My grandfather had a chair by the fire that no one else sat in. My dad has one, too. I have my corner of the couch, the cushion perfectly moulded to me. I have my seat at the dining table, from which I hold court. When I lived in my cabin in Alaska, I’d alternate between the rocking chair and the recliner, depending on the mood, on what I was reading, on the time of day. I’ve had favourite park benches, rocks, and steps. I like to sit. I like chairs.
When it comes to monuments, I’ve been fascinated by the chair with the broken leg that sits outside the UN in Geneva. But this fascination paled when I was shown the chairs that sit in Plac Bohaterów Getta Square in the heart of the old ghetto in Kraków. My guide told me there were 65 in all, one for each 1000 Jews who died in the Holocaust. But I think she may have been confusing this with the monument in ulica Szeroka. I didn’t count.
But I did check it out and the memorial, designed by local architects Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak actually includes 70 chairs in total, one for each of the 1000 jews who lived in the ghetto. Who’s to say. And does it matter? There are 33 tall ones (1.4 m high) in the square itself and 37 smaller ones (1.2 m high) that sit around it. The larger ones are illuminated, which must make it pretty special to see at night. Passengers waiting to catch a bus or tram sit on the chairs as they wait a different transportation to that experienced by those jews deported from this very place. Eerie. I wonder how many stop to think or do they even see them any more?
As memorials go, these empty chairs are amongst the most poignant I’ve seen. A similar theme was used in the aftermath of the Oklahoma Bombing in the USA where 168 empty chairs stand witness to the 168 lives lost in that atrocity. I was in Oklahoma a few years ago and am raging I didn’t do my homework. Next time.
Still on the same side of the river in an area that has seen major redevelopments in recent years, sits Schindler’s factory, made famous by Spielberg’s 1993 movie Schindler’s List about Oskar Schindler, a Nazi party member, who saved the lives of over 1000 Jews by recruiting them to work in his factory. I stopped outside but didn’t go in. Sometimes it can all be too much. And it isn’t going anywhere. I think that when the Holocaust and its remembrance is crammed into a one-day tour of the city, it loses something. Yes, better remembered in any way than forgotten entirely but time is needed to reflect, to consider what happened, and to offer a prayer that nothing like it will ever happen again.
I challenge anyone to walk through the ghetto, sit on a chair, stand outside the factory door and not feel the urge to give thanks for simply being alive.