‘Death camp dog tours aim to return victims’ dignity and open dialogue’ says Kraków Jewish group
A Kraków-based NGO has launched a series of curated discussions on Jewish burial law and customs taking place during a guided walk with local residents and their dogs, around the former area of KL Plaszow concentration camp.
Organized by FestivALT, an independent Jewish arts collective, the initiative was successfully piloted at the start of the year and now three more events are planned to take place this weekend and then later in the summer.
Titled Żyd, Sąsiad i Pies (Jew, Neighbour and Dog), the free two-hour tours have sought to open dialogue with local residents whilst simultaneously educating them as to how to use the site in a way that is respectful of Jewish burial laws.
First established in October 1942 by the Nazis, KL Plaszow was built on two Jewish cemeteries and grew to cover a total of 80 hectares. At its peak, approximately 25,000 prisoners were interred there – the majority of which were Polish Jews.
Although no mass extermination facilities existed, the camp gained notoriety for its brutality and grim conditions. It is commonly thought that between five to eight thousand people died there as a result of starvation, disease and arbitrary executions.
Often carried out on a nearby hill by the name of Hujowa Górka, shootings became one of the most common causes of death – as the war neared its end, it is said that seventeen truckloads of human ash were exhumed from the site in a desperate bid to obliterate all traces of war crimes.
However, despite its copious history and its location within Kraków’s boundaries, the site has traditionally struggled to attract attention outside its immediate environs. This stands to change with the future opening of a museum and exhibition centre, but for the time being the subject of how the site should be commemorated has often been met with apathy and muddled thinking.
Speaking to TFN, Magda Rubenfeld, co-director of FestivALT, said: “This is definitely not a traditional commemoration site because for many decades until very recently little has been done at KL Plaszow. Awareness of this history is minimal – even among Krakovians – and the city have continued to issue building permits on part of the site, so that what we now actually commemorate is only about half of the actual site.”
With swathes of the site swallowed by supermarkets, McDonald’s and other modern day developments, other sections have simply been left to the carefree hand of nature.
“We think the site needs a tailor-made approach,” says Rubenfeld, “and there’s a lot of ongoing work to raise consciousness of it – after all, how can people treat the area as it deserves if they don’t even know its significance.”
Involved with the site since 2017, FestivALT have done much to increase Płaszów’s public profile though it is their latest initiative that is arguably the most creative. Though traditional activities have also been organized in recent years by activists and academics, and most recently the newly established chapter of the Museum of Krakow - The KL Plaszow Memory Museum.
“Lots of people walk their dogs here,” says Rubenfeld, “from our point of view if it’s not against Jewish law, we should be looking for ways to create a peaceful co-existence of this site and the local residents.”
First premiering in January, the opening walk was not widely publicized but still warmly received by curious local residents – and their family dogs.
Led by Aleksander Schwarz, an expert of the Rabinic Commission for Jewish Cemeteries in Poland, dealing with Jewish burial laws and customs, the tour takes in the key sights of KL Plaszow with walkers also issued with headsets so as to allow dog owners to walk comfortably together and with safe distance.
By increasing knowledge as to where people were once buried, these walks will allow the site’s visitors to treat it in a more respectful way by not treading over graves.
Moreover, FestivALT have been keen to bridge relationships between locals and the Jewish community.
“We invite discussion on these walks,” says Rubenfeld. “We really want people to think about what the site can become and to think how to join its wartime history to its post-war role.”
For years now the site has been the topic of fierce debate with many locals expressing fears that this space will become another tourist attraction and become flooded with tourists, leading to its degradation and limiting residents’ access. Finding a middle ground, says Rubenfeld, is key.
“We’ve come to realize that for commemoration to be successful we need strong strategies that involve the locals. A lot of them also care deeply for the site, and I think all sides need to compromise a little to find a way that everyone can use the area in a manner that respects the past.”
Adding markers to delineate the now dismantled cemeteries and mass graves is one step that Rubenfeld is keen to promote, though as things stand the future of Płaszów remains murky.
“We know there will be plaques, we know there will be a museum, and we know there will be two permanent exhibitions,” says Rubenfeld, “but an actual plan for what remains of the area of the camp has not yet been determined. My hope is that whatever happens next will be a result of a participatory process that engages the community.”
Underlining the area’s unique position as a place of memory and a place of leisure, according to Rubenfeld the two functions should not be mutually exclusive.
“We could choose to simply put up somber markers and signposts,” she says, “but personally I feel that we can make this a site of living memory by introducing more events such as these alternative walks, lectures or other artistic and educational practices. Doing so, we can cultivate a tangible culture of memory.”