The exhibition project Architectures of Survival at the Jewish Museum Frankfurt is dedicated to the extraordinary and often overlooked places of refuge used by Jews in occupied Poland and Ukraine during the Holocaust. Around 50,000 Jews found shelter from persecution in tree hollows, cupboards, cellars and sewers. These places, as improbable and unsuitable as they may seem, became life-saving architectures of survival.

The architect, political scientist and artist Natalia Romik researched these hiding places, which still exist today and whose stories are being presented in Germany for the first time. Her work honours the creative use of minimal resources and the unbroken will to survive of the people who found refuge there. This exhibition emphasises how fragile and at the same time signifint these architectures are. 

The publication accompanies the exhibition and deepens our understanding of the physical and historical reality of these hiding places. It sheds light on the complex relationship between architecture, violence and the culture of remembrance and makes invisible places visible. This creates an interdisciplinary approach that emphasises the significance of these vulnerable survivor architectures for today's culture of remembrance.

In conversation with museum director Mirjam Wenzel (Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt) and historian Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (European College Jena), Natalia Romik talks about the different research approaches they have used to approach the joint project. 


Warsaw: scans of the hideout in Jewish cemetery where Abraham Carmi was hiding in Warsaw (Poland), Przemysław Kluźniak (ArchiTube)

Mirjam Wenzel: Dear Natalia, dear Barbara, you are both undertaking a cultural archaeology of the Jewish past in Poland in your curatorial and your intellectual work, and you are both reflecting on the paradigms of representation. What is your motivation to do so? And when did you get to know each other?

Natalia Romik: We met in 2009 when I was working on the design of the Core Exhibition at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. I am currently not working solely as an exhibition designer anymore, and the motivation for my work has changed accordingly. As an artist and a researcher, I develop my projects from a disagreement with what is happening right now with post-Jewish architecture or post-Jewish property in Poland and in Eastern Europe, mostly in small towns, more generally. And I think this disagreement is actually the main impulse for me now to develop exhibitions, to design artistic objects, and to do research on Jewish history, with a focus on architecture, urban environment, and cultures of commemoration.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: I came to East European Jewish culture in a way by accident when I was pursuing my PhD at Indiana University. In 1967, I was taking a course in field research methods, and my professor found out that I knew Yiddish. He said: “Well, if you know Yiddish, why don’t you do something on Yiddish folklore.” So, I went back to Toronto to my family, and I discovered a gold mine of memories of Jewish life in my father’s hometown in Poland. At that time, I also discovered that serious research had begun in Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century and came of age with the founding of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Vilna in 1925. It was also in 1967 that my former Zionist summer camp director and Yiddish linguist, Mikhl Herzog, brought me to New York and to YIVO. He introduced me to the YIVO staff, most of them born in Poland and Holocaust survivors. Many of them had worked with YIVO in Vilna. They looked at this young person who was writing a PhD on Yiddish folklore and saw hope for the future. So, between discovering the treasure of Yiddish folklore in my own family and realizing that Yiddish folklore and ethnography were a serious field of study, thanks to YIVO, I found my path and my mission—to carry on an intellectual tradition pioneered by a generation of scholars in Vilna who had perished during the Holocaust.

Natalia Romik: Actually, one of my first architectural assignments was to work on the renovation of the eighteenth-century synagogue in the small town of Chmielnik, where I was responsible for designing the Bimah [the elevated platform that is used for the Torah reading]. The original one was burned and destroyed by the Nazis. While doing so, I was thinking a lot about the uncanny character of Jewish memory, not only in this town, but in Poland, in general. To express the paradoxical present absence of Jewish communities, I decided to reconstruct the Bimah entirely from glass—a specter of its former self. But my interests in the subject had been developing for a long time. In 2007, I made a long and important trip with Arkadiusz Dybel and Dorota Gorbelna. We visited seven synagogues in Poland, placed a camera in the heart of each of one, and recorded the interior for a few hours. We called this project “Synagogues Conversion.” None of the synagogues were used for religious services any longer. The one in Poznań was a swimming pool, the one in Innowłódz was a local shop, in Opole a TV station.


Lviv: 3D scan of parts of the urban sewage system where the Chiger family was hiding in Lviv (Ukraine), Przemysław Kluźniak (ArchiTube)

Mirjam Wenzel: You both have been committed to research on Polish-Jewish heritage for a long time already. Whereas Barbara was beginning this research among Jews who had immigrated to Canada from Eastern Europe, Natalia was concentrating on the heritage remaining on sites missing its former owners. With the development of POLIN Museum you, dear Barbara, brought the knowledge of this heritage and the stories back to Poland. You, dear Natalia, grew up in Poland, and were troubled by the desert of knowledge about Jewish heritage and made it your mission to raise awareness of it.

Natalia Romik: In the beginning of the 1990s, practically no one in Poland was aware of the history of the site where they were living. In Polish schools, especially in small towns, kids were really not taught the Jewish history of their own towns. Few people wanted to discuss those histories—they were hidden by a culture of willed or unintended amnesia. For example, practically no one had any idea of the books of remembrance (yizkor books) dedicated to the memory of the towns where Jews once lived. Those books were written by Jews who survived the Holocaust. There are books for many such Polish towns. That’s why I became interested in the question of how we can preserve memory and Jewish heritage, especially in relation to post-Jewish architecture, which is more tangible, and yet endangered by dereliction. And I think that this is still a very important question.

You can find the entire interview in our publication Architecture of Survival which is available in English and German.


Architecture of Survival | Hatje Cantz

Header Image: © Jakob Celej

Veröffentlicht am: 24.05.2024