History of the “Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre” Centre
History of the “Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre” Centre by Tomasz Pietrasiewicz
The “Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre” Centre is a local government cultural institution based in Lublin. In its activities, the Centre draws on the symbolic and historical significance of its residence, the Grodzka Gate, also known as the Jewish Gate. The Gate used to be a passage from the Christian to the Jewish part of the city, a meeting place of various cultures, traditions and religions.
In 1939 Lublin had nearly 120 thousand citizens, including about 43 thousand Jews. During the Second World War, the Nazis murdered the Jewish inhabitants of Lublin and destroyed the Jewish district. Majdanek, the German Nazi concentration camp located at the outskirts of Lublin, became a grim symbol of that period.
The changes brought about by the fall of communism in Poland in 1989 initiated the process of regaining Memory by the Polish society, and Lublin was among many Polish cities which had to face their forgotten past.
When we began our activities at the Grodzka Gate in the early 1990s, we knew nothing about the history of Jews in Lublin. We were not aware that the enormous empty space on one side of the Gate conceals the Memory of the Jewish Quarter. We did not realize that the Gate leads to the non-existent town, the Jewish Atlantis. There is a huge parking area, lawns and new roads where there used to be houses, synagogues and streets. A large part of this area, including the foundations of the former Jewish houses, was buried under a concrete cover, and the memory of those who lived here was hidden as well. You cannot understand Lublin’s history without these empty spaces near the Gate. For the NN Theatre, they have become a natural setting for artistic actions, Mysteries of Memory, which uncover the memory of the past while mourning the victims of the Holocaust.
One of them, entitled “The Poem of the Place”, is built around the idea that despite the years that have passed, despite the concrete cover concealing the memory of the Jewish Quarter, the past keeps coming back to us. It is like a light piercing through the concrete. “The Poem of the Place” begins in a very symbolic way: the lights go out in the entire space of the former Jewish Quarter, setting the “stage” for subsequent actions. On the other side of the Gate, normal, everyday life goes on uninterrupted in the illuminated streets of the Old Town. The Gate thus becomes a passageway between light and darkness. Those attending the event go through the gate and enter the darkness, but as they walk on, they see light coming from the open manholes that they pass. The participants then continue along a road running across the area of the former Jewish Quarter until they reach the site where the synagogue used to stand.
The Mystery of Memory is an attempt at an artistic action involving a piece of the city with its specific topography, history and technical infrastructure. There are no artificial props, stage set or actors. In “The Poem of the Place”, the light and the voices issuing from the open manholes form a huge artistic installation, revealing the meanings hidden in the empty space near the Grodzka Gate.
In 2004, one of the last surviving street lamps of pre-war Lublin was dedicated as a symbolic eternal flame to commemorate the vanished world. Situated within the area of the destroyed Jewish Quarter, the lamp is always switched on, day and night, a sign of our Memory of Jewish Lublin and its inhabitants.
When the NN Theatre moved to the Grodzka Gate and the adjacent tenement houses in 1992, it was one of the most dilapidated venues of cultural activity in Lublin. All the premises occupied by the NN Theatre required a major renovation. In 1994, the municipal authorities in Lublin granted us a subsidy for the renovation and preservation of the Gate and the adjoining buildings. The Theatre then assumed the role of the project supervisor. Before the actual renovation and construction work began, a solid basis for the project was prepared. The functional brief for the Grodzka Gate and the adjacent tenement houses as well as the entire project programme were elaborated. For the NN Theatre, it was not an ordinary renovation project, but rather an effort to restore the Memory imprinted on this specific location. It was a difficult lesson about assuming responsibility for a historic monument. It was also about creating a living space slowly growing into Lublin’s Old Town.
During the renovation, an idea emerged to use part of the premises, at 21, Grodzka Street, as a café whose décor and programme would evoke Jewish culture. Thus the “Szeroka 28” café was born. It happened at a time when the Old Town was still considered to be a dangerous neighbourhood, largely inhabited by people on the margins of society. The problem of the degradation of historic monuments occurred on a massive scale here. Through our actions, we had to convince the people of Lublin that the Old Town could also be a venue for cultural activities. Restoring and bringing back to life the entire Grodzka Gate complex became a major step towards the revitalisation of Lublin’s Old Town.
“The House – Grodzka 19” project
In 1998, the Grodzka Gate Centre completed its first urban space artistic project related to Memory. The history of the project dates back to 1996 when we submitted the functional programme for the house at 19, Grodzka Street, stipulating the establishment of a small hotel (a B&B) there. In 1997 the formal decision to renovate the house was issued. In 1998, we were entrusted with the management of the building whose residents began preparations to move to new accommodation. An idea had been born to create photographic documentation of their everyday life and record their memories related to the place before they left. The obtained documentary material became a starting point for an artistic action called “The House – Grodzka 19”. In the spring of 1998, when the last tenant had moved out, the empty interior became a venue for an artistic installation evoking the everyday life of the former residents of the building. The project was described as follows: “It was an attempt at an artistic rendition of the end of a certain period in the life of Lublin’s Old Town and its micro-community. The Old Town is changing. The tenement houses are gradually renovated, and it will be a completely different place in a few years. In order to capture at least a portion of this process of change, the life of the tenants of the house at 19, Grodzka Street during the last days before they moved out, was documented in photographs and on video. Interviews with the residents were also recorded. The obtained documentary material became a starting point for an artistic project called “The House – Grodzka 19”.
The first exhibitions
The first exhibitions created at the Grodzka Gate Centre had a documentary character: “The Great Book of the City” (1998) and “Portrait of the Place” (1999) featured unique photographs, maps, and documents related to the Polish-Jewish history of Lublin prior to 1939. Based on these two exhibitions, a permanent exhibition was arranged. It evokes theatrical scenery and constitutes the interior decoration of Grodzka Gate. One of its major elements is a model of the pre-war Old Town and Jewish Quarter. The model reveals the extent of destruction inflicted on the body of the city during the Second World War. It was the first exhibition in Poland to use multimedia to such a great extent.
The “Oral History” project
In 1998 we began the systematic recording of the city’s inhabitants sharing their memories. Thus the “Oral History” project has developed, during which more than three thousand hours have been recorded and uploaded to the internet. These memories are a significant part of the city’s spiritual and cultural heritage.
“The Primer” exhibition (2003)
An exhibition called “The Primer” was prepared by the Grodzka Gate Centre and opened at the State Museum at Majdanek, the former German Nazi concentration camp, in 2003. Located in one of the camp barracks, the exhibition is devoted to the children who stayed at the camp during the war. It has the character of an artistic installation using simple means of expression to create a symbolic space which strongly appeals to visitors’ emotions.
The Lublin Underground Route (2005)
In 2005, the Grodzka Gate Centre took over the Lublin Underground Route and devised its functional programme. The route has become a major point of interest in the Old Town. During the tour, visitors can watch a multimedia visualisation of the great fire that broke out in Lublin in 1719. The cellars also contain five models presenting various stages of the city’s development.
The “Lublin. Memory of the Place” exhibition (2009)
Over the years, the Grodzka Gate has gradually become a place where, like in an Ark of Memory, we preserve old photographs, documents and testimonies for future generations. Another exhibition, “Lublin. Memory of the Place”, opened in 2009, was designed as the interior of an archive, its character emphasised by metal shelves with thousands of files. More than ten computer workstations are an integral part of the arrangement. Walking through the exhibition, you can see hundreds of photographs and hear the recreated sounds of the pre-war city. In the files arranged on the shelves, you can find information about specific streets and houses. The first part of the exhibition presents the life of Jews in Lublin until 1939, and ends at the model of the pre-war city. The second part, an artistic installation, is devoted to the memory of the destroyed Jewish community of Lublin. It also tells the story of the Righteous Among Nations, i.e. those who rescued Jews.
The Museum of Printing
At the beginning of 2007, the Grodzka Gate Centre was entrusted with the ruined Museum of Printing established at 1, Żmigród Street in 1980. Earlier attempts made by its administrators to preserve the museum failed. As a result, the equipment fell into utter disrepair, and the premises, unused, inadequately aired and unheated, became dilapidated. Thanks to our efforts, municipal funds were assigned for the thorough renovation of the premises and establishment of the new Museum of Printing, which was launched as early as May 2008. It is worth noting that the “Popularna” printing shop was set up exactly on this site in 1932 and remained in operation for more than ten years. The Museum features printing and book-binding machines, many of them over a hundred years old but still functional, originating from Lublin-based printing shops. You can also learn about the history of books and printing in Lublin. Next, in 2009, the Museum space was expanded thanks to adding new rooms dug under the building. Additional rooms upstairs were also handed over to the Museum. All these levels have been successfully integrated and connected by means of passageways. The work carried out by the Grodzka Gate Centre also contributed to the preservation of the entire tenement house where the Museum is located.
“The Power of the Word” exhibition (2011)
The new premises in the Museum of Printing enabled the creation of an exhibition dedicated to independent publishing, underground printing shops, and distribution of forbidden books. It is a symbolic reference to the event that took place at the printing shop at 1, Żmigród Street at the end of the war, in 1944, when Germans arrested and shot 14 printers for printing illegal publications of the Polish Secret State. At the exhibition you can learn about the launch of an underground printing shop by members of the democratic opposition in 1976. It was one of the first initiatives of this kind in communist Poland, and the beginning of independent, underground publishing (samizdat) in Poland. The establishment of this printing shop was an extraordinary event not only in Poland but also in the entire communist bloc. The exhibits include a mimeograph, on which the first two issues of the underground literary magazine “Zapis” were printed in 1977. An underground printing shop of the “Solidarity” trade union from the 1980s is also featured in the exhibition.
The Death Square
In 2008, pursuant to a resolution of the City Council of Lublin, the Grodzka Gate Centre was entrusted with a 440 sq metre plot in Zimna Street, a section of the so-called Lublin Umschlagplatz located at the former municipal slaughterhouse. In 1942 (from 16 March to 14 April), Germans used this to carry out deportations of Jews to the death camp at Bełżec. Upon taking over the plot, we took steps to commemorate the site. An architectural competition was conducted for “designing a permanent spatial form” of remembrance. The final outcome was the commissioning of “Stelmach i Partnerzy” Architects’ Office to execute the design, an earth-filled concrete block. Seven metres high, its size matches the size of the plot: 44 by 10 metres.
Other activities: the Internet
At the turn of the 21st century, new technologies (computers, mobile phones, the Internet) have become part of everyday life all over the world. The Internet is a major space for culture where new phenomena and ideas are generated. It is also a meeting place for millions of young users. Traditional methods of talking about the past are becoming less and less effective as they no longer appeal to the young generation. Taking advantage of opportunities offered by new technologies, the Grodzka Gate Centre has begun to develop qualitatively new ways of popularising cultural heritage. Here is a short story of how the Internet has been used to achieve these goals.
In 2001, an idea was born to create a portal called “Lublin. Memory of the Place” (later transformed into “The Lublin Lexicon"), which popularised Lublin and its cultural heritage (www.leksykon.teatrnn.pl). We wanted to show Lublin using the opportunities offered by the new medium, the Internet. This project included creating databases where text documents, visual and audio materials were collected and published online. In 2003, the Grodzka Gate Centre put forward and idea of building the Virtual Library of Lublin and the Lublin Region by the city’s libraries and archives. Our experience with previous Internet projects was to be the starting point for this pioneering initiative in Poland. Unfortunately, the idea was not implemented at that time. Hence, we have been developing our project independently. Among the portal’s resources (www.biblioteka.teatrnn.pl), you could find and read texts, articles and entire books dealing with local history, and listen to testimonies and mini-lectures of experts in a particular field of knowledge. You could also view images related to a specific event or everyday life in a given period.
In 2005, the Grodzka Gate Centre collaborated with institutions from the Netherlands and Germany in the creation of the first Internet portal devoted to the history of Jews in Europe, www.zydzi-zycie.net, as part of the “Kultura 2000” programme. The portal received the prestigious “Erasmus Euro Media Medaille 2006”, awarded to innovative multimedia projects in the field of European cultural education.
In the course of developing The Lublin. Lexicon portal, we have collected thousands of various texts and documentary materials, including more than three thousand hours of recorded testimonies of the city’s inhabitants (the “Oral History” project), and several thousand photographs. In terms of the amount of digital resources, the Grodzka Gate Centre is among the ten largest digital libraries in Poland belonging to the Federation of Digital Libraries. Our Internet pages have been visited over a million times during the last three years.
In response to the growing amount of photographs, audio and video recordings published on our website, a disk array and tape library were purchased in 2008. The disk array contains twelve hard drives and allows each editor of the portal’s content to quickly access the stored data. In order to preserve the unique content created at the Grodzka Gate Centre, the tape library is used to create backups of these materials. In 2009, the Grodzka Gate Centre started to change the way digital data such as photographs, images and books are published. We use the dLibra system, thanks to which the editors of “The Lublin Lexicon” can easily arrange photos, films and oral history records according to their subject, and use them to create content for our Internet pages. The system ensures the compliance of item descriptions with many international projects, e.g. Europeana, the European library.
In 2011, our Internet portal was enriched with the virtual model of Lublin in 1939, encompassing the Old Town and the no longer existing Jewish Quarter (www.makieta.teatrnn.pl). In the same year, another virtual model of Józefów Biłgorajski, a town in the Lublin Region, was created (www.miasteczko.teatrnn.pl). And in 2012 Center finished four virtual models of Lublin realised within the project "Lublin 2.0 - virtual reconstruction of Lublin's history" (www.przewodniki.teatrnn.pl).
Actions commemorating recent historic events: searching for means of expression
Various artistic and cultural activities commemorating specific historic events are a form of preserving intellectual and cultural heritage, an integral part of which is memory. One of such initiatives undertaken by the Grodzka Gate Centre was aimed at raising the public awareness of the events in Lublin in July 1980, which preceded the well-known events at Gdańsk Shipyard in August 1980. The project, called wagon.lublin.pl, was carried out twice, in 2005 and 2010.
It should be noted that workers’ strikes in Lublin were the culmination of a huge wave of strikes that swept Poland in July 1980 and ended in the establishment of the “Solidarity” Trade Union in Gdańsk in the following month. As part of an artistic and educational project, a railway car carrying a group of young people set off from Lublin on 17 July, the anniversary of the Lublin railway workers’ strike, which has become a symbol of the July events. Travelling across Poland, stopping at various cities along the trail of the Polish summer of 1980 and Polish memory, the railway car reached Gdańsk on 14 August, exactly on the anniversary of the beginning of the strike at the Shipyard. During the journey, members of our travelling team encountered many people and asked them about their current dreams as well as what message they would like to pass on to future generations. All these actions were documented. An exhibition dedicated to the memory of the summer of 1980 was also presented in the halls of railway stations.
Translated by: Sławomir Nowodworski www.explorelublin.pl