supranational agencies and Jewish organization abroad. Synagogues have, therefore, become crucial spaces for the memory work of both Polish and Jewish communities at the local, national and transnational levels.

In the Polish commemorative landscape, one can find three symbolic-structural representations of the synagogue; the first is the functioning synagogue such as Krakow’s Izaak Synagogue or Warsaw’s Nożyk Synagogue, the second is the synagogue-museum as can be found in cities and towns such as Kazimierz, Tarnów and Chmielnik, and the final type is the synagogue-ruin – exemplified by the synagogue in Działoszyce.

Of the Polish synagogues that were not completely destroyed during the war, only a handful have been restored and reinstated as fully-functioning synagogues. Many of these sites were returned to the Jewish communities after the fall of the communism and are, therefore, relatively new sites of Jewish religious life, whose communities are small in number. In many cases, the individuals responsible for the revival of these spaces are American or Israeli Jews who were returned to Poland in the 1990s. For these individuals and their communities, the synagogues were often the only remaining structures connecting them to their ancestral past. Through their restoration and revival, these synagogues now provide spaces where non-practicing Polish Jews and Jews returning from abroad can reconnect to their lost heritage and attempt to fill the gap between themselves and their history. However, these attempts to revive Polish-Jewish life comes with inherent limitations due to the deep trauma and temporal or cultural chasms separating contemporary Jewish communities in Poland with their ancestral communities. In other words, these functioning-synagogues, even in their restored states are, to a certain extent, relics of a past which is beyond revival. Their restoration as centres of contemporary Jewish life presents us with complex questions about the ways in which communities who have experienced genocide are able to reclaim and revive spaces built upon the ruins of the past.

The second type, that of the synagogue-museum, refers to a space that has been restored in the form of the synagogue, but does not function as one. The majority are turned into museums, educational centres and spaces of commemoration. Although some sites were restored during the communist period, such as the Old Synagogue in Kazimierz, a great number have been renovated only in the last ten years, including the synagogue of Chmielnik (2013), the ‘House of Cultures’ synagogue of Dąbrowa Tarnowska (2012) and the ‘Upper Silesian Jews House of Remembrance’ of the synagogue of Gliwice (2016). The restoration projects are often initiated by local grassroots movements and political advocates, and are funded by municipal, provincial and EU agencies. As educational centres and spaces of commemoration, many of these institutions have been restored in an effort to teach local students about the history of Jewish life and the Holocaust, and to instil the importance of tolerance and diversity while also honouring the lost Jewish communities.

These initiatives have received mixed reviews, with some praising the preservation of these spaces, while others feel frustrated that regional and supranational bodies have invested so much money into these synagogue restorations when there is no Jewish community in the town and little money for other important investments that will directly address the concerns of local residents. Those who support and spearhead these projects instead believe that they are restoring a Jewish past which is essential for the preservation of local history and for the education of local and international students. There is no question that the restoration of these spaces is essential for the preservation of what remains of Polish-Jewish history. Yet, the development and presentation of these synagogue-museums also reaffirms a profound sense of Jewish absence which is both a crucial motivator of these projects and a major obstacle to their success. Before the war, the populations of towns like Chmielnik and Dąbrowa Tarnowska were around 80% Jewish, while today, all that remains of these vibrant communities are a collection of artefacts – akin to a long-lost civilization – and the format of the synagogue-museum often portrays the beauty of Jewish life in Poland while overlooking the hardships. This illustrates the temporal and psychological distance between some Polish communities and their Jewish past; a distance which they are trying to overcome through the restoration of the synagogues, but will never fully realize.

Like the functioning-synagogue, the synagogue-museum embodies a transformation of space that is representative of the limitations of restoration. As Polish-mediated spaces of Jewish history and memory these sites have become “markers of an irretrievable past” (Meng 9). Take, for example, the synagogue in Chmielnik, which has been beautifully rebuilt as a museum, and research and educational centre. Large black panels encasing Jewish artefacts line the interior of the synagogue, which are connected at the top by a black platform, cutting off the visitor’s view of the wide arched ceilings and high walls. Upon seeing this structure, one of my colleagues commented that the construction of the panels and second level made the space completely unusable as a house of worship. Therefore, the construction of the museum effectively ended any chance of the synagogue being truly restored to its original state. Instead, it has been recreated as something completely new – as a space in which Poles are attempting to reconnect with the Jewish past and establish the foundation for a multiethnic future. In this way, these synagogue-museums stand more so as symbols of Polish remembrance, reconciliation and transformation than they are symbols of Jewish history.

The final type is the synagogue-ruin – as represented by the synagogue in Działoszcye. This synagogue has been preserved in a state of complete ruin as a symbol of the destruction and absence of the once flourishing Jewish community. A plaque in front of the structure states that the site was built, “in memory of about 10,000 Jews from Działoszcye and the vicinity murdered during World War II by the German genociders.” This space seems to carry an authenticity that is not found in the restored and repurposed synagogues. Yet even in a state of ruin, this symbolic structure has been shaped by the interpretive frameworks of those responsible for its preservation (the EU, regional institutions) and those interacting with the site on a daily basis (the local community and tourists). And unlike the synagogue-museum structures, which are established as interactive spaces, the synagogue-ruin stands as a “monument to absence,” and is a space which cannot be reclaimed by the surrounding community. Whereas the restored synagogues may be limited in its authenticity, the synagogue-ruin is hindered by the irretrievability of its past. This begs the question, “for whom, for what?” (Meng 229), for what is the purpose in preserving these spaces if the communities around them cannot engage with them in a meaningful way?

In the age of the Holocaust cultural aftermath, synagogues now stand as “iconic structures” in the Polish commemorative landscape. This process of symbolization began in survivor testimonies and historical studies, which marked the destruction of these spaces as symbolic of first stages in the destruction of European Jewry. The synagogue restoration movement was shaped in response to the recent “Jewish cultural revival” and are therefore, constructed in the framework of the cultural aftermath of the Holocaust. But through this reconstruction process, these spaces have, in turn, reframed the symbolic meaning or “cultural form,” of the synagogue in contemporary Poland, which is no longer only a symbol of Jewish history, but a marker of Polish identity and community.

The Jewish cultural revival of the 1980s and 1990s led to important advancements in the knowledge and celebration of Jewish life and culture within Poland. Yet, in regards to the history of the Holocaust, there has been greater difficulty confronting and addressing the history of Polish-Jewish relations during the pre-war period, and the murder of European Jews on Polish soil. Poland is not alone in this struggle, as many European countries have and are still grappling with this past. Many have also wrestled with the particular challenges in the representation of the history of the Holocaust in sites of destruction and memorialization. One of the most powerful and recognizable symbols of the Holocaust to develop since the end of the war is that of the chimney – representative of the great magnitude of terror and death wrought by the Nazi regime. This section will discuss the challenges of presenting the chimney as a symbol of the Holocaust, particularly in spaces which aim to memorialize victims and educate visitors.

A number of widely-read survivor testimonies point to the centrality of the chimney as a symbol of the death camp, and also as embodying a profound moment of discovery and despair in the survivor’s journey. Upon his arrival to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Elie Wiesel describes the desperate and angry cries of a prisoner who called upon him to look at the chimney and understand that he will be “turned into ashes” (Wiesel 31). In the early days of his imprisonment, Primo Levi met a camp inmate who he claims, “with his face animated by fierce contempt…threw at me ‘Vous n’etes pas a la maison,’…you are not at home, this is not a sanatorium, the only exit is by way of the Chimney (What did it mean? Soon we were all to learn what it meant)” (Levi 29). Olga Lengyel was initially told that the chimney and crematorium were “a camp bakery.” She writes, “we accepted that without the slightest suspicion. Had [this inmate] revealed the truth, we simply would not have believed her. The “bakery” which gave off the sickeningly sweetish odor was the crematory, to which the young and the old and the sick had been consigned, and to which ultimately we were all doomed” (Lengyel 31). For these and other survivors, initial awareness and later recognition of the true meaning of the chimney was an immensely heartbreaking and terrifying experience. It was a pivotal moment in which the survivors began to comprehend the extent of destruction which they, their loved ones and their communities faced.

Survivor testimonies, in addition to visual representations in early photographs and illegal paintings created by camp inmates, have established the chimney as a central image of the Holocaust. Through further cultural constructions, such as contemporary depictions of the crematorium chimney in film and literary representations, the image of the chimney has become a part of the “symbolic vocabulary” of the Holocaust. It is also an image that is often reproduced in memorials or commemorative spaces, although the extent to which this symbol is effective or even appropriate in spaces of memorialization is debatable. I will examine two sites of memorialization in Łódź in which the chimney plays a prominent role – the Litzmannstadt Ghetto Holocaust Memorial and the Jewish Cemetery.

The Łódź Ghetto Memorial and Museum was unveiled on August 24, 2004 at the site of the Radegast Train Station (Radogoszcz), where around 200,000 Jews and 5,000 Roma were transported from the Litzmannstadt ghetto to death camps, such as Kulmhof (Chelmno) and Auschwitz-Birkenau, between 1942 and 1944. The memorial site is constructed of multiple parts including the train station, railway tracks, and train car replicas. Behind the train station lies a wall of giant tombstones upon which the names of different concentration and death camps are written in large Gothic letters. The railway tracks are covered by a concrete tunnel, the exterior of which is marked with the years 1939 to 1945. Visitors can walk through this tunnel and read deportation lists and various facts about their progression. At the end of the tunnel stands a giant chimney, which visitors must walk through in order to exit the site. The chimney is quite large, and is both the first and last section of the memorial which the visitor sees. The chamber below is marked with the biblical phrase – “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, and the inside is engraved with the Polish and Hebrew names of all the cities from which Jews had been deported.

The use of the symbolic chimney at this site presents certain complexities in Holocaust commemoration, first, due to its narrative limitations and second, in regards to the performative character embodied in the structure of the memorial. Deportations from the Łódź ghetto, via Radegast station were initially sent to the Kulmhof death camp. Transports to this camp took place between January and September 1942, and eventually continued again in June and July of 1944. In August 1944 all deportations from the Litzmannstadt ghetto were redirected to Auschwitz-Birkenau. This distinction is important because many of the Jews who were deported from Radegast station were not murdered in the gas chamber or crematorium at Auschwitz. Jews sent to Kulmhof were murdered in gas vans, their bodies burnt on large pyres and their ashes buried in the forest. Therefore, the presentation of the chimney at this site overlooks the varying experiences of many of those deported from Radegast station, as well as those who perished in the Łódź ghetto from starvation and disease.

The use of the chimney in this space points to a deeper problem in Holocaust memorialization – namely, the immense difficulty of addressing and commemorating the vast range of victim experiences. It is also illustrative of the centrality of the Auschwitz-Birkenau narrative in commemoration and public memory, in which the chimney stands as the ultimate symbol of destruction of European Jewry. As a construction of both the pre and post-Holocaust cultural aftermath, it has become an “iconic image of the Holocaust” and in this site, is representative of the mediations and monolithic narratives embedded in Holocaust symbolization.

There is also a certain performative character of the memorial which is embodied in the construction of the train station, tunnel and chimney. The outside of the station has been rebuilt to look as it would have in the 1940s. A recreated boxcar sits on the tracks beside the station, which visitors can enter. Walking along the tracks, one arrives at the tunnel on which the years 1939-1945 are marked. Charting the progression of the visitor through the tunnel, the numbers seem to point to a certain inevitability in the progression of the Final Solution. There is also a sense that the visitor is, in a symbolic way, performing the journey from deportation to death on their walk from the train car, through tunnel and out the chimney. In other words, the theatrical character of the monument commits the visitors to a problematic commemorative performance in this space.

The next site in which the symbol of the chimney is present is the Łódź Jewish Cemetery. The cemetery was established in 1892, and was the resting place of one of the largest Jewish communities in Poland. To the left of the cemetery gates stands a memorial to the Jews who perished during the Holocaust. The memorial is in the shape of a crematorium, upon which are engravings of broken trees symbolizing the destruction of the vital Jewish community of Łódź. On one side of the monument stands a menorah, which is overshadowed by the much larger structure of the chimney.

On its own, the monument stands as any other monument to the Holocaust, clad with iconic symbols of death and destruction. However, within the space of the cemetery, it becomes more representative of the extent of dehumanization promoted by the architects of the Final Solution and experienced by the victims of the Holocaust. In contrast to this monument stands the cemetery, which is in itself a monument to the pre-war history of life and death of Łódź’s Jewish community. On older tombstones, symbols are used to represent the life of each individual, as opposed to the Holocaust monument where all individuality is lost, and only symbols of death and destruction can be found. The ornate tombstones of the pre-war period also stand in sharp contrast to the section of the cemetery set aside for those who perished in the Łódź ghetto, when few could afford a burial, let alone a grave marking or tombstone. Recent efforts have been made to restore the identity of Łódź’s lost Jews, including a project working to identify and mark those buried in the ghetto section of the cemetery, and the installation of plaques on the cemetery walls, erected by families in commemoration of their lost loved ones. Upon visiting this site, I connected with and learned more from these personalized commemorative plaques than I did from the Holocaust memorial – which seems to reduce the life and death of Łódź’s Jews to the symbol of the chimney.

The “iconic symbols” of the synagogue and the chimney reveal a multitude of complexities, not only in relation to the history of the Holocaust and Polish-Jewish relations, but also in regards to the limitations of commemorative spaces. In his book Shattered Spaces, Michael Meng argues that, “in a post-fascist and post-communist world, Jewish sites have become spaces of what I call redemptive cosmopolitanism, a commemorative display of multiethnicity that celebrates the cathartic, redemptive transformation of Germany and Poland into tolerant democratic citizens. Restoring a synagogue or Jewish cemetery rarely involves thinking deeply about the shattered histories that these spaces reflect: their destruction during the war and their neglect and erasure after 1945. In reconstructing multiethnicity from the ruins of multiethnicity, this commemorative cosmopolitanism exhibits comforting, soothing flourishes of tolerance and difference for all to see, but deflects critical engagement with liberal democracy’s collapse in the past and its failure in the present” (Meng 10).

This failure has become increasingly present with the current Polish government, who have put forth laws restricting what can be said and written about the Holocaust. The calls to silence research and discussion of Polish anti-semitism and collaboration, and the law criminalizing the use of the term “Polish concentration camps”, illustrate the pervasiveness of what Michael C. Steinlauf refers to as “Polish fragility” (Steinlauf 141) in relation to national and international narratives of Polish-Jewish history and the Shoah.

It is my belief that this movement is connected to the lived experience of the Holocaust cultural aftermath and increasing visibility of Jewish historical sites and memorials in Poland. This movement has developed in light of three important social changes. First, many perceive these historical and commemorative spaces as sites in which memory work and reconciliation is done for the individual or the community and not by the individual or the community. Many Poles feel that they do not need to engage in this process of critical self-reflection, as this process of “restoring Jewish culture purifies [them] of past sins.” (Meng 252). On the other hand, the revival of Jewish history and memory has raised a number of questions concerning Polish complicity in the Holocaust and the trend of “normalized prejudice” (Meng 18) which made the Holocaust possible – an idea which many Poles vehemently reject. This issue is exacerbated by the third factor, that these Jewish sites have developed as transnational sites which contain within them competing Western European, Israeli, American and Polish narratives – and are increasingly seen as representative of the encroachment and undermining of Polish sovereignty by the EU and global community.

The rejection of critical self-reflection in these Jewish spaces is therefore also a rejection of the European community and the cosmopolitan or multiethnic ideals that have propelled so many of these projects forward. And although this movement may now appear as a disastrous step backwards, away from reconciliation and towards Polish nationalism, it is my hope that this episode will ultimately reveal the importance of Polish engagement with Jewish history and the Holocaust, and will reaffirm Poland’s commitment to addressing this difficult past.

Works Cited

Grabowski, Jan. Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland. Indiana University Press, 2013.

Gruber, Ruth Ellen. Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe. University of California Press, 2002.

Gross, Jan T. Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz. Random House, 2007.

Lengyel, Olga. Five Chimneys: A Woman’s True Story of Auschwitz. Academy Chicago Publishers, 1995.

Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz. Touchstone, 1996.

Meng, Michael. Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Steinlauf, Michael C. Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust. Syracuse University Press, 1997.

Stier, Oren Baruch. Holocaust Icons: Symbolizing the Shoah in History and Memory. Rutgers University Press, 2015.

Wiesel, Eli. Night. Hill and Wang, 2006.

About the Author: Elysa McConnell is a third year PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Ottawa. Elysa’s doctoral thesis explores the converging and diverging experiences of Jewish and ethnic minority communities in the northeastern Italian borderlands during the Fascist era, the Holocaust and the postwar period from 1918-1948. Her research explores the ways that historical, political and ideological narratives impact the construction of ‘ingroups’ and ‘outgroups’ within regional, national and transnational contexts, and examines how certain narratives of ‘othering’ create conditions for interethnic conflict, systemic oppression of marginalized groups, and in some cases, violence and genocide. Elysa received her MA in European, Russian and Eurasian Studies with a Collaborative in Jewish Studies from the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto in 2015, and received an Honours BA with a double major in History and Philosophy from the University of Toronto in 2013. She attended the Leo Baeck Summer University in Jewish Studies at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in 2014, and completed the Foundation Year Programme at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 2010. In 2018, Elysa was a fellow of the Summer Institute at the Holocaust Educational Foundation of Northwestern University (HEF), and was selected as a European Holocaust Research Institute Fellow (EHRI) with the Fondazione Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Cotemporanea (CDEC) in Milan.


The Auschwitz Jewish Center is operated by the Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. For additional blog entries by and about the Auschwitz Jewish Center, please visit mjhnyc.org/tag/ajc. All Summer 2018 newsletter articles are found here.