7 June 2017

An essay of traces of the past

An article by Angelika Lasiewicz-Sych, published in “Kultura Współczesna” nr 4 (38) 2003

Muranów, a district in central Warsaw, is a “living” place which happened to be the site of one of the most tragic crimes of the Holocaust – a crime which resulted in the death of thousands of human beings. The location of the Jewish ghetto in Muranów shattered the integrity of the district, just as it severed the continuity of its history. Urban life continues today as it did before this historic cataclysm, but present-day Muranów remains unavoidably immersed in broken time.

Two histories

Contemporary Muranów was in pre-war Warsaw closely related to the city center in terms of spatial and functional relationships. The district started out in the 17th century as an iuridica, a small privately-owned proto-town, one of many that existed on the outskirts of walled Warsaw in the 17th and 18th centuries. By the end of 18th century the process of integrating those outlying communities with the capital city had begun, but it was slow and difficult in view of historical circumstances, especially the loss of Poland`s independence, which stood in the way of the development of a unified and coherent metropolitan city structure. Warsaw remained decentralized and districts like Muranów took over the role of scattered city centers.

A lively local crafts and trading center, Muranów developed it own tradition that reflected a growing Jewish population. When the capital finally started shaping its metropolitan character in the 19th century, the district fell back of the mainstream changes, retaining its specific social and economic structure: shops and workshops owned by small-time proprietors. This affected the general situation of the district. Its “ontogenetic” historical urban development ceased in the face of an increasing social and cultural distance to the new financial and commercial centre of Warsaw.

In the beginning of the 20th century Muranów was a place of striking contrasts. Some of its inhabitants grew rich on local business, the rest lived the poor life, but they coexisted, clinging to their tradition. The same could be said of the architecture: small time worn-shops and big modern commercial centers; rich new tenement houses and – mostly – small old houses with tiny, dark courtyards. The character of the district supported its informal social separation from the rest of the city.

The separation became even sharper and formal during World War II. Muranów was turned into “a closed district”, the Jewish Ghetto. There were 380,000 people living there in January 1941 and in the next few months the population grew to about 445,000. The district was extremely overcrowded and the conditions simply unimaginable. There was no open space and fresh air, the parts of the Krasiński and Saski Gardens which stood in the way of enclosing wall having been cut off from the Ghetto. The people in the ghetto somehow lived on, separated from the rest of the city and its illusion of “freedom”, preparing in silence for the end or getting ready to fight. The uprising in the Ghetto in April 1943 was the final act of self-defence against ultimate extermination.

After the crushing of the uprising, on 16 May 1943, German soldiers blew up the Great Synagogue, which was the last physical reminder of the Jewish district. The rest of the Ghetto already lay in ruin, some of its last inhabitants buried under the rubble. A dead silence ensued – the Jewish town was no more.


Soon after the war, in 1945 or even earlier, the decision was made to build a modern housing estate on the ruins of the ghetto. Muranów with its completely destroyed building structure provided a good opportunity for putting into life a vision of a district with modern housing and wide green vistas. This was more than just the execution of a modernist myth. It must have also been a reaction to the poverty of pre-war Muranów and in some way also to the tragic history to the Ghetto. The vision became reality when it was approved by the political authorities. The new socialist goverment in Poland recognized the potential political and propaganda value of the project: building a new capital city – for the people – on the ruins of the old capitalist town. The project was also viewed in terms of a conscious act of accusation, confirming the destruction.

Most importantly for the design – which was prepared principally by architect Bohdan Lachert – the new housing estate was to be erected on top of the leveled ruins of the Ghetto. The rubble was used for landscaping works – building terraces and slops – and for prefabricating blocks of concrete to be used as building material. The design called for four “neighbourhood units” (consisting of housing, schools, kindergartens, ahops, service facilities, etc.), separated by two crossing routes running one from north to south and the other from east to west. Roughly in the middle of the district a strip of land was left open, incorporating the remnants of the former Pawiak prison and the only monumental structure surviving from the Ghetto, the church of St. Augustine. This was intended as a future center of the new estate with a town hall, post office, shopping market, and cultural complex with cinema and theatre to be built around it eventually.

Housing occupied most of the area. the buildings represented broadly three types of multifamily houses: a cubic form with a central staircase, a long building with a number of staircases, and a gallery-building with entrances to the apartments from the outside galleries. The flats wee all basically alike regardless of the building type. They consisted of one or two similar rooms, a kitchenette and bathroom, designed as a whole to meet the most basic needs of a minimum existence. All of the buildings were of the same height and the facades barely different. The layout was fairly uncrowded, particular houses being located in complexes around open spaces that had the function of courtyards. About 40,000 inhabitants were to live in this estate – one of the design objectives was to keep the high modernist proportion of the number of inhabitants to metric units of the area.

Building on top of the ruins had its economic justification as well. It solved the problem of moving huge mounds of rubble. The moral issues of building literally on top of the cemetery of the Ghetto were tactily avoided. Technical reasons also caused the estate – however new and different – to be planned more or less in keeping with the old street network with its still operational plumbing and the other infrastructure. Consequently, the overall urban layout of the district was somehow preserved. Even so, the new Muranów of the late 1940s, which continued to be developed in the 1950s and 1960s, embodied a complete reversal of the local tradition.

What had been before the war an unique combination of tradition and private investment resulting in a building freedom now became a planned, rationally organised whole, subordinated to the common good and oriented toward meeting social rather than individual needs. This observation reflects the most important difference between the two strategies: the sense of property, of space appropriation. Once clearly individual, the district has become vaguely social. The difference may be recognised also as a typical modernist contrast: old vs. new, dirty vs. clean, dark vs. light, chaotic vs. planned, and so on.

People and memory

Today Muranów is over fifty years old. The demands of everyday urban life have improved and added to the original “pure” architectural concept, but the district remains in essence a new post-war town; there are no evident signs of its integrity with the former town. Is it that pre-war Muranów has vanished not only from physical space, but also from the horizon of people`s memories?

Much has changed in the city since the war. Nowadays, there is growing interest in the past, particularly in the Jewish part of Muranów, motivated presumably by the steady trickle of “memory pilgrims” mostly from Israel. New markers of the past have appeared in the 1980s and 1990s, possibly indicating a deepening of collective memory with the passing of time. With the changes in social consciousness going beyond the need to know, the quality of memory and its manifestation is also changing.

the first memorials appealed to a kind of official symbolic in expression, collective memory. Standing in a middle of a big empty square, the Heroes of the Ghetto monument (Nathan Rappaport, 1948) achieved its monumentality by appropriation of space and an elaborate sculptural display. Newe monuments were oriented more toward the individual imagination, hence their adherence to the reality of the past: real persons and real groups of people (e.g. Janusz Korczak by Mirosław Smorczewski, 1982; Monument to Children-Victims of the Holocaust by Jacek Eisner, 1993, both in Jewish Cemetery) or a real physical place. Appealing to historic truth and authenticity requires different artistic means; it takes less space and material, and it operates on a particular concept.

A good example of clinging to the authenticity of the place is the urban monument called The Route of Memory, Struggle and Martyrdom 1940-1943 (Zbigniew Gąsior, Stanisław Jankowski, Marek Moderau). The route links The Heroes of the Ghetto memorial with the later  Wall-Monument of Umschlagplatz. In a spacial network of signs – simple blocks of syenite covered with inscriptions describing people, places and events – guiding visitors through the historic sites and events in the area of Umschlagplatz. One of the blocks stands in the front of the tomb-mound of Mordechai Anielewicz, in the place where he died. The Route of Memory is an excellent example of memory today taking a middle road. It protects from oblivion physical traces in space and spatially located recollections, yet at the same time it is written into a symbolic dialogue with the monuments it connects. The dialogue seems unavoidable; the last stop of the Route is Umschlagplatz.

In the historical perspective, Umschlagplatz is one of the most important sites in Muranów. It was the waiting area for people about to leave the Ghetto; the adjacent railway siding was where they boarded trains that took them straight to Auschwitz. Commemorating the spot today is the Wall-Monument of Umschlagplatz (Hanna Szmalenberg, Władysław Klamerus, 1988). It creates a very special place, being on one hand a fairly accurate marker of an authentic historic place, and on the other being incorporated into a busy everyday cityscape. Standing as it does at the edge of a sidewalk, it is deprived of its own space and background; its monumentality is about to perceive. The specific contextual location of the monument became its most appealing feature; the key idea of the design was to let “the physical space speak for itself”. The monument evokes the physical traces of the Past (a fragment of the original paving has been preserved, as well as the adjoyining school-building), but it does so in a fairly abstract manner. The apparent aim of the designers was to create the place for memory, and this they achieved by introducing a clear and compact physical frame. The place was also intended to interplay with the daily life of the city, and it is this interplay that occasionally poses a serious challenge for the collective memory of Muranów residents today. Protecting a place for contemplation requires more than a symbolic wall. City life with its typical oblivion has a way of imposing itself, here and elswhere, but the daily routine is interrupted from time to time by the coming of Jewish pilgrims.


Apart from the official kind of memory variously manifested in the physical urban space (monuments, commemorating plaques, street names etc.). there is to my mind a memory that is represented in the architecture itself. Urban architecture (“the architecture of the city”) refers to a collection of particular urban artifacts and their individual expression, as well as to the general scheme – the urban play that generates most of the urban changes. And thus the architecture of the city is not only the carrier of people`s memory, but also a giver of the memory, an anonymous archive waiting ready to be discovered.

Crossing streets

In the spatial sense, the uniform and monotonous form of new Muranów is a place of historic conflict, a conflict that is noticeable only when one looks at the space as a palimpsest of traces, crossing old and new streets and squares.

The space of present-day Muranów is deceptive. The street network is deceptive. Some new streets follow the course of old ones, but have changed their name (e.g. former Leszno Street, now Solidarności Avenue). Some streets are like their old namesakes in form and direction, but somewhat displaced topographically (e.g. Biała Street). One of main streets of pre-war Muranów, Nalewki Street, underwent perhaps the most complicated modifications. It used to be the most characteristic street in the area, lined with tenement houses, teeming with shops and other commercial functions; now, is a fairly unimportant back-street running through a multifamily housing complex. Both its location and direction have changed, and it has lost all of its pre-war character. The only surviving fragment of the original Nalewki Street bears a different name and terminates abruptly in the middle of an open green area surrounding the Krasiński Gardens.

The Ghetto Wall

The wall which had closed off the ghetto district is mostly gone, but a series of intriguing traces remain to mark its course. In a few spots the wall itself can still be seen in absolute concrete form. The fragment dividing a courtyard between two houses has been described and commemorated. Another fragment stands in the middle of a complex of modern apartment buildings, practically leaning against the garage. The only commentary in this isolated environment is provided by the grafitti on it. The interpretation of this physical trace of the Ghetto wall depends on speculation alone.

A less literal but just tangible place of the dividing wall is the quality of the architecture on either side, commented on already before the war (Polish writer Stefan Żeromski criticized the poor quality of Jewish architecture in pre-war Muranów, comparing it to the “colourful, Polish, stylish Old Town”. Propagandist texts from the late 1940s also emphasized the difference between parts of the town worth rebuilding and the dead forms that were to be replaced by new architecture. The effect of this strategy applied to building reconstruction practice in Warsaw may be observed along the non-existent border that once separated the Ghetto from the Old Town (i.e. Koźla Street).

Even less concrete but physical evidence of the Ghetto Wall can be traced in Muranów landscape itself. Since the new Muranów was built on a thick layer of rubble from the Ghetto, the leveling of this rubble had to reflect to a considerable extent the urban layout of the pre-war district. Hence, urban history can be read also from the shape of the terrain, especially in the border areas. The voids left after the demolition of the wall and neighbouring buildings are the last physical trace of the “closed district”. Such an empty space now surrounds the Court Building (in Solidarności Avenue) which survived the destruction of the Ghetto. Its historic surroundings have disappeared, leaving a telling void.

The missing pieces

The missing Muranów is experienced just as acutely, both as a missing spatial link and as a figure of absence. Buildings have vanished, roads end in nowhere, whole streets and squares are no more. The new architecture has accepted this in a curiously facile way. The former Muranowski Square, once the main square of the district and a hub of the urban transportation system, is just such a vanished space. A dull space between apartment buildings, it reveals absolutely no link with the past. There is nothing to speak for the former square which survives only in historical maps and photographs.

The figure of absence is represented by the dominant experience of contradiction, a delusive feeling that the new town lacks historical context, that its beginning is rooted in an enigmatic tabula rasa of post-war socialist building. The sensation of contradiction is reinforced by the nearby presence of the Old Town. The recent past of the district and the historic explanation of the difference between these parts of the city naturally justify the present situation. Yet it was the physical void created in the urban fabric by the intentional destruction of the Ghetto that prompted the decision to build over rather than rebuild. The propagandist and architectural idea of Muranów, put into life, confirmed the existence of a historic void, but has not replaced it in any way. The post-war estate with its uniform architecture replacing the original, colourful and individualistic buildings is not a “flourishing” place. The traditional “living” atmosphere of Muranów with its specific shops, restaurants and meeting places has been vanished and nothing comparable has been created in its stead. It is almost as if the new town was mourning the dead one. There is sadness in the space; no colors. no smile, just serious, rational building for “well-designed” people. The sadness is there despite planned and organised space, despite new people in the streets. It is being given an urban explanation by newly erected monuments and by people coming to Muranów from a different reality. Their presence is a kind of supplement to the absence of the original inhabitants.

Urban architecture and people are an inseparable set. Even in Warsaw, which on the whole suffered extensive wartime destruction, Muranów is exeptional, having been deprived not only of its architecture, but also of its inhabitants – forever. Their absence is the strongest sign of the city`s death. Life in present-day Muranów is gradually being reborn; lacking social support, it stumbles against the absence. The figure of absence that overwhelms the new district is not a missing element or an empty space to fill in. It is rather some value, some vision that could become central to the existence of this town. Not a vision based on a dream, but experienced contextual architecture which can be, paradoxically, based on oblivion.

Angelika Lasiewicz-Sych. All rights reserved.