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2013-08-14

The Warburg Colony calls for help

Will the Warburg Colony in Brest, a unique memorial place where the history of WWI and WWII and the history of the local Jewish community met, be preserved? It all depends on the will of the local municipal authorities and the involvement of all interested parties to find a new investor.

Last June, three other buildings in the Warburg Colony, a district of wooden houses and a unique memorial site, were demolished in the centre of Brest. Only four houses, not five, which were originally to be preserved as initially planned, were preserved. The reconstruction project was designed by the ‘Briestprojekt’ OSA Institute, based on the general plan of Brest development. Four houses were to be transformed into residential premises, and the fifth one was to house a museum. In the place of the houses which had been pulled down over the last three years, a students’ house has already been built and a commercial centre will be erected.

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A former location of one of the houses within the Warburg Colony. Source: realbrest.by

Heritage without heirs

The Warburg Colony is a district which comprised twelve wooden Zakopane-style storied houses. It had its own self-sufficient infrastructure. The houses were built in Brest in 1925, a project which was initiated by the American Joint Distribution Committee. The district was named after Feliks Warburg, one of the founders of this charity organisation. The first residents comprised impoverished Brest Jews, who were WWII refugees. Upon their return, they were left without any means to rebuild their houses which were destroyed during the war. After  all, Brest was located very near to the military frontline. The authorities of Poland, of which Brest formed a part from 1921 to 1939, were unable to provide all the needy with shelter. Help from the international community came at the very last moment and became truly indispensable.

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The Warburg Colony in the mid 1920s. Source: AJCC

During WWII, The Warburg Colony inhabitants were moved to the ghetto and perished there. The colony served as a camp for Soviet prisoners of war. After the war came to an end, a   camp for Italian and German POWs operated there from 1944 – 1948. In the early 1950s, Brest residents settled in Warburg again. Today, of twelve houses only four have remained. Thanks to the involvement of the Belarusian Voluntary Society for the Maintenance of Historical and Cultural Monuments, one house has been landmarked. This house will accommodate a museum.

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An excerpt from the minutes of the Belarusian Republican Scientific-Methodical Council of the Belarusian Cultural Ministry. The meeting dealt with landmarking one of the buildings in The Warburg Colony, house 12 on First Minsk Backstreet

Reconstruction of the Warburg Colony

The project of the reconstruction of Brest Colony has sparked a heated debate, initiated on the Internet website of ‘Briestskij viestnik’ newspaper on 31 July 2012.

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A project of the reconstruction of the district within Piwowarska, Wolgogradska and First Minks Back Streets, designer by OSA ‘Briestprojekt’. Source: ‘Briestkij viestnik’

The reconstruction project, prepared by ‘Briestprojekt’, plans a reconstruction of historical buildings of the former Colony in accordance with the recommendations of the Scientific-Methodical Council of the Cultural Ministry. This plan ensures that features of the architecture from the 1930s will be preserved. Unfortunately, after the last inhabitants moved out in 2010 and due to several fires, the condition of the buildings is alarming. The lack of the development of the housing estate has transformed it into a rubbish dump and a sleeping place for the homeless. In the place of demolished houses lie tombstones from the Jewish cemetery, which had previously been used in  pavements.

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Matzevos from the Jewish cemetery which was destroyed after the war (it was located near the ‘Lokomotyw’ playground). The headstones were used as pavement slabs in the The Warburg Colony. Source: realbrest.by

It is enough to look at the current condition of the Colony to answer any questions regarding the necessity of the reconstruction of The Warburg Colony buildings. Wooden houses are torn down. Whether they will be rebuilt from scratch based on non-existent technical drawings depends on the good will of the local authorities. Let us face it: it remains unclear whether an investor with foresight, who would be willing to invest their funds in this  historical object, will be found at all. Yet, according to the ‘Realbrest’ Internet portal, workers at the architecture and construction department in Brest are quite positive. They declare that the remaining four houses will not be demolished but will be restored instead. However, the future of the building which is to house the museum is uncertain because thus far, no organization, including the Jewish community in Brest, has had sufficient funds to restore the house.

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First Mińsk Backstreet, house 12.This building has been landmarked. According to the reconstruction plans, this building will be transformed into a museum.

A difficult remembrance…

The fact that only one building in the Warburg Colony has been landmarked did not make any sense from the very beginning. The house, deprived of its historical context, needs major investment and will therefore become a burden. Both the Ministry of Culture and the Brest Jewish community are helpless. It is worth noting that according the status of a landmark to only one building was driven by the lack of any examples of this kind throughout Belarus. The point is that keeping non-religious wooden houses in the city centre should pay off due to economic reasons. Briefly speaking, there are no cases of investing in historical objects of this kind in all of Belarus.  

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Photographs by Maria Wasilkowa and Piotr Alszewski submitted to the F. Warburg photo competition ‘Memory Code’, organised to publicise the problem of the preservation of The Warburg Colony

The situation of The Warburg Colony in Brest is not the only one of this kind. Housing estates with ‘issues’ in the city centre include the Jewish district of Kazimierz in Kraków, Niemiga Street in Minsk and Lubartowska St. in Lublin. During WWII, Jewish life was completely wiped away. New residents who moved in to former Jewish houses after the end of the war did not care about preserving historical memory in these places. This situation led to the falling into ruin of housing estates, a high crime rate on the streets, and a low standard of living in the heart of the aforementioned cities. Bringing back the historical memory in these districts without heirs was different in each case. Buildings on Nemiga Street in Minsk were dismantled and were first replaced with modern buildings, after which buildings which resemble the pre-war ones have been erected only recently. They are devoid of any traces of the dramatic time of the 20th century. Lubartowska St. in Lublin is still awaiting revitalization. In all probability, it will happen fairly soon. Jewish themes in local tourism is a part of the development strategy of this Polish city, a twin city of Brest. Until recently, Kazimierz in Kraków was ruined and almost erased from historical memory. Presently, it stages the Jewish Cultural Festival, which attracts tourists every year. Kraków sets an example to other Polish cities in terms of proper urban development strategies. As a result, Kazimierz has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List.

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A photo by Artiom Zdanowicz, entered to the F. Warburg photo competition ‘Memory Code’

The news about dismantling the other three houses in the Warburg Colony coincided with information about the reconstruction of the wooden synagogue in Wołpa (Belarus) in Biłgoraj. Based on preserved design plans, a town of artisans famous for sieves will be reconstructed in Biłgoraj. According to the investors, Biłgoraj will attract tourists seeking to learn about the multicultural legacy in the eastern parts of the Second Polish Republic and their local colours.

To sum up, there are plenty of illustrious examples for the Warburg Colony to follow to build a museum in one of the buildings and preserve the remaining four. Brest still has an opportunity to become one of leading Belarusian cities which prioritise the revitalization of urban buildings.

Polish translation: Irena Kulesza

English translation: Wanda Józwikowska

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