Extraordinary story of hiding places used by WWII Jews revealed in powerful new exhibition
The extraordinary story behind hiding places used by Jews during the Holocaust is the subject of a fascinating new exhibition.
A hollowed-out tree trunk, a wardrobe with space for a small boy, a vast system of caves in Ukraine, and a grave in Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery are just a few of the spaces revealed in the exhibition entitled ‘Hideouts. The Architecture of Survival’ at Warsaw’s Zachęta National Gallery of Art.
Each of these spaces is represented by a silver-plated sculpture cast from an element of the hideout in an artistic tribute to the creativity, resourcefulness and will to live of the Jews that hid in them and the Poles and Ukrainians who risked their lives to help.
During World War Two in occupied Poland, about 50,000 Jews survived outside of the ghettos. Some of them passed themselves off as Poles with forged documents. But many others had to hide to survive, often using a variety of hiding places. Some were used for just a few hours or days; others were inhabited for years.
While most aspects of the Holocaust have been well researched, artist, architect and researcher Natalia Romik believes that the architecture of hiding places has been largely overlooked.
She said: “Where did these people get light, air, food? What did they see, what smells did they smell, were they hot or cold? How did they organise their toilet? Were they alone or were they forced to rely on others?
“How much time did they have to spend in stillness? Was the hiding place soundproofed? Noise can expose you, but it can also warn you of impending danger.”
The silver casts on display are just the visual result of three years of research together with anthropologist Aleksandra Janus. They are accompanied by films, artefacts, documents, models and maps.
The pair are keen to emphasise that each of the nine hideouts featured in the exhibition is different and required the help of many kinds of specialists, including dendrologists, speleologists, Holocaust researchers, urban explorers and local historians.
Dendrologists were called in to help with the hideout inside the Józef Tree, a 650-year-old oak in Wiśniowa in the Podkarpackie province.
For many years, the local community retained a memory that the tree was a wartime hideout for Jewish brothers.
Kamil Mendocha from the local culture and tourism centre told TFN: “For a long time it was an urban legend. People had heard that Jews had hid in the tree, but nobody knew for sure if it was just two brothers or a whole family.
“Then Natalia came, hired a platform and looked inside. That’s when everything changed.”
What Romik discovered were the original dozen or so wooden beams with metal brackets that the Denholtz brothers had used to climb up inside the hollow tree trunk.
For Dawid and Paul Denholtz, it was probably one of many hiding places. After escaping in 1942 from the KL Plaszow camp in Kraków, they hid in the surrounding forests, fields and farms.
Some former neighbours came to their aid, others posed a mortal threat to them. They were the only members of their family to survive the war, and after it ended, they both settled in the United States.
During the war, there was an entrance to its interior on a level accessible to people. Today, the entrance is overgrown and only a small crack remains, through which you can look inside. Inside the tree are a dozen wooden steps and metal brackets.
Natalia Romik and Aleksandra Janus carried out the first comprehensive survey of the site, using a state-of-the-art endoscope camera and laser scanning to map the hideout.
On display at the exhibition is a cast of the entrance, a gap at the bottom of the tree, used by the brothers to get in and out.
Five of the nine hideouts featured in the exhibition are in today’s Ukraine, and Russia’s invasion of the country on 24 February has given the exhibition an added poignancy.
The name of the exhibition on posters is given in equal size in Polish and Ukrainian and information panels feature descriptions in Polish, English and Ukrainian.
Many of the casts and other exhibits related to hideouts in Ukraine travelled to Poland on trucks that had carried relief supplies to Lviv and would otherwise have returned empty.
Some of Romik and Janus’s partners from Lviv were in the Zachęta building for the opening on Thursday but couldn’t take part as they had to receive important phone calls from home.
The Ukrainian men who were involved in the project such as Lviv-based sculptor Oleksii Konoshenko, are in Ukraine fighting to defend their country.
In two of the hideouts in Ukraine, Romik and Janus needed the help of speleologists, or cave specialists, to enter the hundreds of kilometres of underground warrens which the Stermer family used to escape extermination.
After hiding in the Verteba cave system near Ternopil in western Ukraine in 1942, the hiding place was betrayed to the Germans by a local.
Some of the group were captured, some fled. The remaining members then went to the nearby Ozerna caves.
“Our partners at the Urban Historical Centre in Lviv researched the caves in Ozerna using laser scanning technology.
After descending, the researchers discovered a large hiding space. The Stermers divided it into rooms: bedroom, kitchen, dining room. In one part, smoky residue can be seen on the cave walls. In another part, there was a mill stone and even grain which they used to make bread.
A cast of the mill stone is on display at the exhibition.
The only hideout not to have its own cast is the huge bunker built by the Kobylec family for a large group of Jews in Siemianowice Śląskie in Upper Silesia.
When the nearby ghetto was liquidated, Mieczysław Kobylec hid a young Jewish girl in his parents’ home at 4 Stabika Street without telling them.
When the secret got out, the family decided to build a bunker in the kitchen under the floor. The hiding place was equipped with ventilation and electric light as well as places to sleep.
“There was a whole early warning system. If a friendly person was approaching, they used a certain light, if a stranger was coming another light,” Romik said.
Jolanta Kobylec-Cyganek, the daughter of Wiktor Kobylec and granddaughter of Karolina Kobylec, both involved in operating the hideout, told TFN: “There were times when there were 30 people in that shelter, and they all needed to be fed. The operation was a bit like a modern company. The whole family had tasks that they had to perform.”
She added, “I only heard about what happened when I was in high school when one of the Jews from the hiding place came to our town to find out if the people who had saved him were still alive.
“After all my grandmother went through, the Gestapo coming to the house, being beaten badly, the arrest of her son and husband, she didn’t want to talk about it for many years.
“I have a lot of respect for the courage that they had then. My grandmother put at risk her whole family as well as neighbours who helped.”
The hideout was destroyed after the war but a model of it was built and is on display at the exhibition.
Alongside the exhibition, Zachęta will be organising walks in Warsaw to a hideout in a grave in Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery on Okopowa street where Abraham Carmi hid between 1939 and 1942.
Romik said “I was able to conduct an extensive interview with him in Israel before the pandemic. This hiding place still exists.”
Together with the cemetery director Witold Wrzesiński, Romik worked out how the hiding place looked like and how it was constructed.
“Abraham and Ajzyk Posner used bricks from the nearby unfinished Jewish Soldiers Mausoleum. They covered the top with gravestones and,” she said.
Other featured hideouts include a cupboard in a convent in Jarosław which had a fake back panel which when pushed revealed a hiding place, the tunnels of the Lviv sewage system, known from Agnieszka Holland's film In Darkness, a space under the floor of an apartment in Zhovkva near Lviv, and a wardrobe in a house in Huta Zaborowska on which pictures were drawn suggesting that a Jewish boy had hid inside it.
Hideouts. The Architecture of Survival will be on display at the Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw from 31 March to 17 July. From August 4 to November 6 the exhibition will be hosted by TRAFO Trafostacja Sztuki in Szczecin.