Memory of Absence: Krakow’s Jewish Ghetto Memorial as Counter-Monument

  • Abstract:

    In 1992, scholar James Young published an article in Critical Inquiry examining the rise of the counter-monument in Germany as a memorialization strategy particularly suited to a country seeking to remember and honor the victims of its own national crimes. Although Young was particularly interested in vanishing monuments, such as the Harburg Monument against Fascism designed by Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev Gerz, his description of the characteristics of a successful counter-monument fits numerous Holocaust monuments and memorials erected not only in Germany but across Central and Eastern Europe in recent years. According to Young, the counter-monument provokes its viewers, demands interaction, has the possibility to change over time and insists that memory work be the burden of the viewer not of the monument itself. Krakow’s Jewish Ghetto Memorial, the so-called “empty chairs memorial,” was designed by architects Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak and inaugurated in 2005. The Ghetto Memorial both occupies and blends into the civic environment of Plac Bohaterow Getta and intentionally invites interaction from passersby who use the chairs while waiting for public transportation. Its design reflects the specificity of its site (through its allusion to furniture being piled in the Square prior to the deportation of the Jews) while also employing design strategies used in other contemporary memorials such as those to the 1995 bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and to the 9/11 terrorist attacks at the Pentagon in Washington, DC. This paper examines Krakow’s Jewish Ghetto Memorial as an example of a counter-monument and considers its impact on viewers and its efficacy as a public memorial space.