Architecture of hideouts from the times of the Holocaust

Why is it worthwhile to research the preserved hiding-places of Jews during the Holocaust? What is the purpose of studying the architecture of such places? What research methods are used? What fields of specialisation are represented by the researchers? Where is the work currently being performed to document the hiding-places of Jews and how is it progressing? Thus far, what has been discovered during the course of research into hiding-places in Poland? Read the study by Dr Natalia Romik about her current research into preserved Jewish hiding-places from the Holocaust. This text is part of the Jews in Hiding on the “Aryan Side” section in which we discuss this context of the Holocaust in details in many aspects.

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The theme of Jews hiding in occupied Poland is present in thousands of memoirs and diaries studied by Holocaust researchers, for example in Marian Berland’s Dni długie jak wieki [Days as Long as Centuries], personal testimonies given to Jewish commissions right after the war, as well as accounts included in the subsequent volumes of Dzieci Holocaustu Mówią… [Children of the Holocaust Speak…].   The most significant publications of the recent years to discuss (in a critical way) the topic of hiding and hideouts are, among others, the typology of hideouts by Marta Cobel-Tokarska as well as the works of researchers such as Jan Grabowski, Anna Bikont, Barbara Engelking, Jacek Leociak, and many others. Although the issue of Jews in hiding and the help they received has been tackled over the years in various research contexts concerning the Holocaust, we still know very little about the architecture of the hideouts. One reason is the disappearance of preserved hideouts over the years, another – focus put on the fate of those in hiding and their rescuers as opposed to the locations themselves.

Unique information about the structure of hideouts is provided by the account of engineer Edmund Schoenberg, Holocaust Survivor, supplemented with hand-drawn sketches and architectural diagrams. Schoenberg described all kinds of hideouts, from those simplest in structure to those more complex and elaborately designed. For example, he mentions how a shelter in an attic was made by boarding a thin brick wall so as to create additional concealed space. This hiding spot was used by a group of eight people who lived in the attic for two years. Schoenberg emphasises that they had to endure extremely harsh weather conditions (it was very hot in the summer, and too cold in the winter). Another example he brings forth was a hideout in the form of a passage to the basement, entered from a perfectly concealed pantry and leading through a secretly dug out corridor. In the description of the hideout, Schoenberg underlines that it was made with the use of very primitive tools, such as “a blunt chisel, a meat mallet.” He also describes the difficult working conditions, for example “pulling down a wall in a lying position.” As he writes:

“The construction itself needed to be deprived of the most necessary condition for fast and effective work, that is the use of force, because the resulting sounds could arouse the suspicion of the uninitiated and often malicious neighbours."

Unfortunately, the hideout was eventually exposed. Schoenberg ends his account with a bitter conclusion that perfectly reflects the emotions evoked by the circumstances of living in such hideouts:

"I will not talk about the difficult living conditions in such rooms or about the marks that this living has left on people, because this is a separate chapter in itself, and everyone can work it out with a little imagination. […] But perhaps the people who could tell us the most about it are those individuals who, with criminal zeal, helped their superiors uncover the bunkered people – gentlemen from O.D. [Ordung Dienst – the name of the Jewish Order Service in the Jewish ghettos]”.

Hideouts of Jews during the Holocaust: current trends and research methods

The remains of hideouts preserved to this day have been almost completely erased from architectural research and public awareness. Their form – an addition or modification to an existing functional space – does not make it easier for conservators of monuments to take them into proper care. Working out the most appropriate form of protection and commemoration is in fact one of the practical challenges that I myself am facing. Another significant issue is the lack of research on the actual material aspect of the hideouts and scarcity of well-documented sources. I found out about most of the hideouts I investigate from other people, often in informal conversations or when doing research on other issues. Discovering their history often means working with “a story within a story” – the architectural dimension of the space is an outer shell that hides deeper, oftentimes traumatic levels of the narrative.

I started to study hideouts as part of my post-doctoral research project in 2019. Apart from archival research, I use methods and tools from the domains of Jewish studies, architecture, and art (art-based research). In many cases, I collaborate with experts and researchers in archaeology, architecture, surveying, dendrology, and artistic activities. Having joined efforts with anthropologist Aleksandra Janus PhD, we were able to complete a significant phase of researching the hideout in the Jewish cemetery at Okopowa Street in Warsaw. Our cooperation continues as part of the ongoing works on expert evaluation of drawings found in a pre-war cabinet (probably a hideout) in Huta Zaborowska. We are also working on an exhibition titled The Architecture of Survival planned for 2022. The exhibition is organised in cooperation with Zachęta – National Gallery of Art and TRAFO Trafostacja Sztuki, its curators are Kuba Szreder PhD and Stanisław Ruksza. It is based on the results of my research, with Aleksandra Janus PhD serving as the academic associate of the undertaking. In addition to research materials, the exhibition will also present sculptures made of castings (in silicone and plaster) of fragments of hideouts.

My research has so far covered the hideouts in the Józef Oak in Wiśniowa, Podkarpackie Province, and in the burial quarters in the Jewish cemetery at Okopowa Street (which I will discuss in detail below), as well as the already mentioned wardrobe in Huta Zaborowska, the interior of the Vertreba and Ozerna caves (Ukraine), part of the municipal sewage system in Lviv, hideout under the floor in a private house in Żółkiew (Ukr. Zolochiv), as well as a fragment of a basement in Siemianowice Śląskie. In my work, I use research tools from many disciplines: apart from archival and field studies, I am also aided by the most recent trends in archaeological research and surveying, which allow me to thoroughly study the construction of hideouts and the functions of rooms. Methods such as 3D laser scanning and optical scanning, drones, and photogrammetry provide a detailed insight into the characteristics of the spatial layout, structure, and shape of hideouts.  

Ceiling made of matzevot and stairs inside an oak tree. Site-specific analysis of two examples of Jewish hideouts

In Section no. 41 of the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery at Okopowa Street, there is an inconspicuous hole in the ground which during the war served as a shelter for a group of Jews. Among them was Abraham Carmi, who, together with his mother and uncle, was roaming around Warsaw looking for hiding places in the years 1939–1942. He stayed in the bunker in Okopowa Street from July to September 1942. During our research with Aleksandra Janus, we managed to establish the identity and fate of the people associated with the hideout in Section no. 41. We know for sure that the Jews hiding there were: Abraham Mordechaj Stolbach (later: Carmi, born in Krzeszowice in 1928), his mother Lea Stolbach (née Klingberg, born in Będzin) and their relatives: Abraham’s cousin, Doctor Izaak Posner (born in Warsaw) with his wife Gutka (née Zylbrajch, born in Modliborzyce), as well as the daughter of the stonemason Mosze Aroniak – Halina and Dawid Płoński (alias “Jurek,” born in 1926 in Otwock, member of the group of children known as the “cigarette sellers of Three Crosses Square”), a relative of the Aroniak family.

The hideout was set up on the initiative of Abraham Mosze Posner, who was the caretaker of the cemetery, as well as the father of Izaak Posner and uncle of Abraham Stolbach/Carmi. It was created by removing the dividing brick wall from an existing double grave. The hideout constructed by Posner was covered with three rails (which are still there) on which matzevot were laid flat, creating a makeshift ceiling. During the research, we managed to take inventory of several movable objects which then underwent preliminary conservation works. As part of the research, a project to commemorate the hideout was initiated in cooperation with the SENNA collective (Sebastian Kucharuk, Piotr Jakoweńko, Natalia Romik).

An entirely different type of a hideout was the Józef Oak, which grows on the Mycielski estate in Wiśniowa, Podkarpackie Province. During the war, two or three brothers found shelter inside the tree, which is alive but has a hollow trunk. During the research, I was able to establish their identity and fate. We know that they were brothers called Denholz: Paul, Jankiel, and Dawid. Dawid and Paul survived the Holocaust, and the latter gave his account after the war.

During the research conducted in the summer of 2021 with my team and in cooperation with dendrologist Jerzy Bielczyk, we managed to take a look inside the tree (with the use of a boom lift) and discovered preserved wooden steps made by the hiding brothers and metal clamps fixed into the internal walls of the tree. They probably allowed not only to install the steps, but also to move inside the vertical "chimney" space. Samples for testing were taken from the inside of the oak, the entire space was also documented with photographs, and measurements were made with an endoscopic and an optical camera.  Interestingly, long before the war, Wiśniowa had been periodically visited by painter Józef Mehoffer for plein-air painting. One of his works depicting the dignified oak won the competition for artwork to be printed on the 100 zlotys banknote, organised in the 1930s by the Bank of Poland. The banknote entered circulation in 1934. Today, the Józef Oak (a pedunculate oak about 30 m tall and with trunk circumference of 675 cm) is about 650 years old. In 2016, it won the prestigious European Tree of the Year competition. My current research may enrich the story of this natural monument with a fascinating but so far widely unknown chapter.

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The above text will be updated following the author's further documentation and research work.

Dr. Natalia Romik, ed. Mateusz Szczepaniak, October 2021


Read more:


  • Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, Zbiór relacji Żydów Ocalałych z Zagłady, Relacja Edmunda Schönberga, No. 301/2344.
  • M. Cobel-Tokarska, Bezludna wyspa, nora, grób. Wojenne kryjówki Żydów w okupowanej Polsce, Instytut Pamięci Narodowej – Komisja Ścigania Zbrodni przeciwko Narodowi Polskiemu, Warszawa 2012. 
  • Dalej jest noc. Losy Żydów w wybranych powiatach okupowanej Polski, ed. B. Engelking, J. Grabowski, vol.1–2, Stowarzyszenie Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów, Warszawa 2018.
  • B. Engelking, „Jest taki piękny słoneczny dzień...”. Losy Żydów szukających ratunku na wsi polskiej 1942–1945, Stowarzyszenie Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów, Warszawa 2011.
  • J. Grabowski, Judenjagd. Polowanie na Żydów 1942–1945. Studium dziejów pewnego powiatu, Stowarzyszenie Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów, Warszawa 2011.
  • E. Rączy, Pomoc Polaków dla ludności Żydowskiej na Rzeszowszczyźnie 1939–1945, Instytut Pamięci Narodowej – Komisja Ścigania Zbrodni przeciwko Narodowi Polskiemu, Rzeszów 2008.
  • N. Romik, Wywiad z Abrahamem Carmim, Mikveh (Israel), 05.03.2020 [author's archive].
  • Mt. Sora, Józef Mehoffer – twórca pieniądza. Jak powstał banknot 100 zł z 1934 r., „Bankoteka” 2018, No. 13.
  • J. Tokarska-Bakir, Okrzyki pogromowe. Szkice z antropologii historycznej Polski lat 1939–1945, Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2012.