The Thirteenth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2011
Berkeley Prize 2011

Milenka Jirasko Proposal

Service for the Sacred: Becoming an Auschwitz Working Witness

As a third-year architecture student I have only limited experience with sensitive sites, but last semester I was lucky enough to do a studio design project in Butte, MT, a nearby town both defined and damaged by mining. The site visits and ensuing research affected me deeply and became the subject of my Berkeley Prize essay for "Valuing the Sacred." Now I would like to take what I have learned on a local level and continue to expand both my knowledge and on-site experience of sacred spaces, by attending a service-learning program in Auschwitz in the second half of July.

In my original essay I wrote about an old mining site, Anselmo Mine Complex, and defended it as sacred because of the memories of miners' suffering and courage the space had seen. However, Anselmo Mine is now fenced off. The surrounding residential area, which sprang up around the hub of Anselmo during the mining boom, is now separated by that fence. The residents are descended from the miners whose struggle is documented on the site, but have no access to that site. As a result, Anselmo Mine stands as an isolated memorial, not an active part of the community.

I imagined the importance of opening the site of Anselmo to the community, for both the memory of miners and the benefit of the descendants. I wrote with optimism, thinking about how a place that has seen suffering has the power to heal, and how a damaged community might recover. However, the broad research I did is not a substitute for experience, and so I would like to travel to a place of great suffering that has been made accessible, and that has become not a fenced-off monument but an active site, affecting those who pass through: Auschwitz.

The service-learning program is run by a non-profit organization called Amizade. It focuses on a combination of architecture and culture, and guides participants through three distinct stages. First, through pre-War neighborhoods in Berlin, Germany and Krakow, Poland, focusing on the Jewish community as it was. Then through Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Jewish cemetery at Osweicim, Poland, where we will spend time in service assisting in the preservation of the site. And third, we will then revisit Krakow, Poland and other sites to see the way the Jewish community has begun to recover.

I would be honored and deeply affected by the chance to participate in this program. Working on-site in Auschwitz would let me become, if only for a short period at the end of July, a contributor in keeping an invaluable sacred site open to the public. I would get to experience firsthand how that accessibility has been successfully achieved, and how the site has contributed, at least partially, to the healing of the Jewish community.

The way that Auschwitz now lets visitors pass through the same spaces where great suffering once occurred is in direct parallel with the way I imagined the people of Butte passing through a mine site like Anselmo. In Butte, I took a rare tour and walked through a locker room where yellowed nametags of men still dangled on rusty doors; the experience of standing where they stood was unforgettable and haunting. This is the spatial experience the people of Butte deserve, and this is the spatial experience Auschwitz offers visitors.

This is also the spatial experience I would like to document, and after consideration I have decided I would like to supplement the Berkeley Travel Fellowship's suggestion of a photo journal with another medium: drawings. The act of drawing demands long, careful observation, whereas a photograph could be taken quickly to allow the visitor to turn away from a difficult subject. I want to make sure I do not turn away.

Using graphite and black ink perspective drawings, I would like to carefully sketch and consider the way visitors in the present may move through, and be influenced by, a place that has seen past suffering. This passage through, this way for the living to be approached by those who lived, is what I seek to document in Auschwitz and in other places visited in Germany and Poland. Auschwitz is a profound example of a sacred space that allows present-day visitors to be influenced by past suffering, and I will do my very best to capture the way this has been accomplished on the site.

The compilation of travel sketches, supplemented by photos, would also be a way for me to share what I learn with other students. I have spoken to the Exhibit Committee of the MSU School of Architecture and received their enthusiastic approval for an exhibit of travel sketches and documentation upon my return, should I have the opportunity to undertake this travel fellowship.

The Amizade-run service-learning program goes from July 14 to July 23. Upon its closure, I would like to remain in Germany and Poland for another seven days, until July 30. This time would be spent in one of two ways. If, during the course of the program, I did not have sufficient time to sketch, I would return to select sites and document them with drawings. If I was able to successfully compile travel drawings during the program, I would use the week as a time of independent travel to find, experience, and draw other sacred sites which have successfully been opened to the public.

In this way I will not only experience the social art of architecture myself, working for the preservation of sacred sites which have become not just monuments but active parts of the surrounding community, but also bring the experience home to share with my fellow students in the fall semester.


July 15, 2011: Leave Rome, Italy where I will have completed Montana State University's Summer Studio; arrive in Krakow, Poland. (Amizade's program begins on July 14, but I have asked and received permission to join the group directly on July 15th, after completion of Summer Studio. Luckily, program activities begin on the 15th).

July 15- 23, 2011: Travel and service defined by volunteer organization, but will include the following: Visit to the Memorial Museum in Berlin, former Jewish Neighborhoods in Berlin, and the Jewish Museum of Berlin. On-site historical maintenance in Auschwitz, providing hands-on service to the effort to keep the site open, as well as a guided tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Artifact preservation at the Jewish cemetery in Oswiecim, Poland. Tour of Krakow, visiting both pre-War Jewish communities and the Jewish community which is recovering.

July 24- 30: Independent travel for the purpose of sketching and documenting the movement of visitors through sacred places of past suffering, during which I will either return to Auschwitz for extended time drawing or return to another site for completion of travel sketches. July 31, 2011: Flight home from Krakow, Poland to Missoula, Montana.


Program fee, including room, board, transportation and admission fees from July 14 - July 23: $1850.

One week of independent travel after the end of the program, at $75 a day (x 7): $525.

Airfaire there: approximately $120 to fly into Krakow, Poland from Rome, Italy, where I will be studying abroad for the first half of the summer with the MSU School of Architecture's Rome Summer Studio program.

Airfare home: Approximately $700 to fly from Krakow, Poland to Missoula, MT.


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