The local.history funding program enables the EVZ Foundation to support local and regional history initiatives in Central and Eastern Europe. Where are the gaps in our cultures of remembrance and the forgotten places of Nationalist Socialist history? Sponsors from Poland report.
The local.history funding program enables the EVZ Foundation to support local and regional history initiatives in Central and Eastern Europe. The idea behind it: A contemporary critical examination of National Socialist history by involving stakeholders and the local population. In this way, contemporary references from experiences with antisemitism, racism or discrimination are to be made and the basic democratic attitude is to be strengthened. The MEMO Study also suggests a connection between local approaches and knowledge about the National Socialist era.
With its annual theme #WatchOutHstry, the EVZ Foundation is looking at the following questions: What opportunities do local history offer – and where are the pitfalls? Where are the gaps in our cultures of remembrance and the forgotten places of Nationalist Socialist history? Sponsors from Poland give their insights.
Hardly anyone knows as well as Emil Majuk that history in Poland is never simply "just" history. For about 15 years, the chairman of the Panorama of Cultures Association (Stowarzyszenie Panorama Kultur) has been collecting the memories of the local population in and around Wojsławice, a village in southeastern Poland near the Ukrainian border. For the project "The Development of a Local Social Archive and an Exhibition: Multiple Memories of World War II and its Aftermath in the Municipality of Wojsławice, Poland," funded by the EVZ Foundation, he and his colleague Paulina Kowalczyk spent more than two years interviewing historical eyewitnesses and relatives from Wojsławice, collecting maps, documents, and photographs, and having sources translated.
From this vast inventory of memories, an exhibition and an online archive have been created to show the complex dynamics within a multicultural and multi-religious region during World War II. "I was wondering how to develop the existing local history activities in Wojsławice and at the same time gain the acceptance of the local population", says Emil Majuk about the project concept.
Wojsławice is a village with a "culturally very rich pre-war history," as Emil Majuk says. Before the terror of the German occupation and the dynamics of World War II turned neighbors into enemies and destroyed the local structures of the city, Ukrainians, Poles and Jews lived here shoulder to shoulder.
The city has partially preserved its cultural heritage: historical and cultural activities are part of the program of the small town. One could say that the inhabitants of Wojsławice were not too surprised by another local history project.
But while the municipality cultivates a "multi-perspective mindset," according to Emil Majuk, working on this project was tricky: "The history of World War II is a sensitive topic in Poland. Many people have been traumatized for generations. Our project was difficult because it touches on local stories and crimes in a wartime context. We have a lot of conflicting points of view and memories about the events of that time," says the political scientist and cultural expert.
The history of the borderlands, to which Wojsławice belongs, is by definition different from the "national" history or what is taught in history classes. It involved many stakeholders with different perspectives and interests, and touched on difficult issues: Holocaust, ethnic cleansing, Polish-Ukrainian relations.
But it is precisely in this complexity that Emil Majuk sees the strengths of local history approaches: "Local history is very complicated and cannot be perceived in black and white terms. But by looking at local (family) stories, personal motivations and attitudes can be better understood and commonalities can be identified. That also emphasizes our project."
The dissonances that emanate from the chorus of such different voices are to be resolved in the exhibition concept: The focus should be on shared experiences and emotions, and family stories should also be in the foreground.
Emil Majuk knows how sensitive the issue is: "At the moment, relations between Ukrainians and Poles are very good. We didn't want to destroy the good relationship with the exhibition." The original plan was to include even more Ukrainian voices, but the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, made that impossible.
Nevertheless, one can see how much has been done: The history of Wojsławice is now enriched by more than 100 testimonies – and thus by perspectives and stories.
Results: The exhibition opens in mid-February in the former synagogue in the heart of the village. Today the museum of local history is located there, with a permanent exhibition of local history, in the design of which Emil Majuk was also involved. The online archive is already available for free here. In addition, several local city guides have been trained.
Challenges: In addition to the sensitivity required by a multi-perspective story, the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine in February 2022 had a significant impact on the project with its Ukrainian project partners. The project partners in Ukraine were supported with project funding and additional EVZ funds.
Project Duration: 2021 to 2023
Nowy Sącz is a city in southern Poland with a population of about 84,000 that welcomes visitors with its rich history and historic Old Town. A walk through the town leads from the Jewish cemetery, past meadows along the Dunajec River, through the former market square to the Town Hall with its tower clock visible from afar.
What is unknown: all these historical sites are silent witnesses of crimes and resistance during World War II. Dr. Maria Molenda and Maciej Walasek from the Nomina Rosae Ogród Kultury Dawnej Foundation have made the stories behind these facades visible in their project "WarTime Nowy Sącz", which was funded by the EVZ Foundation: In two years of intensive work they reconstructed a detailed history of Nowy Sącz under the German occupation and made their findings available to the public on a website.
"There were already a few researchers who had studied the history of the city under German occupation and published their findings," says Maciej Walasek, explaining the idea behind the project. "But there was no place where all this information was collected and displayed. We wanted to create this place."
Thanks to a digital map, visitors can now explore Nowy Sącz in nine themed city tours and learn about topics such as "Cultural Life in Occupied Nowy Sącz," "Terror," or "Labor Camps in the Nowy Sącz Region". In addition, the website offers specialist articles, source material, curricula, numerous archival photos, biographies, a podcast and movies about the lives of three women from Nowy Sącz.
After the premiere and the presentation of the project, Maciej Walasek and Maria Molenda received more sources from people in the local community – for example, from Monika Ślepiak, who tells the story of her mother in one of the movies. "After the movie premiere, Monika started looking for more of her mother's documents. Before that, she had been too emotionally blocked to do so," says Maria Molenda. Now a copy of her mother's diary is in the Foundation's possession.
Teachers also use the materials in their classrooms. "They tell us that their schoolchildren perceive the city differently. One class discovered during the project that their school was once the site of a Polish police school," says Maria Molenda. Today, the school is part of the tour "Education in occupied Nowy Sącz".
Is that what local history is all about? "We agree that learning about local history promotes interest in history, especially among schoolchildren," says Maciej Walasek. It makes a difference, he says, whether a young person learns about a battle that may have been important but was fought far away, or whether the building they are sitting in now once had a completely different significance.
However, youth outreach is not always easy. "Sometimes I had to work really hard to get people interested in the subject," says Maria Molenda of her work with school classes. But gaining the interest and trust of the local population can also be exhausting and tedious.
It also becomes difficult when the results contradict the national narrative of history. "There is a certain narrative of history in Poland that has developed in a clear direction in the last 10, 20 years. It is difficult to say or publish anything that is not in line with that," says Maciej Walasek.
According to Maria Molenda, the competition between local, regional, and national history and its institutions has also created a competitive situation among cultural institutions, whose ambitions have not always made historical work easy. The duo is undeterred: "When we finished the project, we realized that this was just the beginning. We found things during our work that we didn't expect at the beginning," says Maciej Walasek. Maria Molenda agrees: "Thanks to the funding from the EVZ Foundation, we were able to successfully implement our project – and continue to grow it."
The Idea: "Wartime Nowy Sącz" is based on the preparatory work for the 2016 exhibition „Everyday Life under Occupation Nowy Sącz 1939–1945“, which it has transformed and expanded. Unlike in Warsaw, for example, where it is possible to trace the former course of the Warsaw Ghetto within the city, these traces do not exist in Nowy Sącz. With the digital map, these places can now be found and explored.
Outlook: The website content is largely based on private collections. In the future, the Nomina Rosae Foundation hopes to expand it and collect even more stories and sources. In any case, the feedback after the movie premiere and the project presentation gives reason to hope that this is just the beginning.
Project Duration: 2021 to 2023
The vibrant Polish city of Łódź proudly boasts the name "Manchester of Poland". It refers to Łódź's rise in the 19th century to become one of the most important textile centers in Europe, the legacy of which Łódź upholds today with its cultural offerings.
Hardly any other institution could tell the stories of Poland's textile history better than the Central Museum of Textiles in Łódź (Centralne Muzeum Wlókiennictwa w Łodzi), symbolically located in the "White Factory". The museum is known for its exhibitions that look at textiles from a variety of perspectives. The "Helena Bohle-Szacka Diffusion" project, funded by the EVZ Foundation, has enabled the Museum to successfully create an extraordinary multidisciplinary exhibition. It combines Nationalist Socialist history with contemporary misanthropy, aesthetics with horror, despair with joie de vivre. And it is a warning of current developments in the guise of fashion.
The project revolves around the biography of Helena Bohle-Szacka (1928-2011), a flamboyant Polish fashion designer with German-Jewish roots, whose life and work are intricately linked to Białystok, Łódź, Warsaw and Berlin. During World War II, she was interned in the Ravensbrück and Helmbrechts concentration camps.
"Helena Bohle-Szacka was a forced laborer and survived two concentration camps. But she was also a great fashion designer, philanthropist, activist, teacher and artist who lived a life full of fun, art and parties," explains Marcin Różyc, curator of the exhibition. "But I didn't just want to talk about history, I also wanted to capture the voices of contemporary artists from different communities and have them talk about their own experiences. So we invited artists from the Roma and LGBTQ+ communities from Belarus and Ukraine, to participate in the project."
Drawing on the extensive collection of the Sleńdziński Gallery in Bialystok, a partner in the project and Helena's birthplace, artists from various disciplines analyzed and interpreted the designer's life and work, interweaving them with their own questions.
The "Good Policeman" is a good example of what this looks like in practice. It is a pink uniform with an accompanying textile gun, designed by the Belarusian designer Tasha Katsuba. Behind the harmless and cheerful looking "Good Policeman" is a reference to the protests in Belarus in 2020, which were brutally suppressed by the state power.
Ukrainian artist Yaroslava Khomenko destroyed part of the design during a tour of the exhibition to draw attention to Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine. Based on Helena's personality and biography, she also designed an outfit from worn out old clothes.
Fashion and aesthetics alongside forced labor and war – how does the audience react to this connection? "The response from visitors has been very positive. Sometimes they are shocked that we use beautiful clothes and fashion in the exhibition to talk about the Holocaust and concentration camps," says Marcin Różyc. He says this is especially true in Germany, where commemoration of the Holocaust and World War II is more traditional. In Poland, on the other hand, says the curator and journalist, it is easier to mix these things up. Why is that?
"Contemporary art, theater and fashion in Poland are strongly linked to history," says Marcin Różyc – and thus to a hotly contested political issue that plays a special role in Poland. "A right-wing government is currently in power in Poland, and it is spreading a false image of history. Many people and activists in Poland are fighting this using art". Culture and art as a weapon in the fight for freedom has a tradition in Poland and was already used during communism. And today, the country is once again fighting over the dominant historical narrative, freedoms and the right to interpret national symbols.
Marcin Różyc sees a special role for local history approaches, which, thanks to the work of activists and the local population, continue to develop and deconstruct historical narratives one by one. One example of the interest in local history is Białystok. Helena's birthplace, which before World War II had been characterized by Jewish, Belarusian, Russian, Polish, and German influences, was virtually depopulated after the war. "Białystok was a completely different city after the war," states Marcin Różyc. "People today want to know more about the history of this city. The story of Helena was also almost forgotten. But thanks to the project, there are now more and more events about her life," and so work is already underway on the next exhibition: In Helmbrechts, where Helena Bohle-Szacka was interned as a forced laborer in a concentration camp, her story will be told next year.
About Helena Bohle-Szacka: Helena Bohle-Szacka was born in Białystok on February 27, 1928. In 1944, the Polish woman with German-Jewish roots was sent to the Ravensbrück and Helmbrechts concentration camps, where she was subjected to forced labor. After the war, she studied at the Academy of Fine Art in Łódź, where she contributed to the post-war clothing industry as a designer. In the 1960s, she was the head of the large Polish fashion house "Telimena" in Łódź and later "Leda" in Warsaw. In 1968, she moved to West Berlin where she worked as a teacher, designed fashion and books and worked as an art curator. She died on August 21, 2011, in Berlin.
Results and Outlook: In addition to the exhibition, the project organizers conducted workshops in several cities (Warsaw, Supraśl, Berlin, Tarnów, and Kraków), created an online tour and produced informative documents. People interested in Helena Bohle-Szacka's life can learn more about her on a website. The project results also include five contemporary artworks. The exhibition in Łódź (October 2021 to July 2022) attracted a total of 78,820 visitors. Currently, it can be seen in Białystok until March 5. Another exhibition is being planned at the Upper Franconian Textile Museum Helmbrechts, where Helena Bohle-Szacka was interned as a forced laborer in a concentration camp.
Project Duration: 2021 to 2022
Author: Maria Krell, freelance journalist