The shoes and the death camp Poet and musician Grzegorz Kwiatkowski confronts Poland’s politics of memory
Story by James Jackson for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.
This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.
one of my forefathers must have had the gift of foresight:
I’ve only ever seen my closest in the animal light of their needs
which probably explains my isolation and loneliness
my last birthday observed in a rented bedsit
on the former Adolf Hitler Strasse in the Langhfur district
that day I took my life by turning on the gas taps
— Extract from on a hill by Grzegorz Kwiatkowski
Trudging through the soft earth of an autumnal forest, Grzegorz Kwiatkowski stops in a clearing. His trademark black jeans with gold ringmaster trim contrast against the greens and browns of the trees that rustle like the sounds of the Polish language in the wind.
Kwiatkowski is a man of many hats. He is a poet, the frontman of the post-rock band Trupa Trupa, and a critic of Poland’s memory politics.
For Kwiatkowski, this deserted spot just outside the grounds of the former Stutthof concentration camp encapsulates Poland’s complex and traumatized relationship with its past. Scattered on the forest floor and partially turned to mulch are the remains of hundreds of thousands of shoes taken from Nazi German death camps like Auschwitz.
Though Poland was a battleground for much of its history, today, the battleground is history itself. Debates about the extent of Polish collaboration in the German occupation and the Holocaust led the Law and Justice Party, which governed for the last eight years, to accuse critical historians of a “pedagogy of shame.” The courts even went so far as to prosecute scholars like Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski for defamation and order them to apologize for a factual inaccuracy about a long-dead mayor accused of handing over Jews to the Nazis. (The apology was later overturned on appeal.)
In 2022, the Law and Justice government demanded the equivalent of $1.3 trillion in reparations from Germany for damage done during World War II, when Poland lost 17 percent of its population — the highest proportion of any country — and saw cities like Warsaw bombed to rubble, with 85 percent of the capital destroyed.
Kwiatkowski explains that Stutthof, less than an hour’s drive from Gdańsk, was the leather repair center for all of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps in Europe. The shoes were stolen from their mostly Jewish owners — men, women, and children — and taken here to be converted into leather goods. When the Red Army liberated Stutthof in 1945, they found half a million shoes piled into mountains. These stood neglected until the 1960s, Kwiatkowski says, as Poland’s Soviet-backed communist regime suppressed much of the horror of the Holocaust from popular memory.
Established in 1962, the museum features an exhibit at the entrance with one pile of the shoes, but the rest were given a shallow burial in the forest and left to rot. “It’s the insanity of human beings,” Kwiatkowski says. He and a friend came across the decaying soles in 2015 and later told the story to the international press. After The Guardian and CBC reported on it, nothing changed. But when reporters from the German radio station Deutschlandfunk gave notice that they were coming, the museum staff reportedly panicked and had these artifacts of genocide dug up.
“The museum workers were frightened and ashamed because the Germans would see it — it’s so paradoxical,” Kwiatkowski tells me, frustrated at this apparent attempt to brush history under the carpet. Unlike the museum curators, he sees confronting the crimes and neglect of history as his duty. “It’s a privilege to be a curator of this bloody past,” he says. “You can make an anti-hatred message from it: No killing, respect others.”
Later, a chance encounter at a car repair shop led him to doubt the museum’s claims that these artifacts had been disposed of respectfully. Allegedly, the local garbage dump turned away a truck carrying some of the shoes, so they burned the macabre cargo in a field next to the mechanic’s workshop. “I was very nervous and started to ask questions, but I was too curious, and then he [the mechanic] didn’t want to say more,” Kwiatkowski recounts as we drive away from Stutthof. “This is the story of Polish history.”
Victims and perpetrators
The Stutthof camp isn’t just abstract for Kwiatkowski; it’s intimate. At age 16, his grandfather Józef was imprisoned there for the crime of secretly learning Polish, or for refusing to work as a forced laborer for the Germans, according to conflicting accounts from Kwiatkowski’s family members. Józef’s work was unimaginable, carting dead bodies from the camp hospital to the crematorium, a grim task he would later have to repeat while working as a forced laborer in Hamburg after Allied bombing raids.
In the interim, he was forcibly conscripted into the Wehrmacht for a short stint, a common experience for men living near what was then the German city of Danzig.
Years later, when visiting the Stutthof museum with his grandson, Józef “started crying and screaming,” Kwiatkowski recalls. “He was [reliving] the trauma,” the poet explains. “He affected my life in the biggest way because he was a broken, calm person.”
Kwiatkowski’s wife’s family suffered terribly, too. Many years into the couple’s marriage, his wife’s grandmother let slip that they had spent the war hiding in the forest. Initially, Kwiatkowski was confused — the German occupation was awful, but this wasn’t normal for ethnic Poles. Eventually, his wife admitted that her family was Jewish, but she had been raised to keep this quiet. “Will it help us here? No,” Kwiatkowski recalls her saying matter-of-factly, though he adds that she’s been more open about her Jewish identity in recent years.
Even after World War II, anti-Jewish violence in Poland continued to claim lives. In the town of Kielce in 1946, an angry mob, together with Polish soldiers and police, killed 42 Jewish refugees after a child falsely accused them of kidnapping. The massacre triggered a mass exodus of Poland’s surviving Jews, marking the first of four emigration waves during the communist era. The final outflow came as a result of an antisemitic campaign the communist authorities initiated in 1968.
But it’s hard to talk about memory in Poland without running into contradictions, Kwiatkowski finds. “Poland has a victim complex,” he says, and the country was indeed a victim of aggression at the hands of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. “It’s very complicated because Poland was devastated in a huge way, but on the other hand, [Law and Justice’s] historical narrative is that of a country that is only a victim and innocent.”
Kwiatkowski mentions the recently beatified Ulma family as an example. Nazi German occupiers and local police summarily executed Józef Ulma, his pregnant wife Wiktoria, and their six small children in 1944, along with the eight Jews hidden in their home. “The point of the Ulma family is they were killed because a Polish [person] told the Germans that they were hiding Jews,” he explains — an inconvenient fact often left out of this story of Polish Catholic heroism.
“Jewish people were shocked because the Poles were their neighbors. Many say the Poles were worse than the Germans. [Hearing this] shocked me — but they felt betrayed,” Kwiatkowski says.
At the same time, he maintains that the main perpetrators shouldn’t be forgotten. “Germany and Austria are great at whitewashing history,” Kwiatkowski maintains, referring to the praise the two countries have received for their handling of Holocaust memory. “They did it as a nation, and they should feel bad.”
Beating the system
On top of being an outspoken critic of Poland’s nationalist memory politics, Kwiatkowski and his band Trupa Trupa provided music for director Agnieszka Holland’s award-winning film Green Border, which President Andrzej Duda and other leading government figures attacked for its depiction of Polish border guards mistreating refugees. But Kwiatkowski doesn’t want to be put in a box politically and says he supports the Law and Justice-backed demands for reparations from Germany.
“I don’t care about the left side or right side,” Kwiatkowski says, “The Polish political class is very corrupt, from left to right. In the 1990s, they were in one party,” he continues. “Polarization helps them. It’s a cynical game that benefits them.”
During the highly-charged campaign season for this fall’s parliamentary election, the brains behind the nationalist government, Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński, made increasingly wild statements, describing his arch-rival Donald Tusk of the center-right Civic Platform as the personification of “pure evil.” He even accused the opposition of harboring secret plans to ban Poles from mushroom picking.
After the Civic Platform-led coalition won the elections, however, the musician’s tune changed. “I didn’t realize it would make me so happy,” Kwiatkowski tells me, praising the fact that his country had rejected nationalism and its accompanying rewriting of history. “The atmosphere after the elections is really great,” he continues. “If the new government wants to change positively and ethically and talk about [history] openly, I can use their positive attitude and build beautiful ethical works [of art].”
Of all Poland’s politicians, Kwiatkowski remains an admirer of Gdańsk’s most famous son: former dock worker and union leader Lech Wałęsa, who led the Solidarność movement to defeat communism and became Poland’s first president elected by popular vote. In recent years, Wałęsa has been mocked for his down-to-earth manner, celebrating his 80th birthday with a cake made of breaded pork cutlet and taking baths in beer. “He’s like a clown. He’s like Don Quixote,” Kwiatkowski says. “From his perspective, he was a nobody, and then he beat the communist system in Europe. It’s amazing.”
Even though he’s a father of two and now approaching his forties, there’s something similarly boyish about Kwiatkowski’s fascination with the history of his hometown, which produced such notable figures as writer Günter Grass and the country’s new prime minister, Donald Tusk.
Back in Gdańsk, Kwiatkowski takes me on a tour of Jewish cemeteries that the local council demolished after the antisemitic purge in 1968; long grass has grown over what was once holy ground. A small community group now funds the maintenance of these ruins, which antisemites desecrate with tragic regularity.
As well as cheering on the change in government, Kwiatkowski is currently celebrating a rare victory in memorializing the past: Alongside local journalist Dorota Karaś, he successfully campaigned for the site of the former Red Mouse Granary — where the Nazis imprisoned local Jews before transporting them to concentration camps — to be officially commemorated. The local authorities have now installed a plaque marking the spot where “the German Nazis created a ghetto for Gdańsk Jews,” written in Hebrew, Polish, German, and English.
But for every victory, there’s a new controversy, it seems. On Tuesday, far-right lawmaker Grzegorz Braun doused a menorah in Poland’s parliament building, lit with candles for Hanukkah, with a fire extinguisher — to near-universal condemnation. Kwiatkowski called for action in response to Braun’s antisemitic attack and promptly received an invite from Gdańsk’s mayor to take part in a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony at city hall alongside representatives of the local Jewish community.
Primo Levi and Theodor Adorno disagreed about whether there could be poetry after Auschwitz. Perhaps it takes not just poets but also musicians, historians, and even quixotic jesters to preserve the memory of the Holocaust in the lands where it was committed. As Kwiatkowski wrote on social media after the ceremony at city hall, Gdańsk is a city that remembers.
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