Hiding Places of Jews in Occupied Poland

During the Holocaust, where did Jews hide on the “Aryan side”? Did they hide alone or in groups, or with outside support? What comprised a “hiding-place”? What characterised this type of space? Where were built and by whom? What effects did they have on their inhabitants? Could a hiding-place, which is by definition temporary, replace a home for those in hiding? Read the study by Dr Marta Cobel-Tokarska on the types and characteristics of Jewish hiding-places during 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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During the Holocaust, Jews had basically three ways of saving their lives: fleeing from the areas under German occupation, obtaining false identity documents, or hiding on the “Aryan side.” Those who chose to go into hiding suddenly found themselves in very limited spaces, both physically, socially, and symbolically   In order to paint a more detailed picture of the world of hideouts in occupied Poland, I will first present their typology, and then discuss the individual, sensual experience of inhabiting such places. Despite all their limitations, they would often become a substitute home for persecuted people, which I will argue for in the final part of the present study. I would like to put particular emphasis on the topic of forest hideouts, which has become strongly associated with images of refugees who are currently (as of October 2021) wandering the forests near the Polish-Belarusian border. It is shocking to view contemporary events in this historical context and to realise that today – more than 75 years after the war – people are dying in Polish forests from cold and exhaustion.

“We have been hiding in a forest for a few days. We have nothing to eat, we barely made it out alive, we are barefoot. We can't sleep due the cold, we hold each other tightly. I snuggle against the children and they snuggle against me, but we cannot sleep. We collect whortleberries and cranberries found in the forest. They aren’t very satiating. Nobody is complaining, but I can see that my children are killed by hunger during the day and by cold at night,” wrote Rywka Potasz while hiding in occupied Poland during the Holocaust.

What is a hideout? Typology and characteristics of hiding places

The Polish language dictionary gives the following explanation of the word „kryjówka” (hideout):  “a place to safely hide something; a place where someone is hiding, a hiding place, a hideout, a shelter.” . The verb „kryć się” (to hide):  “to stay hidden, to conceal oneself so as not to be seen; to seek shelter, to remove oneself from an endangered or uncomfortable place.” Ukrywać się (to be in hiding): “1. To hide; 2. To find a shelter, a hiding place somewhere, to remove yourself from an endangered place.”

Thus „Kryjówka” (hideout) is a place that was supposed to be safer than the outside world, and where a person was to remain invisible to people who were a threat to them.  

All hiding Jews had their own stories of their wandering and homelessness during the German occupation and of the places where they awaited salvation. Each account could be completely different, just as the fates of individual people were unique and incomparable. To organise this reality, I have undertaken to develop a typology of the hideouts on the basis of selected criteria. The hiding places would thus be divided into temporary and long-term; self-reliant and assisted; in cities, in the countryside, and in “no man's land”; solitary and collective.

Temporary and long-term hideouts

This category has been defined on the basis of the time which a given person was planning to spend in the hideout. A temporary hideout is one used in the event of immediate threat, chosen on the spur of the moment. It can also be described as improvised or random, found instinctively. It was of course possible to stay in a temporary hideout for a period lasting more than 24 hours, waiting until it was possible to leave. However, it was never meant as a place to stay the night, and the hiding person would usually use the hideout for hours rather than days. Long-term hideouts, meanwhile, were places where it was planned to stay longer and sleep. This time could extend to months or even years. Plans to move to a long-term hideout usually involved setting rules, gathering supplies, and adapting the living space prior to the stay.

Temporary hideouts were found under immense fear, anxiety, and heightened alertness. They were often improbable, uncomfortable places, unfit for hosting a living being. Sometimes people would hide in places almost completely exposed to the eyes of others – but at the moment, they had no other choice. Such hideouts were mainly cubbyholes used during displacement actions in ghettos. The greatest number of examples can be found in the accounts and memories from the Warsaw ghetto; these are descriptions of improvised hideouts during the so-called Great Liquidation Action (Grossaktion; July–September 1942). However, such hiding places were not used exclusively during deportations from ghettos. They often served as a stopover for escapees from ghettos or extermination sites seeking permanent shelter or waiting for "Aryan papers." Ignacy Bierzyński-Burnett, having escaped from the forced labour camp in Bliżyn, came to Warsaw on 16 December 1943 with a friend to meet an acquaintance:  

“When we got to the courtyard, we saw a building in front of us, a huge dustbin at the other end of the courtyard, and behind it, a sign indicating a public toilet. It was a typical, large Warsaw townhouse. Without hesitating, we entered the toilet. To the left was a urinal that had long ago been painted black. Above it was a recess, almost two meters above the floor, with a window, the only one in the entire toilet. In this niche, crouching down, Staszek spent his first night in Warsaw. He went on to use the same spot several times. […] There were four stalls in the toilet, separated by brick walls about 2 m high, with cement floors. We locked ourselves in one of them. While waiting there, we had to devise a strategy. It was too early to go entering strangers’ flats in occupied Warsaw and asking for our friend. We decided to change stalls every few minutes, so as not to raise any suspicions as to why one of them was constantly occupied. We kept silent when someone else was inside another stall or was using the urinal. […] Time was passing. We probably changed stalls 50 times, not arousing any suspicions. Various people were coming in and out. Evening came and it was dark. There was, of course, no light in the toilet.”

Temporary hiding places also include the special category of “a hideout in a hideout,” which was used in the event of an emergency, for instance someone’s unexpected visit. The experience of Sabina Rachel Kałowska may serve as an example here. After leaving the ghetto in Jędrzejów, she was hiding at her friend Tola’s. In her memoirs, she described two examples of finding “a hideout in a hideout”: the first was during the visits of Tola’s friend, when Rachel had to sit in the wardrobe. On another occasion, when some guests came by to see Tola, Rachel was hidden in bed: “Rafał and Heniek covered me with bedding, lying it along the bed on the side of the wall, as was often done, and covering it all with some kind of blanket […] and the guests were sitting on the edge of the bed.”

As opposed to temporary hiding places, long-term hideouts were a basic and common phenomenon. Unlike those described above, they had to meet many conditions, most importantly provide more space, so that one could stay there for more than a few hours. It was necessary to have access to food and drink, either by gathering supplies on the spot, coming out of hiding on an ongoing basis to obtain necessary goods, or receiving help from someone who was not in hiding. The problem of dealing with physiological needs also had to be resolved. It was much easier when hiding in someone's house or yard; conversely, the builders of bunkers and dugouts or people living in ruins had to put on an architect’s or engineer’s hat in order to plan everything effectively.

Bunkers and other shelters were built not only in Warsaw, but in almost all cities in Poland. Despite extremely difficult conditions, people would often live in hiding for several or even a dozen or so months. Halina Frydman thus described the shelter arranged under the Koźmiński family house in Wawer:

“I remember how our bunker was built. Buckets of soil, carried by a human chain, were taken out at night. A shored basement was built. There was a copper cover next to the tiled heating stove, and the entrance to the bunker was hidden under it. To get there, one had to climb down a ladder. During the day, when we were on the ground floor, there was always someone keeping guard.”

Similar structures were built in villages. The hideout of Rut Leisner and her family can serve as an example here. From February 1944 until the summer of the same year, they hid at a farm in the surroundings of Godulin near Vilnius:

“He [the farmer] agreed to keep us provided that the hiding place would not be located in any of the buildings. He dug a burrow at the back of the barn, not much larger than a grave, accessed from the inside through a small opening in its wall. The hole in the barn was covered with a sheaf of straw, the outer opening was camouflaged with a pile of wood, branches, and all kinds of rubbish. We sat in this burrow day and night. When it rained, it was wet until the water soaked into the ground. The farmer brought us some food every few days, just enough for us not to die of starvation.”

Equally frequently used as long-term hiding places were dugouts built in forests, in many ways similar to city bunkers. They used almost the same technical solutions, except that the builders of bunkers located in cities had an easier task: they had access to basements, walls, building materials from the ruins. In the forest, meanwhile, the hideout had to be built completely from scratch. Henryk Hoffmann and his family were hiding in a dugout near Drohobycz. This is how he described his experience: 

“There were eight people in the dugout, carved out in a wooded area, clad, like in a mine, with wooden shores, about three or four meters in size and two meters high, with four bunks full of bedbugs, padded with straw and hay. There was a small tin stove, one kerosene lamp. The rammed earth was the floor. It was a terrible shock for my parents.” 

When describing hideouts in terms of the planned duration of stay, it is important to remember that people rarely managed to survive the war in the first hiding place they found. It was also hardly possible to ever make any long-term plans. Jews would usually go asking for shelter from family to family, after the previous hosts had refused to hide them any longer. Wacław Iglicki, who had jumped out of a train headed to Treblinka near Łuków, said the following:

“Indeed, people did help. It must be said objectively that they did not stint on bread, or anything else. But there was a problem with staying for the night. People were afraid. They did not agree to overnight or longer stays. […] So that’s what was done: at night, when everyone was asleep, you would creep in somewhere, into a cowshed, a barn, and try to survive. Only making sure that the owner didn't know about it. Or maybe they knew and chose to look the other way?”  

In addition, maintaining a long-term hideout – either self-reliant or assisted – depended on a great number of factors. Arranging everything in order to live in a hideout for a considerable period of time required a great deal of effort, creativity, and luck. However, it was the human factor which always proved decisive. One unkind person, one denunciation, one unannounced visit was enough to render the shelter unusable. 

CTenants would often be thrown out of their hideouts due to a conflict with the landlords. Sometimes, the owners simply did not want to hide Jews any longer, for example for economic reasons (they believed that the money paid by the hiding people did not make up for the inconvenience and dangers associated with their presence). 

Self-reliant and assisted hideouts

This category uses the criterion of the presence of external help in arranging a hiding place. It is first important to note that the help offered to those in hiding was provided to varying degrees. Szymon Datner has identified two forms of help: circumstantial aid (one-time feeding, lending clothes, etc.) and permanent rescue efforts (long-term care). It is impossible to provide a comprehensive list of all forms of help. There was, for example, acceptance or sympathetic tolerance to a person trying to hide on their own, wilfully turning a blind eye to their hiding place and thus enabling its existence. Forms of assistance which required greater commitment included: one-time feeding, providing accommodation, financial support, help in exchanging or selling things, help in finding or building a hideout, obtaining false documents, constant feeding, all the way to providing someone with a place to stay in one’s home and taking full financial responsibility for supporting them. It is important to note that the helpers were not always Poles (or more broadly: non-Jews). The hiding Jews also helped each other, for instance by letting someone else into their hideout. It also often happened that a person having "Aryan papers" or simply moving relatively freely in the outside world supported the other members of the group.

Powyżej (⇧) rekonstrukcja kryjówki Żydów zlokalizowanej na strychu domu jednorodzinnego o dwuspadowym dachu z zamaskowanym wejściem przez skrzynię; model wykonany przez Mirosława Burego na podstawie opisu i rysunku inż. Edmunda Schönberga (AŻIH, sygn. 301/2344); ilustracja z katalogu wystawy czasowej Żegota. Ukryta pomoc w Muzeum Historycznym Miasta Krakowa – Oddziale Fabryka Emalia Oskara Schindlera, Kraków (listopad 2017 – lipiec 2018)Kliknij, aby powiększyć ilustrację i zobaczyć szczegóły 🔎 Więcej ilustracji znajdziesz w galerii na górze strony (⤻).

The existence and functioning of assisted hideouts required the involvement of third parties, people who did not use a given hiding place. Self-reliant hideouts, on the other hand, were created or found by those in hiding themselves. Their inhabitants took care of their own needs and, to a large extent, had their fate in their own hands. Most long-term hideouts were assisted hiding places. It was practically impossible to survive in hiding for many months without having some sort of contact with the outside world. Most self-reliant hideouts were either temporary hiding places (though with exceptions) or long-term arrangements in unpopulated areas, for example the hideouts of the “Warsaw Robinsons” in the demolished ghetto or in ruins during and after the Warsaw Uprising. Many of those people died buried under the rubble, others died of disease, exhaustion, cold, starvation, or were killed. Not only were the “Robinsons” forced to deal with the extremely difficult living conditions in the ruins and the constant search for food and water, but they also struggled with feelings of loneliness, being cut off from information about local and world events (for example, they did not know what happened after the fall of the uprising). The people in the most difficult predicament were those hiding alone, like the most famous “Robinson” – Władysław Szpilman

Some forest hideouts can also be classified as self-reliant. People who escaped from a ghetto, a transport to a death camp, or a mass execution site often spent a long time looking for a permanent shelter, and in the meantime hid on their own in forests or other uninhabited areas. They searched for food themselves, unable to count on anyone's help, because no one knew about their existence. 

When discussing assisted hideouts, a distinction should be made between organised and individual assistance. There existed organizations helping people find a hiding place and then maintaining it. This took a considerable burden away from those in hiding, but the influence and scope of activity of such initiatives was not broad enough as to fundamentally change the experience of hiding. The involvement of such organizations, for example the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews, gave Jews an increased sense of security, but, although equipped with addresses and money, they still were forced to go through the same motions as the people using self-reliant hideouts – they entered other people’s lives, took up space in their homes, and had to form a rapport with them.

Powyżej (⇧) rekonstrukcja kryjówki Żydów zlokalizowanej na strychu z zakamyflowanym wejściem przez szafę w budynku na granicy getta i tzw. aryjskiej strony w Brzesku; model wykonany przez Mirosława Burego na podstawie opisu i rysunku inż. Edmunda Schönberga (AŻIH, sygn. 301/2344); ilustracja z katalogu wystawy czasowej Żegota. Ukryta pomoc w Muzeum Historycznym Miasta Krakowa – Oddziale Fabryka Emalia Oskara Schindlera, Kraków (listopad 2017 – lipiec 2018)Kliknij, aby powiększyć ilustrację i zobaczyć szczegóły 🔎 Więcej ilustracji znajdziesz w galerii na górze strony (⤻).

Another important criterion is the physical (as well as emotional) distance between the hiding and the helpers. I refer to the hiding places organized in someone's house, apartment, or farmyard as functioning “under one roof.” Naturally, people hiding at someone’s house often received help from other people, not only from the hosts. The second type were hideouts organized relatively independently, in the forest, in the ruins; their functioning was based on external help of varying intensity. I have named these “at a distance” hideouts. 

Helping someone by hiding them in one’s own home was one of the most difficult wartime experiences, both for the host and the hidden person. It was certainly facilitated by the bonds of friendship between the two parties, but even the most harmonious relationship ran the risk of falling apart after living in such a delicate and dangerous arrangement. The experience of hiding “under one roof” was associated with overwhelming fear. Both sides were afraid of the same thing – the exposure of the hideout and the resulting death penalty. However, it was usually the hosts who had the agency and power to make decisions. They could expel the “guests” out of their home at any time (and even denounce them to the Germans) and thus restore the  status quo from before the arrival of Jews seeking shelter. The hiding people, meanwhile, did not have an option to alleviate their fear. It followed them everywhere, regardless of where they were hiding. In the event of falling out with the hosts, bad living conditions or any other difficulties, the hiding Jews theoretically had the option of leaving at any moment, but such a decision brought with itself the need to look for another hideout. It was not an easy call to make, which is why people would sometime spend months trapped in an unfavourable predicament, living in terrible conditions, knowing that they were cheated, exploited, and mistreated. The imbalance of power and resources forced hiding Jews into subordination and dependence, sometimes leaving them fully at the mercy and whim of their hosts. Unable to defend themselves, they would at times end up at the bottom of the home hierarchy, becoming the “scapegoat” of the family.

Powyżej (⇧) rekonstrukcja kryjówki Żydów zlokalizowanej w piwnicy budynku wielorodzinnego z zakamuflowanym wejściem w skrzyni na pierwszym piętrze; model wykonany przez Mirosława Burego na podstawie opisu i rysunków inż. Edmunda Schönberga (AŻIH, sygn. 301/2344); ilustracja z katalogu wystawy czasowej Żegota. Ukryta pomoc w Muzeum Historycznym Miasta Krakowa – Oddziale Fabryka Emalia Oskara Schindlera, Kraków (listopad 2017 – lipiec 2018)Kliknij, aby powiększyć ilustrację i zobaczyć szczegóły 🔎 Więcej ilustracji znajdziesz w galerii na górze strony (⤻).

When inviting friends or strangers under one’s roof, the host had to accept the ensuing changes in their everyday life. The presence of hiding people at home or in the farmyard brought with itself many unforeseen circumstances, technical complications (how to arrange the hideout, how to do more shopping without drawing the others’ attention, how to organise daily life) and emotional dilemmas. In order to adapt to the living conditions in a given home, the hiding person had to accept the rules imposed by the host, subordinate themselves, pay a fixed amount for the shelter or work for the host. And, most importantly, they needed to become the least visible and the least burdensome element of the home system, get into the host's good graces, and thus try to survive.

The topography of hiding: city – countryside – no man's land

The hideouts varied greatly depending on whether they were established in a city, in the countryside or in a forest. Each location brought with itself different environmental and social conditions or, in other words, opportunities and dangers. An important factor was also the degree of isolation of the Jewish population from Poles. It had a bearing on everything that happened to Jews during the war, and therefore also on the experience of hiding.

For people leaving the ghetto or fleeing during deportation, the city offered many potential hiding places, some more accessible than others. People had a higher chance of finding a shelter in their hometowns, as they could take advantage of their knowledge of topography and their ties with the non-Jewish population. However, Jews would often end up in places they had never visited, where their situation was more difficult. Many believed it would be easier to find a hiding place in a big city, which is why they travelled to Warsaw or other large urban centres. Having arrived there, they had to learn to move within the labyrinth of the city, which was often governed by complicated laws and proved extremely confusing, especially to those displaced from rural areas, who did not have any experience with living in an urban environment. There were also significant differences between seeking shelters in smaller towns and larger cities.

Hideouts in urban areas can be divided into:

  • hideouts in one’s own home,
  • hideouts in someone else's home; also in a townhouse, in the yard, in outbuildings,
  • hideouts in non-residential buildings (factories, churches, shops, warehouses, etc.),
  • hideouts in specially prepared bunkers,
  • hideouts in a ruined city, in a damaged, deserted building.

While we consider documents from the Warsaw ghetto as the most reliable testimonies from the times of the Holocaust, there are also many texts describing the fate of Jews looking for help in the countryside. Their ordeal was in many ways different to those who hid in Warsaw or other cities. This difference was felt especially by those Jews who had been city dwellers before the Holocaust and did not know village life. The basic factor taken into account when looking for hiding places in the countryside were topographic conditions: landscape, the degree of afforestation, and population of the area. On the one hand, fewer people living in the area meant fewer dangers, but on the other, less human-made structures forced those in hiding to rely on themselves and the nature. 

A separate problem was the attitude of villagers towards Jews. It was not uncommon for people of Jewish descent to experience hostility, as well as denunciations or even active violence on the part of the local population, who would at times destroy hideouts or even murder the Jews in hiding.  

People giving testimonies always assessed the general situation through the lens of their own personal experiences. For some people who miraculously survived deportation campaigns in their hometowns, the countryside could be a salvation. For others – a place where it was impossible to hide. Chaim Icchak Wohlegelernter, an inhabitant of Działoszyce (Pińczów District), wrote: : 

“It was easier to save yourself in the countryside. The average peasants did not hate us – on the contrary, they were always willing to talk to Jews and believe them in every matter. Unless a Jew had given them some valuables to guard, they had no reason to hurt him or do wrong by him. The peasants sympathised with us in our suffering and misfortune. They showed it by welcoming us with bread and water. They were admittedly afraid to let us into their homes because announcements were posted in every village that whoever took a Jew home or gave him a piece of bread would pay for it with his life. Nevertheless, when things calmed down a little, they allowed us to sleep in the barns, and they even took the women and children into their homes.”  

Florian Majewski (Mosze Aron Lajbcygier) had a different view of hiding in the countryside. An acquaintance gave him a shelter in Siucice, a village near Żarnów. He was supposed to work in the hideout as a carpenter, and the acquaintance was to get hold of the necessary tools.

“Look what I brought,” he said. He looked dissatisfied. “If you ask for anything, they immediately want to know what for, for whom and why. It looks like they've sniffed you out. I knew very well that people in the village could sniff anything out. One look at the clouds will tell you all about tomorrow's weather. The slightest trace on the moss will tell you what kind of an animal was there. And if a carpenter borrows tools, it means that he has a worker at home.”

The areas that I call “no man's land” were a sort of a border zone: neither a village nor a city. On the one hand, such hideouts were relatively safe, but on the other, they required great determination, knowledge, physical strength, and skills to survive in inhospitable conditions, without civilizational facilities, with limited access to outside help. Among the most common were forest hideouts, as Poland was largely a woodland country. Seeking shelter among the trees was a natural instinct. One of the better researched ways to hide in a forest were family camps. The following types of forest hideouts can be distinguished:

  • temporary – spending one night in a forest,
  • wandering with no permanent hideout,
  • dugouts – single structures or clusters,
  • hiding in forest settlements.

The inhabitants of forest hideouts often lived in symbiosis with the people from nearby villages. The settlements were primarily a source of food, eighter bought, begged for, offered, or stolen. The people in hiding were helped by peasants in building shelters and received or bought from them various items necessary to arrange the hiding places. However, the local population was also the main threat – Jews feared robberies, denunciation, and murders; they needed to learn to walk a fine line, maintaining proper caution in contacts with the villagers and being able to read their moods.

Staying in a forest hideout demanded a lot of physical strength, cleverness, endurance, and resilience. The people who had the greatest chance of survival were healthy and enterprising, ready to face the challenges brought by living in the woods. These hideouts were generally supported “at a distance,” requiring greater independence, but in return providing a degree of freedom and contact with nature. They were very different from hiding places in the cities: double walls, stuffy bunkers, cramped rooms behind a wardrobe. The forest provided those in hiding with fresh air, clean water, peace and quiet. The greatest threat – as with any hideout – were other people. The greatest difficulty – perseverance in extreme poverty, in dug-out pits comparable to wild animals’ burrows. 

Solitary hideouts – group hideouts

Temporary hideouts were often solitary. A single person did not run the risk of being exposed due to the fault of their companions. Sometimes it was impossible to hide the whole family, but even a very confined space proved enough for one person to stay for a short time. Thus, it often happened that only a single family member would be left behind in a town after a deportation campaign, like Genia from the Lviv ghetto, who told Janina Masłowska:

“They took my mum, my little brother, and everyone else, and I hid in a bush and they overlooked me, and then the action ended.”

With long-term hideouts, there were very few cases of people hiding alone, without any outside help. In fact, the only examples can be found among the aforementioned “Robinsons.” There were, however, some assisted solitary hideouts, such as Florian Majewski's forest bunker. He survived several months alone in the forest, supported by friends from a nearby village. A separate, very common model was a solitary hideout “under one roof,” when a family only had room to give shelter to one person.  

On the one hand, solitary hideouts were free from many troubles plaguing group arrangements, but on the other hand, hiding alone must have been a very difficult existential experience. The person living in a solitary hideout did not struggle with overcrowding (however cramped the hiding place) and could do as they pleased with the space and all stored goods. There were no conflicts of interest, no area of authority or regulations establishing the rules of collective life. However, there was a sense of isolation, abandonment, and being left to one’s own devices.  

In group hideouts, the people hiding together may have met on a chance, they could have been friends, neighbours from one townhouse or village, family members or total strangers. The group dynamic would change depending on the relationship between its members. It was influenced by many factors, but the most important seemed to be: nbsp;

  • the conditions of hiding, and above all the amount of space in the hideout,
  • external conditions,
  • sthe degree of internal diversity of the group (for example, in financial terms),
  • in the case of assisted hideouts, the relationship with the helper, who may have favoured a certain group member or not tolerated another.

Group hideouts would take many forms:

  • bunkers (for example in the ghetto),
  • forest dugouts,
  • shelters prepared for the eventuality of deportation actions,
  • hideouts in inhabited dwellings (outbuildings).

OThe presence of several people always leads to establishing certain power relations and unveils inequalities which generate conflicts. A group hideout was more difficult to set up and easier to expose. But even when no conflicts broke out, the mere circumstance of people being crowded in a small area, in difficult conditions, with no way out, triggered enormous anxiety and tension and often led the hiding Jews to severely overreact to minor events. In the most extreme cases, certain dwellers of a hideout would be killed to minimise the risk of unwanted sounds (coughing, crying of an infant). The difficulties often multiplied with the growing number of people in hiding. Jews hiding in bunkers and in other people’s apartments would struggle with overcrowding, stuffiness, problems with discipline, organisation, and establishing the rules that would apply to all the dwellers.

Individual experience of hiding

 “Like every human dwelling, our little room had its own daily rhythm, its individual life. From 6am to 4pm, life fell silent. The hosts were at work at that time, so no one was at home because no one could be. If you have to exist in such a room, you have to, as it were, get rid of your body and its physiological activities. You need to become like an object, completely motionless. For these nine hours of the day, our hands, legs, and internal organs froze. Only the brain and the heart worked.” 

The sensual experience of a hideout encompasses the entire spectrum of heightened sensitivity to the physical environment when fighting for survival: the availability of oxygen, light, the presence of various odours, humidity, temperature, noise level. Sight and hearing were important in hideouts. Smell brought various, most often unpleasant, sensations. However, in view of limited and monotonous stimuli, touch became the most important of the senses. A person experiencing hiding through touch cannot escape a whole range of sensations from which there is no escape. Hideouts were often associated with extremely poor living conditions. People crammed in dugouts, bunkers, sheds, barns, or pigsties were doomed to direct contact with matter that they would normally avoid. There were walls damp from condensation of breaths or covered with mould, soil, worms, clay, and mud, decayed or rotten boards, and excrement, one's own or someone else's. There were also various things stored in the basement, cellar, or attic: old furniture, rags, potatoes, hay, wood, coal.  

Objects and surfaces seemed to dominate, press against the body of the hiding person, who had nowhere to withdraw, no way to rest. It was usually the body that had to adapt to the objects, not the other way around. Landsberg noted: “I'm still sitting on lime in the barrel. Only the legs and head are sticking out. The barrel is oval, it was once used in the shop to store ice cream. […] I wake up with a pain in my back and under my knees – the sharp edges of the barrel had buried into the body.” Dwojra Frymet recalled: “I hid in a barn once so that they wouldn't find me. The stalks of straw almost poked my eyes out.” “There were no windows in the basement, and there was plenty of straw around,” Etka Żółtak recounted. One can try to imagine the omnipresent hay, which perhaps smells nice right after being harvested, but later, covered with dust and full of mites, suffocates and scratches the people trapped inside. 

Adding to all this were also sensations associated with temperature, not only of air, but also of things. When the hideout was in the attic, the metal sheet roof would heat up on a hot day and burn the body. In the winter, wet walls, for example in a basement, turned icy cold, and when they were also poorly isolated, the chill was unbearable. Clothing, which usually protects the human body from constant, direct contact with the world, no longer fulfilled its function in many hideouts. The clothes got torn and dirty, people hardly ever had a change. It was rarely possible to bathe or do laundry in the hideout. Thus, one’s own unwashed body, clothed in dirty rags and irritated by the constant touch of unpleasant surfaces, constituted an unbearable torture.  It sometimes happened that unpleasant touch of matter was a direct threat – for example, a collapsing ceiling could attack the inhabitants of the hideout. Katz talked about such an incident:  

“The heat of the fire and our bodies was thawing the frozen soil of the bunker walls until it turned into soft mud. Just before dawn, the silence of the night was broken by a scream of terror coming from the corner where Rywka was sleeping. […] The roof shook. You could hear the rustle of sliding soil and the creak of logs rubbing against the wall near the fire. […] – It's not a dream, the soil has buried my legs! […] The roof fell on my legs, look, you can see the sky, my left leg is trapped. Help me, help me!”

A flood in the hideout could take a truly dramatic turn. Such was the experience of Landsberg:

“Today an eerie thing happened, we almost lost our lives. We were sleeping during the day, as per usual, because we crawl into the chest at night. We were awakened at around 1pm by a terrible noise. As soon as I turned on the light, I realised that water was pouring out of the chest. Rudy [“Redhead” – ed.] grabbed a shovel and a lamp and ran to the ditch, but suddenly a wave of water crashed down and threw him back into the cabin. At the same time, water flooded the light and the wire, the current threw it against the wall with the force of 220 V. The cabin began to rapidly fill up with water. Rudy, deathly pale, cried out: ‘We have died!’ The falling water made such a noise that we barely heard one another. I called out to R. that he should try to open the box with dirt covering the hatch to the basement. Rudy submerged, drank some water, and leaned back, shouting: ‘I cannot.’ I called out: ‘Try again – this is your only salvation.’ Rudy dipped again. The water keeps flowing in. I try to push away the floating light bulb, still on. The water is up to the neck, Rudy is gone, it's about time! […] Had the hatch not been opened, the cabin would fill with water up to the ceiling a long time ago. […] We are standing waist-deep in water. Everything in the basement is floating. […] Our apartment is flooded and who knowns whether it will ever be fit for use again. […] it was a cloudburst.” 

Another aspect of touch in the hideout is the presence of other people. Stella Fidelseid recounted: “It's really hard to stay in the hideout. It’s cramped, stuffy, and dark. One person is leaning against the other because of fatigue. There are quarrels, hissing.” Sometimes, however, the physical presence of other people's bodies was a saving grace – for example when a companion's body was the only source of heat available. Menachem Katz described a cold night in the woods just before his bunker was built: “We lay down, clinging to each other, on a layer of dry leaves, covering ourselves with the clothes and rags we had with us. […] Despite the cold, snuggling into each other and warming each other, we lived through this first night in the forest easier than we thought.” The touch of another person also helped in times of the greatest terror, bringing comfort, helping to withstand fear.

To sum up, the biological imperative was the basic experience in a hideout. The circumstances imposed a stillness. The hiding person had to keep quiet, not move. Usually, everyone was assigned a permanent place. The luxury of solitude was unknown. In every corner, the hiding person was exposed to the gaze of others. Through this experience, people developed a unique approach to their own bodies. Because you needed to hide, the body was treated as an object. It suddenly became the most important thing, the centre of one’s attention, most of the activities focussed on its needs and the threats it generated. Hiding required discipline and self-control.

The immobility of the body, similar to death but retaining the residues of life, is like a coma. A person who is hiding and immobilised is also tormented. It is their body that becomes their “selfness.” The mind has to view the body as a package that needs to be kept. It cannot count on bargaining with it – the package cannot be compressed, its dimensions cannot be changed, it cannot be stopped from doing certain things, for instance breathing. It is hard to control. Although it is an object, it has its own biological needs, so apart from hiding from the sight, hearing, and smell of others, it also needs to be taken care of, even to a minimum extent (air, food, water, temperature, excretion). In the hideout, a person remains one being, but also becomes their own enemy. They have to save their body – a thing that hinders survival. . 

Summary: hideout as a home

Michał Głowiński thus described the mansard on Srebrna Street in Warsaw where he was hiding with his mother after leaving the ghetto: “To these four dilapidated walls we owe not being homeless, and therefore quickly and inevitably sent to death.” The hideout is an immediate remedy to the wartime homelessness crisis, which could not be prevented under the conditions of occupation. When analysing the phenomenon of a hideout as a substitute house during war, we note that it is an incoherent, non-functional abode, a place of suffering and tension. However, for the hiding Jews, their hideout was still the friendliest place possible. I will now try to depict the hiding place as a home, though bearing in mind that even the best, most comfortable hideout was still a space of deprivation, limitation, and enslavement for the people inhabiting it.

A hideout can never become real home because it is always a temporary place, lacking intimacy. In a hideout, there is no rooting, no security, no time, or conditions for “setting up home.” In some testimonies, however, I have found records of moments when those in hiding felt at home in their hideouts. In those instances, the hiding place satisfied the need for human warmth and presence of loved ones. As Landsberg wrote:  

“I open my eyes – it's dark. Impenetrable, dense darkness, black as shoe polish. Where am I?! Left hand meets something slimy, cold. Yuck! The right one is feeling my chest rising steadily with my breath. It's Rudy! Finally, ‘I'm home.’ I reach for the matches in my pocket and light a candle. The candle illuminates the room, I close and open my eyes, gradually getting used to the light.” 

The “homeliness” of a hideout is also felt when those in hiding gain a sense of security. Chaim Icel Goldstein thus described his return to the bunker in the ruins of destroyed Warsaw: “The longer we walked, the closer we got to the bunker, the greater was the contentment – almost joy of returning to our own home. The dark hideout was a kind of a safe harbour for us now. It was our anchor, our shelter, where homely warmth awaited us, where awaiting us were our loved ones whom we really wanted to see again." 

An important factor was the “housework” performed in the hideout: cleaning, arranging, tidying things, modifying furniture were activities which domesticated the space, giving people a sense of control and agency. Similar was the case with the construction of the hideout itself. It was one of the manifestations of human protest against the imposed conditions, an act of active resistance to the extermination planned by someone else. Building hideouts was just one of several survival strategies. It can be understood as defying the stigma of a Jew as a defenceless victim deprived of agency. The makers of hideouts, architects and builders, despite very difficult circumstances, tried to regain power to shape their own fate, not limiting themselves to instinctive behaviour, but taking deliberate, planned actions. It is important to recognise the immense determination in pursuing their goals. It is all the more remarkable if we look at the whole phenomenon in a broad social and historical context, noticing the solitude and marginalisation of Jews fighting for their survival.

Dr. Marta Cobel-Tokarska, ed. Mateusz Szczepaniak, October 2021.

* * *

Prepared on the basis of: Marta Cobel-Tokarska, Bezludna wyspa, nora, grób. Wojenne kryjówki Żydów w okupowanej Polsce, Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, Warszawa 2012. 

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