NEW WORKS RECENTLY UNVEILED IN POLAND BY THE ARTIST OLEK
On November 8, 2016, a day after the U.S. Presidential election, we started seeing increasing signs of Neo-Nazism throughout the United State of America, including New York City. I have seen a swastika carved on a New York City subway seat and people reading about Hitler. Students have been caught performing the Heil Hitler salute, and recently a Caucasian man, who intended to kill as many African Americans as possible, traveled to Manhattan and stabbed an African American man to death. These are just a few examples of the rise of hateful acts transpiring across the United States.
Playing into the fears that many American citizens had expressed in the months leading up to the election, the 45th President of the United States of America attempted to initiate a travel ban affecting citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. The proposed ban wreaked havoc and highlighted the divide between us and “Them”. Parallels have been drawn between the ban and the ethnic-cleansing of Nazi Germany.
In a March 2017 talk at the MIT Center for International Studies, Professor Noam Chomsky described a similar situation in Europe. “Those who think it’s better in Europe can turn to a recent poll showing that a majority of Europeans want a total ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries. So, the idea is, first we destroy them, then we punish them for trying to escape from the ruins that we’ve created. We have a name for it, we call it a “refugee crisis.” Well, thousands of people, desperate people, drown in the Mediterranean fleeing from Africa, where Europe has a certain history with which you are not unfamiliar. The same is true of the United States and Central America, of course, and the Middle East. In fact, though, this so-called refugee crisis is actually a serious, severe moral and cultural crisis in the West.”
All of these unfortunate and devastating actions led me back to Kraków, a place with its own history of hatred during War World II.
During the war, Nazis forced Jews out of their homes, and ordered them to move their belongings to the nearby squares and organized the belongings into categories. The recently renamed “Ghetto Heroes Square” served as a final dumping ground for the chairs. The objects were transported to Germany, and the Jewish communities were put on trains to concentration camps.
In 2005, the City of Kakow decided to refurbish the square and commissioned sculptor Karol Badyna to create a series of chairs in bronze in order to remind visitors of the abandoned piles of belongings and the fates of their former owners, lives that never reached full bloom. The 33 metal chair monument commemorates and honors the city’s former inhabitants.
According to architect David Bravo Bordas “When over sixty years had passed, in 2005 the Kraków City Council decided to intervene on the square in order to explain its sinister past. Instead of installing a singular monument, the intervention set out to use the square itself as a channel for passing on the memory. And so, it was deliberately conceived as a poetic container which transformed the place into a sign of the past. “
“As the authors of the project explain, it was impossible to talk about that tragedy literally. Written documents, photographs, and direct testimonies of the survivors describe the history of the Ghetto as a succession of removals. In one photograph, we can see a line of children filing along the pavement, each carrying a chair on his head. In another a little girl carries her bundle between the legs of a chair with the back sticking up. The choice, then, was to tell the story of the place through the configuration of the urban space itself, so that the memory of the absent ones would be manifested through the presence of everyday objects which compose the urban furniture.”
My connection to Karol Badyna began in 2015, when I crocheted Karol’s sculpture of Jan Karski outside the Polish Consulate in New York. Jan Karski was a war hero, who had informed the world of the ongoing tragedy of the Poles and Jews dying in Nazi-German death camps during World War II. In April 2016, I met with Karol in Kraków, and he personally showed me his installation at the square, which is across the river from the Jewish Ghetto.
Now, in 2017, given the current political climate and growing trends of nationalism, it is imperative that we cultivate empathy and break down the barriers that separate us from one another. My intervention on the square is about recognizing that we share the same sense of home and of family as those most foreign to us, and that anyone can lose everything in the blink of an eye.
My mission is to remind as many people as possible that we must never forget the past so that history doesn’t repeat itself. Seventy years ago, many people did not react to the tragedy of Jews during the Holocaust, and today, many do not notice the tragedy of immigrants. In recent years, I have been working with refugees on many of my projects and their stories are beyond devastating. I seek to remind a generation that we cannot allow another massacre and all that goes with it to happen again.
For the last three weeks, in the middle of the Polish woods, I have been crocheting elements for all 33 of Karol Badyna’s chairs while my grandmother told me stories from War World II, which served as poignant points of reference for this project.
This temporary intervention aims to reminds us about the lives that never had a chance to fully bloom.
The installation in the Ghetto Heroes Square in Kraków was unveiled on April 26th, 2017.
Special Thanks to Karol Badyna for helping me with the project, for sewing with me, and for bringing his students from the Art Academy in Krakow; Iwona Demko; everyone who helped with the long hours of sewing in the harsh weather; Chrusia and Salomon; Anna Chmurka-Zielińska with son Tytus; Bartosz Banasik, who stayed with me until the end; and, of course, to my parents, who are so supportive of my intense ideas and without whose help and hard work this project would not have seen the light of day.
Thank you Sebastian Purfürst for the motivation and the last minute image correction.