Stowarzyszenie Projektów Międzynarodowych „INPRO”

A Walk To Remember

A Walk To Remember

By: Irem Kulaber, EVS volunteer

I am going to start my article by asking you a couple of questions. First of all, what does remembering and forgetting actually mean? What and who do we remember? Why do we forget? And are we sometimes being forced to forget? Keep these questions in mind as you go through this article.

Like most people, you and I walk, drive or take a bus to school or work. On our way, we pass by lots of streets, apartments, gardens, and maybe one or two abandoned buildings. But do we ever stop to think about how much we know about these places? Do we know how many stories are hidden within the walls of the decrepit building we pass by every day? Probably not. We might be able to say a one or two sentences, because we learned about it in school, or our relatives mentioned it in one of their conversations. But do we really know what secrets a building holds? To me, every building is a treasure of stories of brave women, of young people with bright ideas, of men with insecurities.

We pass by dozens of stories every day. In this article, I want to talk about the general scope and importance of ”memory walks.” In essence, memory walks are walks we take around the city in order to remember the people or communities we are forgetting about and learn the ones that we have never heard of.

”Stories are curative.”

One of the most important components of memory walks is stories. Stories are liberating. They build solidarity among people. They have curative effects on the mind. We tell children stories to put them at ease and develop their imaginations. As adults, we listen to stories about our elder’s experiences. And if you look at the bestselling books, there are always success stories to be sold. We also hear stories of great adventures and amazing heroes. But, to me the most precious ones are the life stories of people who inspire us. The people who are resistant and strong, fearless and courageous to speak in a silent environment. Through stories, we get inspired and try to draw similar paths in our lives.

History, in reality, is also a combination of stories. But what we learn from our country’s official history is a distorted reality, a singular perspective. In general, stories are written by the winners. Their stories are the ones which survive and are titled as ‘official.’ Eventually they are memorized and documented. And the ones who are affected most are the powerless minorities who have little opportunities to write their own history. Unless their heroes fit in the agenda of the powerful.

“So whose story is it?”

Official history can sometimes be used to reinforce the power of an already existing mentality. They are basically freed from denial and censorship. But isn’t there something missing? In English, the word history derives from the Ancient Greek word storía. It means “knowledge acquired by investigation, inquiry.” Also storía which is derived from hístōr meaning wise man, witness, or judge. So the word in itself is cutting out half of the world’s population.’ This has caused some feminist groups to coin the term ‘herstory. So where are women in history?

Now, imagine the center of your town, focus on the squares, try to remember the monuments and sculptures. How many of them are about women? Probably none, or very few. Most are probably about men, who were either in the military or government. When I visit a new city, I always trace the city’s identity through these landmarks. Now that I’m in Rzeszow, I’ve seen a lot of statues of men. These include the musician Tadeusz Nalepa on the 3 Maja street, the romantic poet Juliusz Slowacki’s in Park Miejski and of course many, many military figures who represent the anti-communist memories of the city.

I was overjoyed when I heard that in Park Miejski there are four statues of women. But you cannot imagine my disappointment when I finally saw them. These women are nameless. And have only been put there to satisfy the visual pleasure of anyone passing by. The other, and perhaps most iconic female figure in Rzeszow can be found on the infamous Revolution Monument. It is the landmark of Rzeszow, left over from Socialism and locals usually refer to it with obscene connotations. On one side, there is a woman-like figure holding a flag. It is one of the rare statues in Rzeszow of a woman. However, her femininity is lost behind her stocky figure and fierce facial expression. And despite being on the most iconic landmark of the city, this woman still remains anonymous. There are no traces of her name and her image has only been used to reinforce the nationalist and militarist aspect of Polish history.

Unfortunately women aren’t the only ones missing from Rzeszow’s collective memory. There is also an absence of minorities, non-sovereigns, diverse ethnicities and LGBT people. People whose voices have been silenced because of years of repression. Voices which have been intentionally or perhaps unintentionally erased, and have been absent from the collective memories of the city.

In official history, we usually don’t have easy access to information about these groups I mentioned above. They aren’t the focus point. We don’t know what they struggled with, what their experiences are. So it becomes obvious that history is much more than what we are taught.

Organizing a memory walk in a nutshell

In the practice of memory walking, we follow a path which several important spots. And in every spot there is a story to be told. These can be the stories of both success and failure, but they are special. They transfer the feeling of courage and of not giving up. They are about the importance of raising one’s voice and resisting the ruling power. And because memory walks are a collective act, they are also enriched by the ideas shared by its participants.

Within memory walks many concepts and terms tend to bubble up. Human rights, collective memory, hate speech, courage, activism just to name a few. But don’t get me wrong, memory walks don’t aim to create a new polarization within society. They don’t aim to manipulate the truth or make up new narratives. Memory walks aim to reveal the hidden stories that are silenced and that we need to hear. They build a bridge between the poles of our societies. Through them it aims to understand the past to think about today and to take our future steps more consciously.

Apart from giving a chance to be more united with each other, memory walks are also a journey within yourself. You will to admire your regular paths through a different perspective. Thanks to this, individual and collective memory go together. This allows us to strengthen our relationships with each other, ourselves and also the city we live in.

So, to conclude, memory walks offer alternative perspectives for people to understand the areas they live in. These perspectives are usually gender-based and they focus on transforming the problematic relations that shape the city. Revealing the truths about collective memory, they trace the hidden stories and interprets how collective memory effect these spots. Memory walks help us find an answer to how our relationship with the city changes when we trace its lost and hidden stories. With all these aims and experiences, we can both open new windows into ourselves, the city and its inhabitants.

Who are walking to remember?

Now let’s look at some of the memory walks around Europe. In Spain, Memòria BCN offers a tour focused on studying and disseminating the history and collective memory of the city of Barcelona. The included spots cover many historical issues such as Spanish War, Francoism and slavery. In Bochum, Germany Auszeiten-Frauenarchiv organizes a women history tour introducing you to the lives of courageous women and the part they played in the history of the city and in women’s liberation.  In Istanbul, Turkey ‘Karakutu’ tries to raise voices of the alternative narratives that were suppressed by official history and to introduce different perspectives.  They aim to explore and question injustices against specific groups historically excluded by their religious, sex-based, ethnic or political identities. Futrthermore, I am also a part of an organization ”Curious Steps” which have been carrying out Gender and Memory Walks in historical areas of Istanbul including Beyoglu; Kadikoy and Balat since 2014. So far, there have been over 40 walks organized. All of them contribute to the understanding of the city from the perspective of gender and memory. Walking through the streets of the city, you set up bridges between the past, the present and the future.

As far as I could see, there aren’t regular memory walks in Rzeszow. The ones I found were one time events and were not continued. So maybe and hopefully this article becomes an inspiration for the people who notice gaps in history and want to open a new window into lost stories. If anyone decides to organize a memory walk in Rzeszow, I would be delighted to take part in helping out and sharing my experience in organising them. Thank you for reading!


Some useful websites mentioned above: