Photo-Essay: 'Compassion has no nationality'

The work of Finnish artist-architect Ranier Mahlamäki reflects the depth of Jewish history and succeeds in evoking the atmosphere of the most tragic story of modern times.

Dr. Inna Rogatchi,

Inna Rogatchi
Inna Rogatchi
INN: IR

The first Finlandia Prize for Architecture

In late 2014, the first ever Finlandia (Finnish National Award for Achievements in Culture) Prize for Architecture was awarded to Rainer Mahlamäki and his team for the project they executed, the POLIN Museum of the History of the Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland. Finnish intellectual Sixten Korkman, who decided on the Prize that year, told us that he was sharing his ‘joy to be able to decide and to award the really best Finnish architect of our time for his outstanding international project.”

The very fact that the Finnish state has recognised one of the country’s finest architects for a memorial remainng on Polish soil forever, was a deeply meaningful act. Choosing the best architect from among the Finnish colleagues of Rainer Mahlamäki is somewhat similar to trying to choose the best performing musician in Israel. The field is crowded with able professionals, and the culture of architecture has a mighty tradition with superb results ,

Remarkably, the Finnish architect Mahlamäki is the creator of several outstanding projects on Jewish history, its drama and its tragedies, and the related narrative of modern history. The geography of those projects is impressive and meaningful: In addition to Poland, he has works in Lithuania, the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia.


Choosing the best architect from among the Finnish colleagues of Rainer Mahlamäki is somewhat similar to trying to choose the best performing musician in Israel.
During the last decade, from 2008 onward, Rainer Mahlamäki has looked intensely into the depth of Jewish history. The outcome of his thoughts and artistic vision is an array of distinct, ‘speaking’ buildings and projects. Each of those projects is characterised by the elegance of its aesthetic appeal, the uniqueness of its form, and its striking beauty. But there is also something special which can be found in his history-related architecture: the vision of a master expresses a certain philosophy, and it puts the business of modern architecture into the dimensions of humanism, unusual in our times. The phenomenon is worthy of close examination.

How  does one build in the middle of a Ghetto? The victory of the POLIN Museum

I know several people whose families are originally from Poland and who suffered tragic loss and destruction in the Holocaust. Those people swore to themselves never to put a foot onto Polish soil. It is, actually, a well known phenomenon similar to the inability of many Jewish people, three generations after the Holocaust, to find themselves in Germany or to speak German.

You cannot predict how the Holocaust and war trauma affects an individual. My mother, a talented linguist speaking several languages, Polish and French included, was affected as a child by the war and the Holocaust in the place where her talent lay. For her, the ultimate horror of the Holocaust and the war was exemplified in the German language. She was wounded by the sound of German speech for the rest of her life -  similar to the people who were refusing to visit Poland and who were terrified by the thought of stepping on the soil where their families were annihilated.

Until the appearance of the POLIN museum in the heart of the Warsaw Ghetto in 2013.

The Heart of the Memory. POLIN Museum. Warsaw. Poland. Jewish Album series. 2016. Credit: Inna Rogatchi 

“After experiencing POLIN,  we are able to  visit the places where our families lived in Poland for the first time in the more than 70 years since the war, when our mother and her family were there for the last time” - an American friend told us.

POLIN as a museum, and more important,  the fact of the recognition of Polish Jewry, has unique meaning for thousands of people all over the world. While attending the international conference on Jewish Cultural Heritage in the summer of 2016, I was reminded of the phrase on Poland which Simon Wiesenthal, told me once: “After the end of the war, the Americans  suggested to me that they would arrange for me to return home. "Home?”- I  asked. “What home? Poland? It is a cemetery to me”. Simon and his wife Cyla lost 89 members of their combined families in the Holocaust, and were left alone, just the two of them.

It was Wiesenthal's colleague Marian Turski, the legendary Jewish Polish and European intellectual and humanist, chairman of  the POLIN useum who put his heart into the quasi-dramatic task of erecting the museum of the history of the people who were once prominent in the country, - 90% of whom were annihilated there with unprecedented enthusiasm. Marian was among those very rare surviving Jews and intellectuals who did not leave Poland after the war, although at certain stage, his bags were packed for Israel.

Many people have asked that superb writer why he stayed in Poland, and Turski would tell them of his bond to Polish culture and to people there. But then, in 2013, when the building of the POLIN Museum was well in progress in the heart of the Warsaw ghetto, the then 89-year-old maitre of letters and public diplomacy, born Moshe Turbowicz,  said an ultimate truth: "My father and my brother, they had no grave and no memorial. And now, after all my long life, it seems that they will have one.'. I never saw my self-composed friend Moshe  more emotional. I was crying with him.


I have learned not to cry at the places where my people were annihilated. There are too many places like that in Europe.
I have learned not to cry at the places where my people were annihilated. There are too many places like that in Europe.

But after my return from Warsaw, after that deep submersion into the milieu of the Jewish history in Poland, I cried non-stop. And the fact of the museum building’s location was part of it. It was a magnet placed in the centre of the tragedy, giving rise to thoughts, memories and emotions far beyond the actual place and time.

Architect Rainer Mahlamäki and his team faced a unique challenge when they started to work on the building which would become the one of the most praised museum buildings in the world. There were no less than 150 proposals for the project from all over the world, including famous modern architects. Rainer Mahlamäki was the winner.

The work on the POLIN museum opened a new line in my professional career - Rainer Mahlamäki told me during one of many our conversations. - The theme dictated a principally different approach in creating an architectural project as such. The character of the crime which had been committed against the Jewish people and which had been of so overwhelming a proportion in Poland and in Warsaw, in my understanding, dictated a new kind of approach. The approach in which allegory would become the main ‘tool’, the main form of expression.”

Rainer Mahlamäki also told me that although he had been well aware of the history of  WWII, when he started to work on such a demanding task as POLIN, he realised that his knowledge on that part of WWII “was close to zero.” So, he read everything that he could on the theme, to start to work on the museum telling the most tragic story of modern times.

It is because of that knowledge, the willingness to have it and ‘to process’ it within himself, that the great Finnish architect came to the conclusion which is the principle for understanding of his work on history-connected projects, in particular:  "The main thing in creating the buildings and spaces which are embodiment of history, in my opinion, is a feeling of the space. And in this sense, my main objective as an architect is to create the atmosphere."

He creates it by various means: By folding and unfolding walls in unusual ways, building up curves; opening constructions, literally making up open ends; by giving light a special role in his buildings; even by inventing new materials for his projects.

The light at POLIN Museum
Rogatchi Shining Souls 2016

Creation of an atmosphere is an extremely challenging task. An architect should be fully knowledgeable on the subject; he has to find a fine and precise balance for his expressive language. He has to be understanding, respectful, tactful when he deals with such themes in particular; and his work has to be elegant, appealing and modern. How to achieve all these criteria?

Mahlamäki found the answer in the philosophy behind what he was doing: “ I was searching for  the key message which would become the main metaphor of the essence of the POLIN building and which would also work as its main narrative, helping to generate all the ideas, images, and metaphors there” – Rainer says.  - “And I knew that it would be the modern creative language of abstract art in which that idea would be expressed”.

What was the idea? That key which in fact opens the huge space of the POLIN Museum in such an appealing way is that a visitor has the impression that it has been there always, that around him is a natural environment.

The idea was the Splitting of the Sea. When talking about it, Mahlamäki typically says in his under-stated way: ‘it was, probably, quite an obvious idea’. It well might be - but only if one is trying to understand the core of Jewish history, and also the principle of making choices in Jewish tradition in the way this Finnish architect did.

The people who work at the POLIN, awarded the Best Museum in the world in 2016 and many other spectacular awards since its opening in 2013, work there with pleasure, and the qualities of that outstanding building have much to do with their highly motivated work.

POLIN Museum
Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects.

The museum attracts millions of visitors  all of  whom are given a special tour on the POLIN architecture, so people can understand, or feel, or both, the very important philosophical message of its architect: “Inside POLIN, the space is organised in such a way that it not only is background to the narrative of the  perpetually dramatic history of  Polish Jewry and the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust; but it also enters the future of our lives despite all the tragedy”, - Mahlamäki says.

On the rubble of the Brown House

Rainer Mahlamäki’s journey into the depth of Jewish history and related matters did not end with the completion of the POLIN Museum in Warsaw.  The following year after the start of his and his team’s work on the POLIN Museum, the Finnish architect and his office completed the project for the  Documentation Centre for the History of National-Socialism in Munich, for which they were awarded a prize in Germany. 

The place chosen for that building was also highly historical the notorious Brown House in Munich, the headquarters of the Nazis from 1931 until bombed by the Allies in 1945, and where Hitler kept his office during all that time.

The Nazi fuhrer had a strong personal attachment to the place. He personally participated in the drastic re-decoration of the Brown House in early 1930s, fulfilling his inclination to be ‘an artist’; there in his office he kept the life-size portrait of one of his contemporary heroes, Henry Ford.

In mid-2000s, the Bavarian government finally made up its mind on what it  would like to do with that infamous Nazi spot in the middle of the city, and decided on an international competition for a comprehensive museum. The Finnish Lahdelma & Mahlamäki offices took part in the competition, as they did in many other architectural contests in Germany, often with notable results.

In his approach to that very complicated task, Mahlamäki followed an outline similar in his thinking and philosophy as he did almost at the same time while working on his POLIN project: While fully recognising the horror of the place which had been the main headquarters of the Nazis all through the existence of that incarnation of evil on Earth, the architect decided on a building that would allow a visitor to breath there, for him not to be suffocated by horror. That building was multifunctional, airy, but not too light.

The project came out as a harsh structure reflecting the merciless machinery of National-Socialism, giant machinery meant to crush a human being. It is no surprise that Mahlamäki’s project for the Munich museum was awarded the jury’s prize.

Munich Documentataion Center
Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects.

"Compassion has no nationality," he said when interviewed in the Russian media about his work, after his model for the Siege of Leningrad Museum in St. Petersburg, which garnered  a 23 % lead in public vote over the second place in the competition, but was not chosen by the judges because its creator was not Russian.


The project came out as a harsh structure reflecting the merciless machinery of National-Socialism, giant machinery meant to crush a human being.
The Beauty of Memory: The UK National Holocaust Memorial, London

Rainer Mahlamäki and his team of architects worked on another project on the same theme - memories of WWII and the Holocaust. The Finnish project for the UK National Holocaust Memorial to be built in London had been selected to the short-list of 10 works from many participants of that important international project.

The short-list for the London Holocaust National memorial reads as an ultimate star-list of  modern architecture, and the Finnish project clearly was the one of the best ones among those top ten.

In additional to the trade-marks of modern architecture - natural use of the environment, modern lines, striking building - it clearly bears the main characteristic of Rainer Mahlamäki’s philosophy in architecture for the buildings which are dedicated to memory: light, hope and open endings, no traps, no claustrophobic organising of the space, no despair. Such vision provides a possibility for visitors to ‘digest’ all the horrors deeply while not being crushed.

Model of the UK National Holocaust Memorial in London.
Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects.

How were those people who were victims of the Holocaust and survived it able to live afterwards?

The philosophy applied by Rainer Mahlamäki to his architectural creations on the theme of the Holocaust and WWII provide at least part of a possible answer: it is natural for a human being to strive for light and hope, even if it is happening mentally, in his imagination.

The Talmud teaches that the darkness of the dark is light, however small a spark of it is present there. Otherwise, the world would not exist. Renowned Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh in his Lectures emphasises that according to the ancient Jewish Talmudic and Kabbalistic sources, “Light that comes out of darkness is greater than light that did not come ( this way)”.  Continuing the parable, other prominent modern experts on Jewish thought, such as Rabbi Moshe M. Lieber, point out that the Talmud itself was a life-rope for Jewish people at the most critical moment in the history of the nation, “ the darkness of the Babylonian exile”. One of the pillars of Judaism is the understanding that ‘a central theme in life is the transition from darkness to light’, as is stated in multiple Jewish sources and on the holiday of Hanukkah.The intention to see the light is the desire which is the most natural for a human being. To express it in architecture requires much more than professional skill. It reflects a certain quality of the architect’s personality. 

There were cases throughout the Holocaust nightmare where children survived by evoking the smell of chocolate back in their warm home. There is a film about that based on real facts, created by great Italian cinematographer Roberto Olla, called Auschwitz and the Chocolate. The film was awarded a well deserved Oscar The film’s creative resolution is a gentle watercolour. This approach is similar to Mahlamäki’s vision of how to speak about the Holocaust by means of architecture.

Rainer told me about it in the following way: By any means, architecture is not a technical thing. As a writer thinks on many levels while writing a novel, effecting the stratification of his own memory, experience, knowledge and feelings in order to lead his readers through that memory maze, an architect who is creating spaces for memory does the same, for a journey through memory for the people who would be visiting the spaces honouring memory, telling about history. So, an architect also creates a novel for his visitors. While I was working on all those projects, very so often I thought: how I would live through those events? How  would I survive myself?

“To Keep the Memory About the People Who Were Destroyed” : The Lost Shtetl Museum and Memorial in Seduva

The project on which Mahlamäki and his bureau are working currently is a continuation of his quest into the Jewish history.

 In April 2016, the Finnish architect was approached by the Lithuanian Seduva Foundation with the request to create "The Lost Shtetl," a project of restored memory at the place at which an entire Jewish community had been annihilated.

The architectural decision for The Lost Shtetl is a masterpiece, in my perception. The compact beautiful light building looks as a dream - and such was the idea of the author. We wanted to create a metaphor, the metaphor for the lost shtetl. The metaphor for the life lost - but remembered again, as one does in dreams.

The Lost Shtetl (model)
Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects.

The Finnish architect who is world-famous for his masterly application of light as an architectural tool, has created a milk-coloured building which stays in the open field of Seduva close to the recently restored Jewish cemetery , a symbol of life coming back to the Jewish people.

There is one element in that project which has principal importance for me: the exit from the museum, called Canyon of Memory, is formed by two high white walls which become very close to each other creating a vertical space from where you see the Jewish cemetery in front of you whle leaving the museum. The narrowness of the place makes your path harrowing - but the walls are white and, importantly, it is open-ended again. You are not locked in your despair. You come to the cemetery, but there is white softness and light around you and accompanying you. You are breathing. And remembering.

Humanist of the Year 2017 of The Rogatchi Foundation

Awarding Rainer Mahlamäki with the Humanist of the Year 2017 prize of The Rogatchi Foundation was only natural. Rainer’s Award reads:Professor of Architecture Rainer Mahlamäki - With deep respect and gratification for powerful humanism in outstanding international architectural projects.

We will award the great Finnish architect this prize at the opening of my Shining Souls. Champions of Humanity  exhibition at the Library of the Finnish Parliament in January 2018, commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  The exhibition is a core of the Outreach to Humanity  cultural and educational project. The Helsinki Edition 2018 of this collection has as its title work special art piece dedicated to Rainer, The Way of the Light which was created to suggest Mahlamäki’s  interior design for the POLIN Museum.

Rainer Mahlamäki is the only Finn among 36 champions of humanity in this project , and the only architect as well.

Inna Rogatchi is a writer, artist,  film-maker, historian and scholar. Many of her works  focus on the Holocaust and post-Holocaust. Her forthcoming new works are Dream, Memory, Love, a documentary film ( Finland, 2018), and A View From a Cattle Wagon, a collection of essays on the challenges of the post-Holocaust ( 2018). She is President of The Rogatchi Foundation.


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