Together with the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, the City of Krakow will co-found an important new museum incorporating the site of a II World War labour and concentration camp set up and operated by the German Nazi occupiers (1942-1945). While the establishment of this museum may come as a surprise to many (given how much time has passed since the camp was liquidated, when its notorious creators tried to bury any proof of their inhuman activity), a wise implementation of this initiative will likely have a positive impact on a lot more than a list of Krakow’s museums becoming a little longer.

Even though the site in question has since been known by survivors, historians, relatives of the victims and the local residents as the original location of KL Plaszow, for a variety of reasons it has largely been left intact since, with a notable exception of a few symbols and information boards scattered here and there, informing visitors about what happened here and commemorating the victims of the atrocities. There’s also the powerfully evocative monument dedicated to the victims of fascism (1964), envisioned by the architect, Witold Cęckiewicz and carved in limestone by Ryszard Szczypiński.

The time has finally come to…

In June 2020, a letter of intent was signed by the Mayor of Krakow and the Minister of Culture and National Heritage preceding the establishment of an entirely new museum. Yesterday, a draft resolution giving life to a new cultural institution (Muzeum – Miejsce Pamięci KL Plaszow w Krakowie) was presented before Krakow’s City Council (first reading). It looks like things are finally starting to move in the right direction, at a pace that should see the completion of the project in the next few years. It is fair to say, perhaps, that enough time has finally passed for all key decision-makers to realize that what happened in KL Plaszow should serve as a warning for generations to come.

An island of greenery hiding a dark story

From bird’s eye view especially, the site of the original KL Plaszow is now predominantly a large stretch of greenery, surrounded by sprawling urban development, with countless blocks of flats, shopping centers and transport infrastructure dominating the horizon. Deep in the background (see the photo above) you can see Krakow’s Old Town area with the Wawel Royal Castle (top/middle).

The Monument for the Victims of Fascism (situated on the site of the former KL Plaszow)

When a subtle change creates a massive impact

The planned Museum will cover nearly 40 hectares of land. Its establishment will be preceded by a series of detailed analyses and consultations, some of which have already been completed. Following the recent social consultations, the Museum’s development plan has been updated to include the following guidelines (among others):

  • the existing greenery will be left largely intact,
  • access to the site will be open (and free of charge),
  • a set of regulations will be drafted to define the basic rules of how this space can and should be used.
  • a memorial building will be built close to the site, along with a parking lot for cars and (a small number of) buses.

A hidden symbol and its countless stories

At first sight, the photo below may look like a regular patch of greenery, surrounded by cliffs, with rusty remnants of some kind of limestone-processing past scattered here and there, but in reality, it’s so much more than that. Situated right next to the historical KL Plaszow site, back in early 1940s, it was turned by the German Nazi occupiers into a labour camp for (mostly) Poles and Ukrainians.

A few decades later, when Steven Spielberg’s crew came to Krakow to shoot the iconic Schinler’s List on location, the site was chosen for the recreation of the original KL Plaszow camp. Remember one of the film’s most memorable scenes when a car drives along a camp road made of Jewish tombstones? You can still see what’s left of this road right in the middle of the photograph below. The tombstones used in the film were not real, of course. They were cast for the purposes of the film.

A few months ago I came across a group of Englishmen exploring the site as part of their stag-party experience. When we met, in an empty lane right in the centre of the photograph, a short, enthusiastic conversation started. It became clear to me that all of them were convinced that the steel constructions they were trying to climb for fun were put here by Steven Spielberg’s crew and the place itself had no historical significance as such. This made me wonder:

  1. How (and what) did they learn about this place?
  2. How did they discover the access points (there aren’t that many and the entire site is surrounded by cliffs on all sides, except one, but there are no signposts or clear pathways easily to be found)

More interestingly still, how is it even possible, that whenever I ask someone living in Krakow (for years and generations) if they have ever been there, the answer is usually ‘no’. And just about every time I’m close to the site, I come across Spanish, German, French or English tourists. When it comes to locals, the place is perhaps most popular among youngsters meeting in groups after school. I should hope there’s more to why they choose this place than silence and seclusion, but given how little has been done to reach this audience (with contemporary awareness-raising content and educational activity) I would be surprised if many of them really understood it’s so much more than a beautiful, if somewhat haunting spot.

The site of the former Liban Family Quarry (used in 1993 as a film set for Schindler’s List)

Ask a Krakowian and he/she might (not be able to) tell you

One might ask another question at this stage: how much is ‘enough’ considering dozens of possible ways for commemorating a place of such historical importance? Is it ‘enough’ to build a monument or two along with an information board accompanied by a book scheduled for publication, or should one try and reconstruct the original concentration camp instead, to give all prospective visitors a much better idea of how the actual war crimes perpetrated here were first conceived and then put into practice, step by step?

Similarly, if a film as powerfully evocative and as historically important as Schindler’s List is shot on location in a place like this, should the place be then left intact for the following 25 years or should someone have done something about it long, long time ago? While the answer to this question may already seem quite clear to many, let me also ask you this: if, in a city like Dubrovnik, some of the most popular tourist routes include the film-sets for Game of Thrones, what does it say about Krakow, if a location of a film-set as important as Schindler’s List, released a quarter of a century ago in cinemas worldwide, is literally left to rot for decades? This is not to say that the former Liban Quarry should necessarily have been turned into (yet another) museum decades ago, but “abandoning” this site like this is, in my humble opinion, one of Krakow’s  single biggest and most glaring failures as a city that has otherwise been visionary in many areas of its development.

And yes, there is a simple test for much of the above: ask a random group of Krakowians in the street if they can show you the way to where the camp scenes in Schindler’s List were originally shot by Steven Spielberg’s crew back in 1993 and I’m quite sure more than 75% of your respondents will not be able to tell you.

With the formal establishment of the new KL Plaszow museum (Muzeum – Miejsce Pamięci KL Plaszow w Krakowie), chances are that many of Krakow’s most important stories will be retold and reimagined in ways that they have long deserved but never really given justice to.

Contemporary museums and the power of human curiosity

It is somewhat ironic, perhaps, that to learn about the story of KL Plaszow (or the labour camp site used by Steven Spielberg as a film set), a prospective visitor will probably be better served going for a simple YouTube search and watching many of its spontaneous, amateur video recordings shot on site, rather than trying to find a proper, historical treatment of the story, available online, in English.

This is one of the reasons why, whoever decides on the ultimate shape and functions of the Museum about to be added to Krakow’s long list of already existing museums, should really first take a closer look at the countless stories and perspectives that have already been told by hundreds of people who, over the past two decades, were curious and motivated enough to find their way to the KL Plaszow site, as well as its neighboring limestone quarry, with cameras, recorders and microphones. If for no other reason, some of the footage they have created over the years has important historical value, if only to illustrate how we have all allowed these places to be forgotten and abandoned by many a guardian of historical memory. This is why, yesterday’s meeting of Krakow’s City Council may prove far more important in its long term consequences than many would be prepared to acknowledge today.

Of all the blogposts, vlogs and historical documents I have come across (online), referencing the Liban Quarry, let me share with you just one, made five years ago by a visitor. If this doesn’t stir your imagination just a little bit, probably nothing ever will.

KL Plaszow Memorial (for the victims of fascism)

Last but not least, if the future KL Plaszow Museum is to ever come close to giving justice to how the memory of the victims could be preserved, it should really take into account the following: as much information as possible should be made as easily accessible as possible (online!) and presented in ways which correspond with different reader/visitor needs and perspectives, all the way from in-depth research papers, books and reports, through spontaneous blogger/vlogger accounts over the years and comprehensive photo/video archives.