This is the first in a series of five blog posts exploring the examples of prisons, labor camps and other sites of memory that have become museums. These posts were researched and written by Erica Mollon, Master’s student in Historic Preservation and Urban Planning at Columbia University, during her internship with CHwB in Tirana, Albania.
While traditional prisons housed dangerous criminals with identifiable victims, political prison camps held everyday people. Like prisons, work camps and gulags were meant to ‘reeducate’ those they housed and once ‘rehabilitated,’ reintroduce them back into society. Concentration camps, conversely, purged the perceived threat from society; elimination was through death, hard labor was just one-step along that path. At labor camps, the goal was economically driven and the free forced labor was the goal. Death, it would seem then, was an unfortunate side product of that goal. While Spaç is most similar to other work prisons and gulags, understanding how it fits into the larger notion of a penal system can help to expand the lessons it could teach future visitors and help build a stronger and more diverse network of other sites dedicated to the memory of past wrongs. The following sketches come from prisons (mostly located in Eastern Europe) which have become visited sites of memory. In following blog posts, we will explore how these different sites have tackled issues of education, outreach, fundraising, reconstruction (or not) and visitor experience within their various contexts.
Eastern State Penitentiary, USA
Eastern State Penitentiary, located in Pennsylvania, USA was the first of its kind upon completion in 1829. The system’s basis was religious, with prisoners repenting for their wrongdoing by living in solitary confinement. When allowed out of their cells, prisoners wore hoods so they did not even see another human being. Abandoned in 1913 in the United States, the globally accepted approach lasted through World War II in Europe and Asia. The idea that prisoners will eventually repent for their actual or perceived wrongdoings was the basis for labor camps like Spaç. The difference is that at Spaç, repentance came through forced hard labor, rather than forced reflection. Modifications altered Eastern State Penitentiary both ideologically and physically throughout the mid-20th century and the prison eventually closed in 1971.
Constructed in 1897, the prison in Sighet, Romania originally housed common criminals. Following World War II, repatriation of exiled Romanians or former prisoners of war happened at the site, thus establishing its change of use. In 1948 the first political prisoners – students and peasants from the region – were imprisoned at Sighet. They were followed by former politicians, academics, military officers, historians, journalists, and catholic priests. Living in dark, unheated cells, the prisoners were starved, abused and killed. When the prison converted back into one for common criminals in 1955, some political prisoners were left in Sighet. This mixed population, like that of Spaç, remained housed at the prison until it closed in 1977.
Makronisos, Greece | Goli Otok, Croatia
Makronisos, Greece and Goli Otok, Croatia are both former island prisons. While Makronisos began as a prison for draft-eligible young men with ‘dangerous’ political ideals, both islands eventually imprisoned ordinary civilians. The islands employed various tortures in the name of ‘rehabilitation’ of the prisoners. At Goli Otok, prisoners labored in mines, like those at Spaç but they also had to build the prison that would house them on the barren island. Both Makronisos and Goli Otok’s prisoners included writers, filmmakers, and artists and some of those that survived created works about their time on the prison islands. Makronisos closed in the 1970s and Goli Otok in 1988.
Gulag Perm-36, Russia
Gulag Perm-36 is a former Soviet work-camp prison established in 1942 in Perm, Russia. In this northern region of Russia, prisoners labored, not in mining, but in logging. In the early years of the labor camp, the prisoners were mostly criminals and with only a few political prisoners. In the early 1950s, it was converted into a prison camp for former law enforcement officials. Since some of the prisoners had been former employees of the prison, the number of escapees rose, leading to increased perimeter security. In 1972 the camp converted again, this time into a political prison. During this era, the number of wood-processing facilities at the camp increased and the camp enlarged to house a growing number of political prisoners. The labor camp was eventually closed in 1988.
Lastly, there are two concentration camps – Auschwitz in Poland and Staro Sajmište in Serbia.
Perhaps the most well known of all the examples is Auschwitz, which opened in 1940. In just four and a half years, 1.1 million people died at the concentration camp. These included not only the persecuted Jewish people, but also political prisoners, prisoners of war, and those deemed undesirable by the Nazi party. Like the work camps, some survivors created various artworks and literature about their time at Auschwitz.
Staro Sajmište, Serbia
In 1937, construction began on a fairground located just across the river from Belgrade, Serbia. Converted into a concentration camp under German occupation in 1941, Staro Sajmište initially imprisoned women, children, and the elderly of Jewish or Roma heritage. While some of the Roma people gained freedom, most of the remaining prisoners faced execution in a gas van. Following this slaughter, the camp became a detention center for prisoners awaiting transfer to other forced labor camps in Germany or other Nazi occupied territory until it closed in 1944.