It is noon on August 3, Natalia Romik pushes open the doors of a café in the suburbs of Gdansk, a Polish city that was the starting point of the Second World War when it was still called Danzig. Red hair and yellow suit, the 38-year-old researcher, political scientist and architect, sits down without further ado, cappuccino in hand. For three years, Natalia Romik has been tracking the hiding places of Jews in Poland during the war.
This summer, she decided to change countries and visit Ukraine for the first time. On July 18, in Lviv, she pushed open the doors of another café to discover, under the flagstones of the tiled floor, a new refuge which had allegedly been used by Jews. Through her research in the two countries, she has uncovered ten shelters, which she strives to preserve. To better preserve these hiding places, some of which threaten to fall into ruin, it is also committed to ensuring their sustainability by archiving them digitally, using a 3D scanner and other cutting-edge technologies.
Inside an oak tree
Natalia Romik found these caches in all kinds of places: inside a 650-year-old oak tree in Wiśniowa, in the basement of a house in Siemianowice Sląskie, in the sewers of Lviv, in the Jewish cemetery of Warsaw… The Jews hid there to avoid arrests by the Nazis or the Blue Police (the Polish police in the country under German occupation) and to protect themselves from possible betrayals from neighbors.
“The idea is to bring back the ghosts that inhabit our cities”, explains Natalia Romik. To find the slightest clue that might lead her to a new hiding place, she collects the testimonies of the locals and searches the archives of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. “She is extremely meticulous and always brings an interactive dimension to her work by learning from the people she meets and by sharing the results of her research with them”, explains François Guesnet, professor of modern Jewish history at UCL (University College London) – he also co-directs Natalia Romik’s doctorate (entitled “Post-Jewish architecture of memory within former Eastern European shtetles”).
Once the hiding place has been discovered, the researcher surrounds herself with specialists (anthropologists, scenographers, technicians) to reconstruct the history of the shelters and map them. “I’m interested in uneven walls, cracks and holes through which the rays of modern probes can pass and reveal what is invisible to the naked eye,” she explains. The use of an endoscopic camera revealed fourteen steps built by its Jewish occupants in a hollow tree trunk. ”
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