Pokémon in the Bloodlands
In Warsaw the signs of the Second World War are everywhere. A plaque tells you that 510 Poles were executed by Nazis in the place where you buy flowers and cucumbers. Copper outlines on the street remind you each day of the location of the Warsaw Ghetto walls. Another plaque commemorates 450 injured Polish combatants who were burned alive by Nazis in the very room that you work. These memorials are particularly common in Wola, a neighbourhood that saw heavy fighting during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. The conflict ended with the death of 200,000 Polish civilians and combatants and the expulsion and imprisonment of 700,000 survivors. Wola was also part of the Warsaw Ghetto, in which a significant portion of the city’s 350,000 Jews were imprisoned and ultimately killed or sent to extermination camps by Nazi Germany. By the time the Soviet army finally entered the city, only six percent of its original 1.3 million inhabitants were left alive. After some time, however, the innumerable memorials to the dead that litter the streets of Warsaw eventually blend into the living fabric of a vibrant European capital. Some days it is possible to forget that you live in one of the most brutalised cities of the Second World War.
This summer Warsaw, like many cities around the globe, is in the grip of a playful new zeitgeist. In Pokémon Go, an “augmented reality” game developed by Niantic, there are permanent locations in the physical world, called “PokéStops”, which players are attracted to by receiving in-game rewards. PokéStops were originally created for a different game, “Ingress”, also developed by Niantic. These locations were chosen by players who were asked to suggest new “portals” that had historical significance or an “interesting story” behind them. By crowdsourcing this data, Niantic ensured that the “Portals” cum “PokéStops” were of sufficient interest to local communities. This means that their selection reflects some kind of local value system in the decision making of game players. Different communities around the globe made different choices. The people of Wola chose sites of mass murder and genocide connected to the Warsaw Uprising and the Holocaust.
Encouraged by photos and updates shared by friends exploring the lesser-known historical aspects of their own communities, we caught our first Pokémon in the courtyard of our apartment building. Within the first ten minutes of game play we came across several plaques designating the site of the Warsaw Ghetto Wall, a statue commemorating an insurgent battalion from the Warsaw Uprising, a memorial to a canonised Polish Catholic priest who died in Auschwitz, and plaques commemorating the murder of hundreds of prisoners of war by Nazi soldiers. Indeed, in the entire first hour we played, there was not a single PokéStop unrelated to the atrocities of the Second World War. In Wola there is virtually no other local history to be discovered through the lens of the game.
The larger discussion about Pokémon Go and memorials was crystallised quickly after the game’s release when visitors reported sightings of Pokémon at Auschwitz and the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. This was deemed an oversight of the game’s creators and resulted in swift condemnations. In a published statement to Vox, Andrew Hollinger, communications director at the Holocaust Museum said:
“We feel playing Pokémon Go in a memorial dedicated to the victims of Nazism is inappropriate [our emphasis]. We encourage visitors to use their phones to share and engage with Museum content while here. Technology can be an important learning tool, but this game falls outside of our educational and memorial mission.”
As those killed in the Warsaw Uprising and those killed in the Holocaust were equally “victims of Nazism,” Hollinger’s language is a reminder that the Christian and Jewish Polish citizens that fell victim to the Nazis lived, suffered, and died in the same spaces. While the Holocaust and the Warsaw Uprising are remembered as two separate events, in Wola the victims of both events died in the same alleyways, on the same street corners, and were executed against the same walls by the same murderous occupiers. The PokéStops of Warsaw neighbourhoods like Wola are all memorials dedicated to the victims of Nazism regardless of which particular event they memorialise. Gameplay causes the user to visit one site after another in an order based solely on proximity and without paying any heed to the continuity of discreet narratives of the Holocaust or the Warsaw Uprising. This forces the user to consider how and why the experiences of these victims of Nazism have been separated into distinct narratives with their own discreet rules governing grief, memory and use of “hallowed ground”.
In the case of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in Oświęcim, Poland, it is easy to equate physical space with historical events. However other institutions, like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, choose to invoke distant places and events by creating their own kind of augmented reality. This is accomplished by providing interaction with artefacts and imagery that make one feel as though they are at the scene of a far-off historical event rather than the corner of 14th and C Street, just a stone’s throw from the National Mall in Washington DC. The connection between these spaces can be powerful, but it is entirely artificial.
But what of the sites of atrocity that cannot be neatly separated from the spaces of daily life? In Warsaw the very fabric of the city, its streets, parks, landmarks, and neighbourhoods were the actual sites of all manner of human suffering connected to the Holocaust, the Warsaw Uprising, and the daily violence that came with the Nazi occupation of Poland during the Second World War. One need not close one’s eyes to imagine; the bullet holes and shrapnel are still there. Human bones are still unearthed when a new gas line is installed or a sidewalk is repaired. Varsovians hold on to the memory of these events, placing flowers and candles before memorials of the Uprising and the Holocaust alike all year round. In this way, the city of Warsaw has something in common with Auschwitz-Birkenau.
These similarities raise uncomfortable questions. If the Holocaust museum in Washington DC objects to people playing Pokémon Go in a space that is completely unrelated to the actual events of the Holocaust, except through the common agreement of its patrons to recognise it as site of grief and reflection, what does it mean for someone to play the game in a Warsaw alley where 450 people were executed by the Nazis? Is it morally justifiable to use the sites of the Warsaw Ghetto wall or the Umschlagplatz as PokéStops? Is there room for joy and frivolity or even “normal” life in a city that is a living memorial to the atrocities of Nazism?
These questions are particularly apt in the summertime, when tourists and locals alike venture out in unprecedented numbers to engage with the city. Holocaust tourism is a ubiquitous facet of Poland’s relationship with the outside world. The stark division between the purpose of foreigners’ journeys to this country and the daily lives of local people usually manifests itself during banal moments. A tourist may stop you on your way to work wanting to know, “where is the Ghetto?” Later you are approached at the ATM and asked for directions to the nearest death camp. While on a date a stranger will lean over a beer garden wall to inquire without preamble, “where did they kill all the Jews?” All very good questions to be sure, but these moments serve as continuous reminders that global interest in Poland and Poland’s history boils down to the most heinous crime in modern history.
Holocaust history belongs to the world, but the mass murder and suffering of non-Jews in Poland during the Second World War is a story with little appeal to the foreigners who come here. Poland has an undeniably complicated history with the Holocaust. The recent construction of Polin, an award-winning multilingual museum in Warsaw dedicated to a millennium of Jewish history in Poland including the Holocaust, is a sign of healthy engagement. Still, denial of any amount of Polish complicity in the murder of 3,300,000 Polish Jews is quietly on the rise amongst the political right. Nazi Germany’s “final solution” and the population exchanges of the early Soviet post-war period were so effective that there are almost no Polish Jews left to make the Holocaust a nuanced tool for modern Polish national consciousness. In contrast, the Warsaw Uprising has become a flashpoint for Polish nationalism, a moment of national pride that local right wing politicians point to while calling for a “Poland for Poles”. Despite the opening of the Warsaw Uprising Museum, also in Wola, this facet of the city’s history is commemorated in public spaces on Polish-language plaques that are illegible, and by extension invisible, to tourists who do not know to seek them out. This deployment of selected historical narratives creates a version of “Polish history for Poles” because no one else is listening or engaged. The narratives of Holocaust and Uprising, ultimately rooted in the same locus, continue on their divergent paths.
Lately, Polish politicians have begun to rehash the dual spectres of Soviet Russian and Nazi German atrocities in light of new conservative leadership under the Law and Justice party. As the airports once again overflowed with foreigners in search of the Holocaust, last year marked the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. On national holidays children strolled about dressed in fatigues and ammo belts. Nazi tanks rumbled through the streets of Wola once again as new documentaries were filmed. A fresh layer of graffiti reminded us all to fear our neighbours. This summer the Warsaw Uprising was commemorated again through the “Warsaw Rising Run” 10k race, which drew 10,000 people decked out in khaki T-shirts with Polish insurgent armbands. Several re-enactors ran the course in full combat gear carrying submachine guns. Meanwhile, right wing parties, which used to appear in public only in small jackbooted groups of angry young men, are capitalising on the patriotic fervour that grips the country. Their marches are now joined by young families and even fashionable millennials as they co-opt selective memories of the past to push their ultranationalist agendas. Nestled amongst our increasingly xenophobic, Islamophobic, Eurosceptic neighbours, it is easy to forget that neighbourhoods like Wola were the site of both the Warsaw Uprising and the Warsaw Ghetto during Nazi occupation. Unless, of course, you are playing Pokémon Go.
Michael Połczyński is a Doctoral Candidate at Georgetown University.
Kaitlin Staudt is a DPhil Student at Oxford University.
*All photos courtesy of the authors.