Natalia Romik, Hideouts. The Architecture of Survival, 2022, photo: Daniel Chrobak

by Piotr Rypson

Materializations – after the Holocaust

An essay by curator Piotr Rypson to the exhibition Materializing. Contemporary Art and the Shoah in Poland (Oct 20, 2023 to Feb 25, 2024)

“I think the main difference we see between postmodernism and what is coming [into being] is a shift of focus from text to materiality. We are interested not so much in what isn’t, as in what is still there.”1

Jacek Leociak talking to Ewa Domańska about postmodernism, critical hope, and the legacy of the Holocaust

The subterranean city that is the former Warsaw Ghetto will not permit itself to be forgotten. It relinquishes reminders of itself every time construction machines involved in urban development projects strip away the covering shell of concrete and asphalt, revealing the outlines of houses and the old cobblestone routes of that city – the city that existed before 1939 – 1945. Signs of the old life vexingly transpire among the bulldozers’ excavations.

That life was terminated abruptly, crushed, burned. What remains – aside from glimpses of memories – are fragments of things that the property development companies would like to swiftly eradicate, or at least cover up once again. But the relicts themselves cannot be compromised. They call on artists, writers, museums and other institutions of memory to bear witness to the destruction of that world in its entirety – so that we may witness it with our own eyes.

There are in fact two facets to this ruined urban landscape – the Polish one, and a space within it, designated as Jewish. From 1940 to 1943, the two were divided by a wall, built on German orders, whose purpose was to separate Jews from Poles. The former, as “Lebensunwertes Leben”, were doomed to slow agony and eventually a sudden, torturous death; the latter, whose selective extermination was depriving them of their elites and of the power to resist, were to be relegated to the categories of the subhuman and reduced to a labor force. Both facets are marked by death and a funereal substratum of urban memory, and yet are infused by these to varying degrees. Not least because the ghetto area became a total cemetery.

The large-scale map prepared after the war by the Capital Reconstruction Office, documenting the destruction of the urban fabric of Warsaw, shows nearly all buildings in the central part of the city as being burnt down or too damaged to rebuild. Only a single area is unmarked – the former Warsaw Ghetto – where there was simply nothing left to categorize. It was a sea of ruins – though even these were systematically exploited and recycled as the war neared its end. This work was done by concentration camp inmates; it was there that Max Mannheimer (who went on to become a famous resident of Munich) worked in the autumn of 1943 with his brother Edgar. As unbelievable as it sounds today, the bricks collected at the time were still being shipped off to the Reich.

That same empty space is visible on an aerial photograph taken after the liquidation of the ghetto, or more probably sometime later, after the defeat of the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944, when most of Warsaw’s urban fabric was destroyed. The latter, however, was gradually restored. All that remained of the “Jewish quarter” meanwhile were traces. In the above-mentioned aerial photograph they look like lines drawn with a stick in sand. After the war, a network of new streets and buildings was superimposed on the grid, giving rise in 1949 – 1956 to the Muranów district.

Aerial photograph showing the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto after the suppression of the Ghetto Uprising, dated after May 16, 1943 | © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, USA

Some of the rubble was used to rebuild Warsaw after the war. Before new housing projects went up on the mounds of remaining rubble, the latter made a haunting and poignant landscape. It inspired and became the subject matter of an early wave of art, evoking the horror of a time not long past, and symbolizing – sometimes without deliberate intent – the death of the people who had lived there barely a few years earlier.

Bohdan Lachert, the modernist architect who designed Muranów, the residential area built on top of the former Warsaw Ghetto, planned for the new buildings to be raised up on “terraces” fashioned out of the rubble– a peculiar monument to the martyrs.2 The buildings’ fresh, red brick was even compared to the color of the blood spilled there. The official language of Polish politics and media during the communist period did much to erase the memory of the ghetto’s uniqueness, blurring differences and generalizing the real nature of the tragedy. Few people kept the memory of what had actually happened in the ghetto alive. Writer Jerzy Jurandot, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, wrote the following after the new housing development had been built:

“Warsaw’s Muranów stands today like a tall mound; to get into the newly built houses you have to go up steps. This is a mound of what was left of the walls of buildings and the bones of people who inhabited those buildings from 1940 to 1945. I think that the many tourists coming to Warsaw should be shown this mound; probably there is nothing quite like it in the world.”3

Whatever intentions there were to memorialize the area of the ghetto, they were soon erased by politics, a rather general dislike of the dead residents, and ultimately the dynamics of the new life that flooded into Muranów.

Art in Poland had already made the Holocaust one of its subjects during the German occupation. Holocaust art was created by both Jewish artists in the ghettos of Warsaw (Roman Kramsztyk, Witold Lewinson, Halina Ołomucka, and Gela Seksztajn) and Łódź (Wincenty Brauner), as well as Polish ones, for instance Felicjan Szczęsny Kowarski, Bronisław Linke, Władysław Strzemiński, Mieczysław Wejman, and subsequently by prominent Jewish artists who had survived. The language of those early works was intended to trigger strong emotions; it was above all expressive, and at the same time steered clear of pathos. Creating these works of art was a form of self-therapy or, at the other extreme, a way of documenting a tragedy that the artists had witnessed directly, sometimes barely avoiding extermination themselves. Some even opted for the grotesque. Drawings and prints created in concentration camps in occupied Poland and the Reich followed similar lines. Their artistic language had evolved in the midst of a world torn to pieces by relentless destruction.

Works created after the war were different. Their aim was to preserve a record of the crimes, to sing the praise of heroic resistance fighters and victims, and to devise symbols and metaphors that could convey, however soberly, the catastrophe that had overturned people’s understanding of human nature and undermined the obviousness of moral, religious, and civilizational truths. In the shadow of huge questions about the point of writing poetry “after Auschwitz” and the injunction to silence, hundreds and probably thousands of representations attempting to come to terms with the Holocaust emerged. As time passed – I will venture the following generalization – the language of art expanded to treat the general nature of the human condition and internalized the discourse on whether it was at all possible to represent an event like the Shoah.

The case of Warsaw nevertheless remains a special one. The ghetto, where nearly half a million people were confined in order to be murdered in the end, located in the middle of a vibrant city, was swallowed up by the earth and covered with new developments after the war. And yet that city continually sends out reminders of itself, materially and through the work of historians, writers, and artists. The Holocaust returned as an issue in Poland after the disclosure of the Jedwabne Massacre4 (perpetrated or co-perpetrated by the victims’ Polish neighbors) which sent a shock through a large section of Polish society. At the beginning of the 21st century Agnieszka Arnold’s films, Jan Tomasz Gross’s books, and subsequent academic publications sparked a dispute about Polish complicity in the Holocaust – a dispute that continues unrelentingly to this day.

Memorial in Jedwabne, 2009 | © Wikimedia Commons / Fczarnowski

A key event when it comes to commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto’s place in the urban landscape was the publication of Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak’s monumental historical guide Getto warszawskie. Przewodnik po nieistniejącym mieście in 2001 (“Warsaw Ghetto. A Guide to the Non-Existent City”).5 Both authors are scholars at the Polish Center for Holocaust Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Thanks to this incredibly detailed publication we were finally able to begin exploring the material substance of the erstwhile city. The ghetto began to make itself present, no longer just symbolically, but increasingly in material terms. In the words of Jacek Leociak:

“The destruction of the ghetto is not the destruction of a place. The place remains, but is now empty (although built up), it is barren and dead (although full of life). The ghetto that was here was annihilated, but the ‘here’ remains, only now it is veiled with a different material substance. The experience of the after-ghetto is paradoxical. It is making present a void, pulling traces out of non existence: from under heaps of ignorance, indifference, forgetting, not knowing. The experience is attended by a special type of opening up or expansion of seeing, a doubling of perspective. Here I begin to see that which I cannot see (an imaginary reconstruction of the ghetto); at the same time I can no longer see what I do see (the reality of the here and now). The topography of contemporary Muranów is bracketed off, becomes a kind of translucent veil that reveals the object proper of our experience. We begin to realize that we are walking in the streets, pavements and squares of Muranów as though treading on top of a glass pane painted over with black paint through which we do however see what is underneath. And underneath our feet is the ghetto – a phantom city.”6

This city pounds on the doors of the living in Piotr Paziński’s excellent collection of short stories Ptasie ulice (2013) (“Bird Streets”).7 The narrator meets – indeed follows – ephemeral figures who exist in the other city but somehow find their way into our world. In reality, the other city cannot be accessed.

“We never strolled around those streets. No one even imagined it, as if we ourselves had prohibited our own access. […] We never visited anyone there. We had no friends or acquaintances. Granny, my uncles and aunts, Tecia and Roma, Leon, Abram and Doctor Kamińska had not lived there for a long time. The life of our city now went on elsewhere and no temporal matters now bound us to those districts. There was no possibility of return. Nor were there any places to return to. The names of those former streets, still visible on maps of Warsaw, were regarded as absurd, historical falsification, if not flagrant mockery. After all, the contemporary network of intersecting streets had been superimposed haphazardly, as if none had been there before, or none had stuck to the ground but hung instead in the void, ineptly covering up the nothingness.”8

It is in the mnemonic scenery thus described that we want to set the exhibition Materializing. Contemporary Art and the Shoah in Poland at the Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism. The works of art employ various techniques and styles. What they have in common is how the artists went about creating them – in every case shaping the structure and giving the work its final form was preceded by thorough research into the subject matter. We might say that the artist entered the province of the historian or archaeologist, but used a completely different apparatus, characterized by a high degree of agency, to “publish” the findings. Most of the works actualize the materialization function referred to in the title. Instead of symbolizing or relying on metaphors, they speak to various types of concretization. They are all accompanied by brief comments in the following pages.

We are placing the works of Polish artists within the Munich Documentation Center’s permanent exhibition dedicated to the history of Nazism and the aftermath of that criminal totalitarian regime. All of them relate to the Shoah on Polish land. Sometimes the artists go as far as to physically probe the earth for memories.

Zuzanna Hertzberg, Mechitza: Individual and Collective Resistance of Women During the Shoah, 2019–2022 | Courtesy of the artist | © nsdoku, Foto: Connolly Weber

Elżbieta Janicka & Wojciech Wilczyk, The Other City (Inne Miasto), 2011–2013 | Courtesy of the artists & Zachęta National | © nsdoku, Foto: Connolly Weber

Paweł Kowalewski, Strength and Beauty. A Very Subjective History of Polish Mothers (Polnishe Mame), 2015 | Courtesy of the artist | © nsdoku, Foto: Connolly Weber

Agnieszka Mastalerz, UZ, 2020 | Courtesy of the artist & eastcontemporary gallery | © nsdoku, Foto: Connolly Weber

Natalia Romik, Hideouts. The Architecture of Survival. Vacant lot in the Jewish Cemetery (Warsaw, Poland), 2022 | Courtesy of the artist & TRAFO Center for Contemporary Art & Zachęta National Gallery | © nsdoku, Foto: Connolly Weber

Wilhelm Sasnal, First of January, 2021 | Courtesy of the artist & Foksal Gallery Foundation | © nsdoku, Foto: Connolly Weber

Artur Żmijewski & Zofia Waślicka-Żmijewska, We've Been Looking in Ashes, 2021–2022 | Courtesy of the artists | © nsdoku, Foto: Connolly Weber

To conclude these remarks, however, it is worth addressing other references which are emerging as we speak – essentially in the same territories, historically speaking. On March 1, 2022 the world was rocked by news of a Russian missile attack on Babyn Yar in Kyiv – a place where the Germans launched the murder of European Jews on a mass scale; over the course of just a few days in September 1941 more than 33000 Jews were shot there. Their remains, along with those of tens of thousands of other victims, were buried at the site. A project, even if a controversial one to commemorate them, which had been running for the past few years, was interrupted by the Russian rocket attack. As Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky wrote at the time:

“What is the point of saying ‘never again’ for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar?”9

When words fall short, we resort to materialization. So the memory doesn’t completely disappear.


Translated from Polish by Dominika Gajewska


1 Zagłada Żydów. Studia i Materiały 10 (2011), S. 513.

2 Bohdan Lachert, “Muranów – Dzielnica mieszkaniowa,” Architektura (1949) no. 5, pp. 129-132: “[…] the construction of a new housing development […] on the rubble heap, will be a testimony of new life on the ruins of the old social relations, in an area memorializing the unprecedented barbarity of Hitlerism and the heroism of the Ghetto insurgents. The Museum of the Fight against Fascism […] at the Gęsiówka prison, the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, Warsaw’s martyrdom area […] will remain at the same level as before the cataclysm, but the new buildings will rise on a terrace created out of the rubble heap.” Other accounts cited after: Piotr Matywiecki, Kamień graniczny, Warszawa 1994, pp. 489-494. I am grateful to Adam Przywara for bringing these sources to my attention.

3 Jerzy Jurandot, Stefania Grodzieńska, City of the Damned: Two Years in the Warsaw Ghetto. Ghetto Children, transl. Jolanta Sicińska, Warsaw 2015, p. 411.

4 The Jedwabne Massacre was a pogrom in Jedwabne and the surrounding area against Jewish residents of the small town in northeastern Poland on July 10, 1941, in which at least 340 people were murdered.

5 Barbara Engelking, Jacek Leociak, Getto warszawskie. Przewodnik po nieistniejącym mieście, Warszawa 2001. English edition: The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City, transl. Emma Harris, New Haven 2009.

6 J. Leociak, “Boże, gdzie jest Gęsia?” (accessed 10.07.2023).

7 Piotr Paziński, Ptasie ulice, Warsaw 2013.

8 Piotr Paziński, “Izaak Feldwurm’s Manuscript,” in: Bird Streets, translated by Ursula Phillips, forthcoming from Vine Editions, Detroit. I am grateful to Piotr Paziński for making the text available.

9 Jeffrey Veidlinger, “A brief history of Babi Yar, where Nazis massacred Jews, Soviets kept silence and now Ukraine says Russia fired a missile,” The Conversation, March 8, 2022, (accessed 10.07.2023); see also: Masha Gessen, “The Holocaust Memorial Undone by Another War,” (accessed 10.07.2023).