Fascinating history of Uprising plaques scattered across Warsaw and of the man who designed them
There are more than 200 of them and each bears the words: “A place sanctified by the blood of Poles killed for the freedom of their homeland”.
They sit silently on walls and in parks silently bearing witness to the crimes they commemorate.
People bustle past them every day as they go about their business, though there is perhaps no-one in the city who doesn’t know very well that these plaques mark the places where Poles died because they were Polish.
Known colloquially as the Tchorek plaques after the artist who designed them, they mark the places in and around Warsaw where predominantly Poles, but also Jews and Soviet prisoners of war, were shot, hanged or burned by the Germans during the brutal occupation of the city in World War II.
These poignantly simple sandstone plaques have been an unbroken link with the past for several generations and this year marks 70 years since Karol Tchorek’s design was chosen.
It is impossible to walk any distance through the city and not come across one of these grey plaques. Each of them commemorates an individual tragedy. Below the main inscription engraved on a shield placed on Maltese Cross, brief details are given of each German crime. The names of the victims are not given, there are simply too many, just the number of those killed and often the method used by the murderers.
Typical in its brevity is the plaque at Emili Plater 15, which reads: “On 1 August 1944, the Hitlerites shot 9 Poles”. Even more enigmatic is a plaque near the New Town market square, which informs, “Here on 29 August 1944 the Hitlerites carried out a murder of the civilian population”.
The street with the dark distinction of having the most plaques is Wolska, where the Germans and their willing helpers went on a killing rampage at the beginning of the Uprising. Among the thirteen plaques, one reads: “Here from 5th to 12th August 1944 in mass executions of the civilian population the Hitlerites shot 12,000 Poles, among them patients and staff of the hospital on Płocka street”.
Today it is impossible to determine exactly how many sites of fighting and martyrdom have been commemorated over the last 70 years with monuments of this type.
Along with the reconstruction of the city, some of these plaques were destroyed. The remaining ones, which have survived to this day, show signs of the passage of time. Some of the carved inscriptions contain factual or linguistic errors.
In a few cases, commemorating the murder of Jews or Soviet POWs, the plaques have a deliberately different appearance. There is no Christian cross, and in the foreground are the laconic words: “Honour to their memory”.
After the end of the German occupation of Warsaw in January 1945, residents returning to the ruined city spontaneously commemorated places where battles and executions had occurred during the occupation and the Warsaw Uprising, placing crosses and makeshift plaques at these sites.
After some time, the authorities of the nascent People's Poland decided to give these commemorative signs a more official and organized character. The task of marking the memorial sites was entrusted to the Citizen's Committee for the Protection of Monuments of Struggle and Martyrdom.
In 1948, a nationwide competition for the design of the new plaques was announced. A year later, the first prize went to the Warsaw sculptor Karol Tchorek. His design was chosen for its simplicity, ease of reproduction and because the central inscription skilfully integrated with the symbol of the Maltese cross.
From the 1950s, Tchorek’s plaques were put up all over Warsaw and in nearby towns. The last plaques were installed as late as the mid-1980s.
Over time, the text describing the crimes evolved. Notable is the use of the word ‘Hitlerite’ to describe the perpetrators, which rings falsely in people’s ears today and has even led to calls from politicians to chisel out the offending word and replace with the more general ‘German’. Hitlerite was favoured in the 1950s as it removed responsibility for war-time crimes from the citizens of the German Democratic Republic, with which communist Poland was cultivating friendly relations.
Also problematic for the authorities was how to refer to the Uprising, the commanders of which, according to the communist narrative, were traitors. Some plaques solved this by only referring only to ‘Insurgents’ or an ‘Insurgent hospital’, and the term ‘Warsaw Uprising’ only appeared on a plaque after the post-Stalin thaw in 1957.
The main inscription also changed over time at the whim of the authorities, which became a source of conflict between Tchorek and the communist bureaucracy. In 1968, he took the Visual Arts Workshop to court over copyright and remuneration for the lettering of over 80 plaques and the case was settled in his favour.
For Varsovians, the name Tchorek is associated almost exclusively with his eponymous remembrance plaques. Yet, many will be familiar with one of his other works, the chiselled socialist-realist relief sculpture of a mother with her baby that adorns one of the buildings that make up the MDM complex around Constitution square.
There is perhaps no other city in the world that has a system of remembrance plaques that is so widespread, coherent and moving than the one that Karol Tchorek designed 70 years ago. They have become an integral feature of the city’s streets and parks, and their dignified simplicity reflects perfectly the sombre, respectful reverence that the city has for those who died for it with honour.