Archive for October, 2009

Out with One, Waiting for Another

Not too much to report on the trial of Radovan Karadžić in the Hague tribunal this week…considering he has yet to show up. The former Bosnian Serb leader is charged with 11 counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the 1992-95 war in which 100,000 people were killed and 2.2 million were forced from their homes.  Perhaps one last pathetic attempt to exercise some control over his life, Karadžić who is representing himself, asked in vain for a ten-month postponement to prepare his defense.  He plans to boycott his trial again on Monday, in which case he will be issued a lawyer for the hearing that could take 2 years to complete.

Meanwhile, Former Bosnian Serb leader Biljana Plavšić returned to Belgrade on Tuesday after being released by the United Nations war crimes tribunal.  Known for her extreme statements while in political office, she served only two-thirds of her 11-year sentence for crimes against Muslims and Croats during the war in Bosnia.  In 1992, a widely circulated photograph shows Plavšić in the Bosnian town of Bijeljina, elegantly dressed and literally stepping over dead bodies of Muslims to congratulate another Serbian leader for “cleansing” another village.  Plavšić is a well-educated woman, formerly a biology professor at the University of Sarajevo and a Fulbright Scholar to Cornell University.  During the war she often called the killing of Muslims a “natural thing”.

Although slightly ashamed to be a visitor, I went to the small town of Srebrenica in Bosnia this past summer.  As the largest mass murder since World War II, over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were massacred in the Srebrenica Genocide.  I walked through the place that triples as a graveyard, place for prayer, and a memorial that looks very similar in style to the Vietnam Wall in Washington, DC.  Names of victims are listed in alphabetical order, but I quickly noticed one striking difference- in Srebrenica, there are consecutive columns of the same family names.  Is this because they are common Muslim names, or because several generations of families were completely wiped out?  I think both. As I walked out of the memorial site, a car passed me with an old woman weeping in the backseat.  These women will never get over the brutal massacre of their families in 1995, and around 160 of them traveled all the way to the Hague for the trial this week.  Looking for justice, they waited outside angry that Karadžić did not appear.

Karadžić could serve 25 years for genocide, yet Plavšić was released after only 9 short years.  Because she pretended to be repentant in the international courts, she avoided a charge of genocide and has now returned to Belgrade to her family’s apartment.  The judges believed her dramatic repentance and hoped this would influence others awaiting trial.  However this spring, she was quoted in the Swedish magazine Vi explaining that her “confession” was nothing but an act.  Riding a bus from Kosovo to Serbia only a few months ago, I couldn’t help but to notice the portraits of Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić prominently displayed next to the driver.  My stomach turned as I stared at those photos for the 7 hour trip.  Although the wars are over and many people have moved on with their lives, hatred is still present in the Balkans… on all sides. With such weak sentencing of Plavšić as an example, is the international community helping to put the hatred to rest or to prevail?

Srebrenica

Stone near the entrance to the memorial in Srebrenica

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Memorial in Srebrenica, Bosnia

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Close up of repetive names

New Book, Old Disputes

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia withdrew its recently published two-volume encyclopedia after the book’s contents infuriated all of the country’s neighbors. The country, an official EU candidate state since 2005 has a long-running dispute with bordering Greece over its name. The country of Greece objects to the name “Macedonia” because it coincides with that of the northernmost Greek province. Despite international mediation, the two countries cannot come to an agreement, which does not bode well for the Macedonia to finally become a full member of the European community.

The Region of Macedonia

This month with the release of a new encyclopedia, Macedonia further aggravated the tension with neighboring Greece as well as with other bordering countries. Following angry reactions, including the burning of the Macedonian flag in Kosovo, the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Art (MANU) recently decided to remove its ‘Macedonian Encyclopedia’ from library shelves. Greece feels that Macedonia is misrepresenting large periods of ancient history. Bulgaria is angered over the volume’s depiction of Macedonia’s struggle against the Ottoman Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The most angered are the ethnic Albanian population of Macedonia and the Kosovars, as the encyclopedia uses derogatory names for Albanians and claims they “settled” on the land in the 16th century. However, it is widely accepted that Albanians are descendants of ancient Illiryan tribes, who settled in those lands in approximately 1,000 BC. Also, the encyclopedia states that ethnic Albanian leader Ali Ahmeti, now leader of the Democratic Union for the Integration of Macedonia, is suspected of war crimes when he has never been indicted. The United States and the United Kingdom urged Macedonia to remove the book from publication.

MANU is now hastily re-writing some parts of the encyclopedia, but the episode does not help the country’s foreign relations or international reputation. The relatively new country is struggling to form some kind of national identity in a region of the world where borders are constantly shifting. Dispute over land is an all too familiar problem in the Balkans. How far back into history can a nation make its claims when the region is constantly evolving?

When a country defines its national heritage, it picks and chooses the information it wants to present as an identity to the outside world. History is subjective. As a similar example, Serbia and Albania’s dispute over Kosovo unsurprisingly affects the teaching of history to young students in the area. The high school history textbooks in Serbian enclaves in Kosovo are drastically different from the textbooks in neighboring Albanian classrooms. Organizations such as Southeast European Joint History Project (JHP) and EUROCLIO work with historians in the region to write alternative textbooks for the Balkans, depicting a variety of perspectives. Hopefully this method becomes popular, because otherwise centuries of prejudices and disputes are passed down to the countries’ youngest generations, perpetuating conflict.

The complicated history of the Balkans makes the region fascinating from an outsider’s perspective. Centuries of overlapping histories of these geographically small nations make forging a national identity difficult. Writing the encyclopedia, Macedonia attempted to define its national heritage by distinguishing itself from neighboring countries. Unfortunately Macedonia’s encyclopedia was insulting to many of its closest neighbors. The encyclopedia is damaging for the country’s reputation and goals to join the European Union. Perhaps Macedonia should have skipped writing the national encyclopedia and instead focus on trying to put an end to their name dispute with Greece.

Lego (1996) by artist Zbigniew Libera

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Zbigniew Libera, contemporary Polish pop-artist, unapologetically pushes boundaries by depicting subject matter sanctified by modern culture. The issue of how to depict the Holocaust is debated in many art forms, including theatre, writing and the visual arts. Some artists only carefully depict what is already known about the Holocaust, rather than raising new questions and debate surrounding the topic.

Libera, born in 1959 in Poland served time in prison for drawings that the communist regime considered “pornographic”. After the fall of communism, the artist was able to travel extensively and exhibit abroad. Most of his work focuses on commercialization and it’s impact on society, and criticizes the regime in which he grew up. His most provocative and well-known work is entitled Lego (1996) and is a limited edition of three LEGO sets of a concentration camp. The larger boxes of the set show the entire concentration camp with buildings, gallows with one inmate being hanged, inmates behind barbed wire or marching in and out of the camp. Also included is an entry gate similar to the one at Oswiecim, but without the German inscription “Arbeit Macht Frei.” The guards are the same as the policemen in other LEGO sets, and the prisoners are from the medical and hospital sets. Another set shows a crematorium with smoke coming out of the chimneys and a guard wearing a red hat, looking as if he belongs in a Soviet gulag rather than a Nazi extermination camp.

When Libera presented the piece at an international conference in 1997, he was pelted with insults and criticism, despite the fact that the conference was concerned with how to keep the discourse of the Holocaust alive. The artists were unsure whether or not the set was a limited edition (yes) or a mass-produced piece. Although this was not what anyone was expecting, Zbigniew Libera raised many new questions and answers about the Holocaust through his piece.

When searching for the roots of the genocide, it is interesting that Libera’s work is made almost entirely from pre-existing LEGO pieces. When LEGO corporation heard about the artist’s use of their product, they tried to sue him. Also, the box of his piece states that LEGO sponsored the work of Zbigniew Libera, which the company adamantly refutes. However, three sets were already sold and European copyright laws permit the use of corporate logos for artistic purposes, so the lawsuit was quickly dropped. LEGO spends a lot of time and energy explaining to museums and the public that Libera’s piece is not their product. The fact that the set is produced in multiples suggests that history repeats itself. As the artist grew up in Poland, concentration camps were in his immediate surroundings, although there is nothing specifically German about the construction of the work. This fact proposes the idea that these camps could be located in the Gulag or anywhere genocide is taking place. Elements for such a massacre exist in the world and all that is needed is for the right person to “assemble” the pieces correctly. Holocaust survivors were present at the international conference where the artist first presented the piece. When Libera is asked about his respect for the victims he responds “I am from Poland. I have been poisoned.”

In May 1997, Libera was invited to display in the Polish pavilion at the Venice Biennale, but asked not to bring Lego. The artist ended up withdrawing from the exhibition. Despite the provocative nature of the work and its easy ability to offend, Lego sparks a new dialogue about the Holocaust. Libera shows us that all of the elements for genocide surround us. Now that we are in the 21st century and a few generations past the Holocaust, there is a certain degree of complacency surrounding the topic. Libera forces his audience not only to look at the past, but also at life today.

Sources:

  • The artist statement
  • Stephen C. Feinstein

Lenin’s Leftovers

Nowa Huta (meaning literally the “New Steelmill”) is the easternmost district of Krakow with over 200,000 inhabitants today.  Immediately following the communist take-over of Poland in 1945, the Party authorities encountered strong resistance from middle-class Krakowians.  In order to maintain authority, the communist government commenced building a satellite industrial town to attract people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to the region and thus creating an “ideal” town for Party propaganda.  The town was a feat of socialist realism architecture and careful urban planning.  Many important people including Fidel Castro visited Nowa Huta to see this new model.

In 1954, the Lenin Steelworks opened, and in less than 20 years the factory became the largest steel mill in Poland.  Factory workers were given a place to live and even a garage for their cars, although no one owned one and 5,000 garages remained empty.  Following the opening of the factory, Lenin made a high-profile visit to Nowa Huta and a year later a statue of him was unveiled in Strzelecki Park. The monument was moved to the Lenin Museum soon after, and thereafter mysteriously disappeared. In 1970 the decision was made to construct a new one in a highly visible central square.

Only four artists were considered, and Marian Konieczny won the commission.  Coincidentally, the artist was living in Lenin’s former flat from the time he spent in Krakow in 1912.  His depiction of Lenin was slightly bent as if walking forward, and the artist explains that the statue of Lenin, “like his ideas, are in perpetual march forward.”  Ironically enough, all factory workers were required to help pay for the construction of the massive statue from their own salaries even though no one wanted it constructed.

Forced to contribute to a highly visible symbol of a regime they despised, the residents of Nowa Huta constantly plotted on how to get rid of the statue.  In 1979 a bomb was planted at the base, with two packs of explosives each weighing 6 kilograms attached to the legs.  The prankster thought if the explosion broke the legs, the whole statue would topple.  The blast was so powerful that neighboring houses were damaged with broken windows, etc.  The only casualty was a local man who died of shock waking up by the explosion.  Despite the strength of the blast, the statue remained standing.

Later attempts to destroy the statue were also in vain, including efforts to pull down the statue as well as an arson attack.  Finally on December 10, 1989, Lenin was picked up by a giant crane, boxed up and left abandoned in storage.  Authorities held an auction for the statue, but there were no bidders.  Years later a Swedish businessman and philanthropist bought him for 100,000 Swedish crowns, and had him shipped to a museum outside of Stockholm.

After the fall of communism, these massive monuments of the old regime proved problematic in many places in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states.  Highly visible, they stand representing a period of history that locals wish to forget.  Today in Nowa Huta, the former street named after Stalin has been renamed for Ronald Reagan.  These small but highly symbolic changes matter most to the residents as they forge ahead into the future.  The square near the center of Nowa Huta that formerly held the massive memorial to Lenin remains empty, but I suspect that many locals who lived in the town during a different era still vividly picture it in place.

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Arial view of Nowa Huta depicting the carefully planned city.

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Former sign in front of the steel mill, named for Lenin.

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Protecting Lenin:  Nowa Huta, Poland

Ordinary Days in Auschwitz

I fear this will not be my only post on Auschwitz.  Living in Krakow for five or six weeks now, I know that I am getting closer to my inevitable visit to the nearby extermination camp.  It is hard to walk through the center of the city without noticing many advertisements for tours of Auschwitz, although I doubt the Poles are particularly happy that so many visitors use the beautiful city of Krakow as a stepping stone to something they didn’t want in the first place.

People are used to hearing stories of heroism and victimization surrounding Auschwitz and the Holocaust.  Everyone knows about Anne Frank- after two years, her hiding spot was discovered and she was sent to Belsen where she died of typhus.  Most people have also seen Schindler’s List, which chronicles the story of Oskar Schindler who rescued around 1,200 jews by employing them in his enamel factory.  In fact, many tourists look for locations from the movie around Kazimierz (former Jewish neighborhood in Krakow pre-WWII) and Krakow.  There was also Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in Auschwitz.  He was canonized as patron saint of “Our Difficult Century” by Pope John Paul II in 1982 for his extraordinary heroic and selfless deed.  Also unique is the story of Witold Pilecki, the only known person to volunteer to go to Auschwitz.  Once a prisoner, he sent invaluable information to the West and organized resistance.auschgate

This list is in no way complete; there are countless heroes of the holocaust and Auschwitz.  In retrospect, people like to hear these stories of extraordinary people doing extraordinary deeds in the midst of the biggest disaster of the twentieth century.  It provides some hope that “good” really does conquer “evil.”   However, as I read the book This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman by Tadeusz Borowski, I see a completely new perspective.  After publishing in underground circles, Borowski walked into a trap and spent 1943-1945 in Auschwitz until the Red Army’s “liberation.”  His experiences are reflected in this book, which is in first person narrated by a fictional character named Tadek.  Sometimes he has the “privileged” job of helping to unload the new arrivals to the camp from their crowded trains, directing them onto trucks to extermination.  Afterwards, he and the other workers take their food from the abandoned suitcases on the tracks for means of survival.  Tadek also works with groups doing heavy labor around the camps, and discusses the hierarchy of prisoners.  He talks about daily life with an incredible amount of distance.  Every person discussed has the dual role of the executioner and a victim, as they try to make it through the day.  No one is innocent.  And when the work is done for the day, Tadek describes the camp as a “haven of peace.”  People are dying but one has enough food and the ability to work…

Of course, the impact of this book cannot be summed up into a few paragraphs and I digress.  However the stories are unique in many ways.  Often, we hear the Auschwitz perspective of the Jewish people and usually heroic tales of solidarity.  Instead, Borowski unabashedly recounts ordinary days in Auschwitz.  Although a collection of his personal experiences, the perspective of a narrator allows the stories to be those of many, instead of just Borowski’s.  These stories could be those of the ordinary days of many people, and Borowski identifies himself with millions in the writing of this book.

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