Ben Hjorth, Kamila Janaszkiewicz, and Wojciech Kowalczyk

Katyń Memorial. Light and Dark: a performance (re)presentation


September 15, 2011; it is a warm, late afternoon in Wrocław’s Juliusz Słowacki Park. The park, bordered on one side by the National Museum and on another by the Racławice Panorama commemorating the victorious 1794 battle for Polish independence against the Russians, is steeped in national and religious symbols; hardly surprising given that the park is named for one of the country’s most beloved poets and playwrights who authored such stirring national dramas as Kordian, which questions whether Poland’s fate lies with God or Satan, and the unfinished Samuel Zborowski that places the nation’s history on trial before God.

None of the symbols is more strikingly theatrical than the park’s Katyń Memorial – a life-size grieving mother looking up at a dramatically winged and hooded Angel of Death holding a large sword as she cradles a bound dead man’s head with a bullet hole clearly visible in the back of his skull. These sculptures, and their layout on plinths of various heights, commemorate the massacre of approximately 22 thousand Polish soldiers and prisoners of war in the Katyń forest and various other locations in Soviet Russia; all shot by Joseph Stalin’s infamously brutal enforcers of Soviet power, the NKVD, and secretly buried in mass graves in March and April 1940.

The Katyń Memorial. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsThe Katyń Memorial Pieta. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The memorial’s centerpiece

Described on the information board nearby as both the ‘Katyń Pieta’ (the artistic trope of Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus after the crucifixion) and ‘the Mother of the Fatherland’, the sculpture is a consummate, permanent performance, commingling national and religious iconography that alludes to a central pillar of Poland’s national identity-construct: the syncretic fusing of Polish Catholicism, pagan beliefs in the figure of Mary, and an understanding of nationhood as a Christian trope. The reverence for Mary as the Mother of Christ in the Catholic tradition is layered over the ancient pre-Christian cult of Mary, which through association with Catholic theology has transformed what was originally the Queen of fertility into a complex figure that embodies both the Queen of the nation and the mother of God. Add to this a concept, deeply imbedded in the country’s Catholicism, of Poland as ‘The Christ of the Nations’ doomed to suffer repeated crucifixions until a future day of salvation for all, and one has some sense of the memorial’s multilayered, complex personification for Poles.1

Katyń 2 (Tragedy of Smoleńsk)

April 10, 2010; a Tupolev Tu-154M aircraft of the Polish Air Force crashed in still to be fully explained circumstances near the city of Smoleńsk, Russia, killing all 96 people on board. The passengers, an official delegation bound for the 70th anniversary of The Katyń tragedy that took place some 19 kilometers from the city, included the Polish president Lech Kaczyński and his wife, former president Ryszard Kaczorowski, the chief of the Polish General Staff and other senior Polish military officers, the president of the National Bank of Poland, Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Polish government officials, 15 members of the Polish parliament, senior members of the Polish clergy, and relatives of victims of the Katyń massacre.

Paying respects. Photo: The AuthorsThe Smoleńsk tragedy has the ring of repeated history for many in Poland. The country’s past is marked by its relationships between it and the larger countries that border it. Poland’s interactions with Russia have been marred by conflict and subjugation for centuries. The events of 1940 were very much in keeping with this troubled history. Responsibility for the Katyń massacre was denied by the USSR for fifty years, with Stalin and the Soviet governments that followed him placing the blame for the murder of Poland’s officer corps and its potential postwar social leadership on the Nazis.2 The acknowledgement of Soviet responsibility had to wait until perestroika in 1990 when Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted that the NKVD had executed the Poles; yet even today many in Russia deny culpability and the nation has been slow at releasing documents related to the tragedy.

Conspiracy theories, rooted in an understandable distrust of Russia, abound regarding the crash in Smoleńsk. Some have suggested Russia even shot the aircraft down; most accusations are less inflammatory, but no less distrustful of the nation’s western neighbor, as for a second time in recent history Russia is involved in the destruction of Poland’s elite. Once again the country, embodied in its leadership, is victim to its much larger neighbor.

Given the echoes of the Katyń massacres in the 2010 air crash, it should come as no surprise that Wroclaw’s Katyń Memorial now includes two new plaques commemorating the Smoleńsk tragedy. These simple, informative plaques speak to a more complex site of national memory and mourning for Poles. The sculpture has not changed, but the memorial’s significance now touches on dual national catastrophes that are linked by the difficult history between Poland and Russia as well as the country’s mytho-poetic relationship to suffering and nationalism.

The dual function of the Katyń Memorial is played out both formally and informally. The formal commemorations are official events that include dignitaries, speeches, and the laying of wreaths. However, less formal vigils take place year-round as ordinary citizens come to pay their respects and bring candles as well as flowers that are left at the memorial. These civic events, vigils by ordinary citizens, and offerings are for those who died; they are also a performed confirmation of allegiance to the martyred, oppressed Polish identity touched on briefly above.

September 15, 2011; another Słowacki Park

The relatively small Katyń Memorial is in one corner of a midsize park some four kilometers from the city center. Save for a few other modestly-sized statues, including one of the park’s namesake, Juliusz Słowacki, the park primarily consist of open ground surrounded by large, beautiful trees. Despite the dark nature of the events commemorated by the memorial, its gruesome solemnizing figures, and the disturbing political chronicle they imply, the atmosphere in much of the park was carefree on the sun-lit days that we visited. We observed men and women alone and in small groups soaking up the sun, others throwing balls for their dogs to fetch, and apparent tourists (rightly or wrongly identifiable by the need to take numerous photos) ambling past the park’s public artworks or whizzing along it’s pathways with more pressing destinations in mind.

While these lines of travel sometimes intersected, the majority of park visitors appeared to be involved in private rather than communal action, and few engaged directly with the memorial. The latter appeared to exist on the periphery, rather than at the center of the gently humming network of daily life and leisure in this inner-city park as most people even avoided lying or playing on the grass directly next to it (out of respect?).

Several people we spoke to were unaware of the monument; others felt that the overbearing, even distasteful, politicization of national identity was inappropriate in what was for them a place of relaxation. On the other hand, we met an older woman who believed it was important to bring her young grandson to the site, though she also admitted to using the space to perform the less meaningful activity of walking her dog. Perhaps predictably, a long-standing employee of the Racławice Panorama next to the memorial that commemorates another key event in Poland’s history (more of this in ‘The Panorama of Racławice – A Battleground for Identity’) felt that the memorial was well-placed in relation to the panorama building. The employee pointed out that the proximity of the two monuments afforded visitors to the panorama (the most frequently visited tourist site in Wrocław) easy access to a more recent iteration of Poland’s struggle for independence, and that together the two sites made for a duality of the long-unfolding national narrative, one commemorating an episode in the 18th century, the other in the 20th. Meanwhile, a Chinese tourist on his second business trip to Wrocław that we spoke with at the memorial, displayed a depth of knowledge and concern about the events of Katyń far surpassing that of many Polish people we interviewed.


As the sun eases its way to the horizon behind the Panorama and evening takes over the park, the suffering Mother cradling the crucified, martyred Poland is not lost from Discarded condom wrapper in the bushes near the memorial. Photo: the Authorsview; floodlights illuminate the memorial to dual tragedies. But as electricity confirms the epitaph, darkness descends on the bushes and trees surrounding the outer edges of the park and the stage is set for another tale that unfolds most every night that confirms Słowacki Park as a site of both the sacred and profane.

Under the cover of night, the area around the Katyń Memorial becomes a venue for public sexual encounters between men – what in queer vernacular is referred to as a ‘beat’ or ‘cruising’ area. Particularly on warm summer nights, men cruise the benches and paths of the park, as well as the streets that surround it, looking for the body language signifiers of a willing partner (such as prolonged eye contact, and gestures of a beckoning or directly sexual nature). Both non-financial couplings and prostitution are practised, and sometimes a client (‘john’) will take a sex worker (‘rent boy’) to his apartment or a nearby hotel. Sexual activity also occurs frequently in the park itself, most especially in the unlit bushes directly adjacent to the memorial that form the border between the park and the street beyond.

All major cities have similar public venues for male-to-male sexual interaction.3 But rarely do these zones of sexual activity abut areas as charged with ‘mainstream’ national signification as the Katyń Memorial – a monument which, with its dramatic embodiment of figures echoing Catholic dogma, could hardly represent more strongly the social forces perpetuating the very homophobia which has historically forced male-to-male activity ‘into the bushes’, out of sight and out of mind.

The multiple, conflicting histories played out in this public space are interestingly reflected in the interplay of light and darkness. Obviously, the bushes only provide enough cover for sex acts during the night. One might think that the powerful lights illuminating the memorial, and the street lamps running alongside the bushes, would pose a problem to the secrecy required for these surreptitious performances. However, the reverse is in fact true – coming from the street light into the even brighter lights illuminating the memorial, any potential spectators’ eyes are dilated and in fact see less well into the surrounding dark. Further, the floodlight’s focus attention on the memorial and the tragedies of Katyń as well as the national mythology they reference, allowing those engaged in illicit activity to more easily remain unnoticed on the wider stage, playing the third bush from the back, on the right (or rather, playing in it...).


The interplay of light and dark has metaphorical as well as practical significance for the seemingly unrelated stories being played out in the park.

The truth about what happened in the Katyń forest remained in the dark for almost 50 years, as those responsible for the mass murders denied culpability and blamed other monsters of history for what happened. With the tectonic shifts in Europe in the final years of the millennium, came the opportunity to shed light on the hideous events in the western forests of Russia. The changing times and the acknowledgement of what had long been suspected allowed Poland to publically memorialize the crime, to even provide floodlighting to ensure the truth was not hidden in the dark of night. Yet the epitaph to truth was erected in a park surrounded by a ‘forest of shadows’ where transgression is and was long the norm since Słowacki Park’s role as a ‘stage’ for clandestine sexual performance long predates the monument and even the equally revered Racławice Panorama nearby (opened in 1985).4

The street lights surrounding the park give the impression of ‘safety’ in the urban space while the floodlit memorial ensures the permanently visible presence of significant episodes in Poland’s troubled journey to existing as a nation. Yet, the interplay of dark and light provide two, apparently conflicting strands of Polish identity in that nation (one venerated, the other disparaged by many) to co-inhabit the space in what appears to be an improvised dance of presence and invisibility.


It was interesting for me to note our ‘performance’ as researchers in the space. While I’m not drawing any conclusion from it, I could not help but note that I (as an openly queer man with some experience in beats) entered fairly comfortably into the bushes in broad daylight, where I could be seen by anyone, to take pictures, while my two fellow researchers drifted over to the monument.

On joining them, I stared at the plaque directly in front of the mother/Madonna figure and, not being able to read the Polish inscription, I followed the vertical lines of the plinth it was attached to upward until I realized that the eyes of the angel of death were looking directly down on me. This sudden engagement with the powerful symbol of the Katyń massacres implicated me in a kind of logic of the space and the horrors it suggested. In that position, I imagined myself not so much in the place of a prisoner of war from the 1940s (he was after all manifest in the Pieta behind me), but rather in the living bodies that inhabit and perform in the space today: a young man turning tricks on his knees to scrape together enough zloty for his next hit; an old man facing the long and painful decline of AIDS; indeed I needed little imagination to find myself in the shoes of any man or woman, young or old, longing for a moment of contact, perhaps even tenderness, with another warm body. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, as I continued to stare at the agent of darkness I was left thinking that perhaps the Mother of Poland cradles the heads of all her sons, regardless of what they do in the bushes.

Clearly, multiple strands of Słowacki Park’s mythologies touched me at the moment; this left me realizing that it will remain a contested and complex site. It is a space in which various aspects of identity in Poland: national; civic; social; and its often unacknowledged, private side played out in the shadows, will continue to be rehearsed and performed: day and night, in darkness and in light.

  • 1. The concept of Poland as ‘The Christ of the Nations’ is rooted in a combination of the nation’s Catholicism and a conviction, popularized by the leading Polish Romantic poet and playwright Adam Mickiewicz, of Poland as the one true defender of Christian and European civilization in the 17th century wars against the Ottoman Turks. This conviction, and the various other relationships between performance and Poland’s complex national narrative was explored in a series of lectures on Polish theatre by the Research Director of the Grotowski Institute and Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Dariusz Kosiński. These lectures were part of the Summer Seminars of the Open University of Research at the Grotowski Institute in September 2011, as was the performance studies workshop that generated this paper.
  • 2. Most of those killed during the Katyń massacre were conscripted officers in the Polish army rather than professional military men; many were doctors, lawyers, businessmen etc. Much has been made of the theory that one of Stalin’s motivations in ordering the massacre was to ensure that Poland would have few strong leaders following the war, making it easier for him to dominate the country and draw it into the Soviet orbit.
  • 3. The term ‘homosexual’ is not necessarily applicable in these exchanges since not all men involved in them identify themselves as ‘gay’ – some may be married, others motivated more by financial gain than personal desire etc.
  • 4. There is some, unconfirmed, speculation that both the panorama and Katyń Memorial were located in the park in order to put an end to the sexual activity taking place in it; the aim being to ‘purify’ the space of its dark underside through an abundance of light. If this is true, the attempt clearly failed.