by Anmol AhujaJul 15, 2021
Leaving an immeasurable trail of death and destruction in its wake, the Second World War was perhaps one of the darkest chapters in the record of human civilisation. Among the worst affected by this prolonged period of global hostilities was the Central European nation of Poland, whose invasion and subsequent annexation by the forces of the Nazi Germany in September 1939 was the initial spark that ignited the six-year long conflict.
During this interval of German occupation, Michniów, a small village in South-Central Poland, bore witness to one of the war’s most heart-wrenching tragedies between July 12-13, 1943. In this two-day time frame, the settlement was effectively razed with most of its residents indiscriminately put to death in an event referred to as the 'Pacification of Michniów'. Many similar 'pacifications' were also carried out in other Polish villages during the occupation period. In the aftermath of the war’s conclusion in 1945, Michniów grew to become an enduring symbol of the martyrdom of rural Polish settlements both during World War II and the subsequent Soviet occupation of Poland.
Memorialising the victims of such vile atrocities - the true extent of which are not even fully known today - is both a near impossible feat and a harrowing necessity, in order to remember the unquantifiable human cost of armed conflict and avoiding reiterating the mistakes of the past. Addressing this sensitive topic is no simple proposition and one sure to revisit old wounds. The only recourse might lie in spiritually honouring Michniów’s original inhabitants, denied the dignity of a proper death and burial, while educating the public on the heinous crimes that Poland’s villages endured in the war. Nearly seven decades later in 2009, this very task was thrust upon Warsaw-based architecture firm, Nizio Design International, at the conclusion of a design competition held by the Kielce Countryside Museum.
Presented with a commission for a memorial space centered on the pacifications of Michniów and other Polish villages, the firm, headed by Polish architect, Mirosław Nizio, set out to formulate an intervention that would do justice to the martyred victims of wartime persecution. Envisioned as an 'architectural form of commemoration', the firm drew from wooden cottages that dot the landscape of rural Poland, reinterpreting them in a line of gabled forms sculpted in exposed concrete that host a permanent exhibition. As a mark of the devastation wreaked upon homes during the occupation period, the concrete masses fracture and crumble along the row, creating an eerie and almost disturbing spectacle that evokes the catastrophe of war. “Individual segments are crashed together and become disintegrated, as after a cataclysm such as an earthquake or a fire,” the architects relay.
Reflecting on the inspiration that gave birth to the memorial’s final form, Mirosław Nizio says, “Viewing historical photographs of the pre-war village of Michniów with its cottages, its inhabitants, scenes from everyday life, we felt that we were interacting with something full, complete, with the natural rhythm of life.” By contrast, he describes images of the pacification of 1943, particularly the abundance of death and burning houses depicted within them as a 'violent breaking of this lifeline'. Nizio adds, “We felt a pervasive and growing destruction - a process that served as the impetus for the design of the exterior and the exhibition.”
The first structure along the line of 11 modules constituting the memorial’s architecture was designed to resemble an intact rural dwelling - a representation of the initial state of the village. Its interior design is similar to that of a church with blackened pews, an altar, and a crucifix on its back wall. Dubbed the 'House of Tranquility', it leads into the first five segments which are all closed structures, shielded from the elements. Sections of glass, resembling rips and cuts in concrete, wrap around the walls and pitched roofs to link the modules. These openings offer views of larch crosses - resembling grave markers scattered across the surrounding landscape design. Light filters inwards through the glazed voids as well as narrow slits in the walls and roof. Wood grain textures add rhythm and warmth to the cool grey finish of the concrete surfaces, that will gradually develop a patina and integrate further into their natural context.
Reclaimed wood from old barns in surrounding villages was used alongside black steel to craft the display structures for the exhibition’s narratives. Shaped into crooked masses, intended to resemble dilapidated huts, these are covered in steel to showcase prints that outline the history of the pacification. Altogether, the interior exhibition, which was also developed by Nizio Design International, utilises an area of 1700 sqm. Its content includes images of the deceased, official documents, silhouettes carved into the steel exhibits, and multimedia presentations that recount the events of the tragedy and the perpetrators behind them.
Traces of soil have found their way into the steel framing and roof structures, embedding pieces of the land into the structure itself. On moving through the memorial, the chiselled subtractions in the concrete architecture grow more pronounced, while the textured finish itself grows more worn. Charred ruins come into the field of view, echoing the many homes burned down during the pacification. An unsettling smell of steel and scorched wood hangs in the air, adding to the sensory experience developed by the Polish architecture firm, which puts visitors right at the scene of the tragedy. The progressive degradation of forms builds tension throughout the linear path of the memorial, accompanied by a growing air of openness, as the bounding concrete and glass embrace the sky.
Designed and realised over a construction period that spanned nearly 13 years, the 16,000 sqm memorial finally opened to the public on July 12, 2021 - a date that coincided with the 78-year anniversary of the pacification, which has since been celebrated as the Day of Struggle and Martyrdom of Polish Villages. Providing a fitting epitaph for the innocent lives consumed by the war, this martyrs memorial in Michniów is far from just a reminder of the futility of conflict and the vile actions it engenders. It is also a commemoration of the endurance of the human spirit in the face of tyranny - as exemplified by the victims of the pacifications, whose memory will live on within the mausoleum’s concrete bounds.
Name: Mausoleum of the Martyrdom of Polish Villages in Michniów
Location: Michniów, Poland
Client: Kielce Countryside Museum
Site Area: 16,225 sqm
Built-up Area: 2,155 sqm
Architect: Nizio Design International
Author of the Project: Mirosław Nizio
Lead Architect: Bartłomiej Terlikowski
Interiors & Permanent Exhibition:
Mirosław Nizio(author of the project), Bartłomiej Terlikowski (lead architect)
Landscape Architect: Agnieszka Michalska