During World War II, Granary Island in the Polish port city of Gdansk was the site of a Jewish ghetto. Imprisonment in the Red Mouse granary was the last stop for thousands of people before they were transported to concentration camps in Stutthoff, Auschwitz and Treblinka. The building no longer exists. The place of death, suffering, and humiliation is now an empty square.
I was born in Gdansk, but I learned about the ghetto on Granary Island, a place in the very center of the city, only as a grownup. I immediately alerted the municipal authorities, who assured me that the site would be commemorated. Nothing has happened so far. There are plans and projects, but no real action. The area where the ghetto existed is now an empty lot with new luxury apartment blocks built literally next to it. Today, Granary Island is the most expensive address in all of Gdansk.
I worry that the empty piece of land left where the Red Mouse granary once stood may soon be filled with another luxury apartment building. I got Dorota Karas, a reporter and writer from Gdansk, interested in the subject of preserving the memory of the ghetto. I had already turned to her when, together with my friend Rafał Wojczal, I discovered hundreds of thousands of shoes scattered outside the fence of the museum erected at the site of the former Stutthof German Nazi concentration camp. The shoes – women’s, men’s, children’s – belonged to the victims and prisoners from the majority of the camps in Europe, including Auschwitz Birkenau. This was because Stutthof was a kind of repair center where shoes from other camps were brought.
Ultimately, the museum authorities were not interested in protecting these artifacts of genocide. It was only after many years of wrangling and numerous press alerts that most of the shoes were finally collected. But the head of the regional conservation office deemed them “rubbish” and it was decided to rebury the shoes, but this time within the museum grounds. Nevertheless, to this day, remnants of shoes belonging to the concentration camp’s victims can still be found in the nearby forest.
The price my family paid
For me, this long battle is a metaphor for memory, or, to be more precise, for some kind of tragic amnesia or suppression. It is personal: my grandfather and his sister went through Stutthof camp and paid an enormous price – he was haunted by trauma for the rest of his life and she suffered from mental illness. It is therefore natural for me now to work to protect the memory of this tragic place. I am not a moralist, as the third generation, I am simply trying to understand what happened in the past and what is increasingly happening around me now.
Dorota Karas wasn’t the only journalist who wrote about the shoes in the forest near the former German Nazi Stutthof camp. The alarm was sounded in articles published by The Guardian, The Times of Israel, and others. I am convinced that it was the journalistic pressure that prompted the museum authorities to take certain steps. Ultimately, as it turned out, the steps they took were aimed at covering up, not preserving the memory.
About two years ago I was walking around Granary Island and searched for a plaque commemorating the ghetto. I found nothing of the kind. Once again I asked Dorota Karas for help. She wrote a piece about the ghetto and its inhabitants. Her article, which explores the history and also reports on the failure to preserve the memory of Gdansk’s Jews, is still awaiting publication in one of Poland’s newspapers. The aim is not to point out mistakes, squabble with officials, prove moral superiority or hurl accusations of indifference or lack of sensitivity. It is about elementary matters – remembrance and warning. It is about the memory of people who were humiliated and murdered. It is about the victims, most of whom were citizens of Gdansk, which is also our city. The empty lot left after the ghetto could be the location of the Museum of the Jews of Gdansk.
The mission of remembrance
We are not architects, city planners or historians. We are simply calling for help in addressing the absence of any commemoration of the ghetto. We, and not the specialists, have taken up the mission of remembrance. The residents of Gdansk and the millions of tourists who visit the city every year should know about the hell that some people inflicted on other people in this place during World War II. We believe that publishing this appeal in the Times of Israel will remind the city of Gdansk of its obligation to its residents and will spur the authorities to take more effective action.
It has been more than three years now since Mayor Pawel Adamowicz was murdered in Gdansk. The tragedy was, in our opinion, a result of a media campaign of hatred directed against him. Hate is the keyword. Hate as well as searching for ways to combat hatred. One of them, in our opinion, is to look back and reflect on our tragic and dark history. It is our only chance for avoiding another escalation of violence.ADVERTISEMENT
We appeal to the authorities of the city of Gdansk to commemorate the ghetto. The memory of its inhabitants: drugstore owner Juliusz Lachmann, World War I veteran Oskar David, music teacher and theater lover Doris Lencner, along with thousands of other victims of this fateful place cannot be allowed to fade away. Today the Holocaust denial movements are growing stronger. Social polarization is deepening. All signs point to the bleak forecast that we are heading towards an unpredictable discharge of tensions and that Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine is not the end but a horrific beginning of a global storm of hatred. We believe that a simple gesture such as restoring the memory of the humiliated and murdered will honor the victims and will also help to counteract the escalation of hatred.
Grzegorz Kwiatkowski with Dorota Karas
Translation from Polish, Waldemar Slefarski