The Empty Chairs of Krakow
By Kristy MacFarlane
The Jewish Heroes Square in Krakow, Poland, has been many things throughout the course of its turbulent existence. It began as a marketplace, known then under a different name; Zgody Square. It was a quiet, little market, inconsequential in the larger scale of Krakow. Goods could be bought and sold there, and people would pass through, leaving and returning as they pleased. This would all change, however. In 1939, Poland fell under Nazi Rule. This was the beginning of a painful chapter in world history, but also in the history of Zgody Square, as it would soon be marked by a large gate with the Star of David.
Anti-Semitism in the Third Reich would lead to the formation of ghettoes in Poland. In these locations, Jewish Populations were to be segregated and kept apart from the wider populace; leaving was not permitted. Thus, the ghettoes were prisons of a different kind. Zgody Square found itself at the centre of one such ghetto. During this troublesome period, the Square would be many other things aside from a market.
It would become a place for its new resident’s furniture to be piled up and discarded. It would become a site of humiliation and suffering. And yet, it would also become an escape from crowded tenements and cramped living conditions. In Zgody Square, the ghetto’s residents could meet and trade goods. Information could be passed, and some semblance of a community could be formed. However, all of this would soon be overshadowed, when the Square was to become an integral part in the implementation of the Final Solution in Krakow.
It was in Zgody Square that selections would be made; decisions that for the residents of the ghetto meant life or death. Those selected to leave the ghetto were boarded onto trains and sent either to Płaszów, Belzec, or Auschwitz. Some would not even make it to the train; the elderly, sick and young were often executed in the streets, in their homes, or even on the square itself. An order to empty the ghetto completely would soon be given. This troubling chapter in the Square’s history is captured in Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Most of the residents would meet their end in the gas chambers of Auschwitz Birkenau, or worked to death in the camps of Płaszów and Belzec. The square nonetheless, would be rendered painfully empty following this order.
Nowadays, Zgody Square carries a new, less painful name, and at it’s centre is an artistic installation designed to memorialise the victims of the Ghetto. The installation has proven controversial due to its incomprehensible nature. No fewer than thirty-three oversized chairs scatter the square - each chair represents a thousand lives. It is hard for art, literature or history books to convey the scale of the holocaust and the human suffering that came hand in hand with it. This installation does, on first glance, seem indeed to fail in this regard. Many people walk past it, children play and sit on the chairs, and only an odd walking tour of Krakow pauses briefly to acknowledge its existence.
Upon thought and dissection however, the empty chairs are powerful. The chairs look back to the square’s history, and the empty furniture that was discarded there. The chairs convey man’s inhumanity towards man. They capture a moment in history where human life was discarded with as much care and thought as the furniture piled in the square once was. Whether you pause to look at them or think them just an odd feature in a quiet square, you are forced to navigate around them, they demand attention in their sheer absurdity.
Prevailing in this installation is a feeling of absence. The chairs are empty, and apart from curious children, always will be. They are stark and bold, and profound in their lack of adornment. Many Trip Advisor reviews complain about this, and how the installation is sparse and empty and how there is nothing to see. These reviewers seem to miss the point. Absence was all that was left following the war. The Jewish Population of Krakow once numbered 60,000. Following the Nazi regime, only 5,000 remained. Empty chairs come then to define an empty city.
Connor, Sarah. “Lonely Chairs in the Centre of a Once-Crowded Square – The History Behind the Ghetto Heroes Square, Absolute Tours (January, 2010) Accessed 17/02/2018
Styles, Ruth, A tour of Schindler’s Kraków, 70 years after the city's Jewish ghetto was emptied, The Daily Mail, (April 2013) Accessed 17/02/2018