In Poland and Ukraine during World War II, approximately 50,000 people survived persecution by the German occupying forces in hiding. The majority of them was Jewish. They found refuge in tree hollows, closets, basements, sewers, empty graves, and other precarious locations. Natalia Romik’s exhibition “Hideouts. The Architecture of Survival” pays tribute to these fragile places of refuge and explores their physicality. The show poses basic questions about the relationship between architecture, private life, and the public sphere: it addresses the protective function of spaces and emphasizes the creativity those in hiding brought to bear in their attempt to survive.
In a research project extending over several years, Natalia Romik and an interdisciplinary team of researchers consulted oral histories to identify several hiding places, which they explored using forensic methods. The multimedia exhibition “Hideouts. The Architecture of Survival” presents the results of this research. It consists of sculptures bearing a direct connection to the sites and includes documentary films, forensic recordings, photos, documents, and objects found in the hiding places.
“Hideouts: The Architecture of Survival” is presented in cooperation with the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw and the TRAFO Center for Contemporary Art in Szczecin. On the occasion of the show at the Jewish Museum Frankfurt, a catalogue will be published in German and English editions by Hatje Cantz Verlag.
The exhibition was curated by Kuba Szreder and Stanisław Ruksza with the help of Aleksandra Janus (scientific collaboration). For the presentation in Frankfurt, Katja Janitschek, curator of the Judengasse Museum, was responsible for the curatorial project management. We would like to thank the Evonik Foundation for their generous support.
A Hiding Place in St. Joseph’s Oak
Imagine widening the hollow trunk of an imposing oak tree and transforming it into a habitable, chimney-like sanctuary nearly as high as the tree itself. The St. Joseph’s Oak, over 650 years old, is located in the park outside the Wiśniowa Castle in the Subcarpathian Mountains. A story passed down in the village community — that the tree served as a hiding place for the Jewish brothers Dawid and Paul Denholz — was corroborated in a post-war report written by a journalist named Julian Pelc.
Natalia Romik and her research team performed initial investigations of the oak in August of 2019. They had heard from the local population that two brothers once hid in the tree during World War II, and they wanted to check the story’s veracity. Accompanied by botanist Jerzy Bielczyk, they used a truck lift to insert an endoscopic camera through a hole in the trunk; inside the tree’s cavity, they discovered several planks, evidently used as steps, attached by metal brackets to the oak’s interior—confirming that these were indeed the remnants of the Denholz brothers’ hiding place, dating from before World War II. Natalia Romik and her research team performed initial investigations of the oak in August of 2019. They had heard from the local population that two brothers once hid in the tree during World War II, and they wanted to check the story’s veracity. Accompanied by botanist Jerzy Bielczyk, they used a truck lift to insert an endoscopic camera through a hole in the trunk; inside the tree’s cavity, they discovered several planks, evidently used as steps, attached by metal brackets to the oak’s interior—confirming that these were indeed the remnants of the Denholz brothers’ hiding place, dating from before World War II.
St. Joseph’s Oak probably served as one of many places of refuge for Dawid and Paul Denholz, who came from the nearby town of Frysztak. After escaping from the Plaszow concentration camp in Cracow in 1942, they hid in the surrounding forests and fields and on farms. The only members of their family to survive, they emigrated to the USA after the war ended. Following Romik’s first excursion to the tree, subsequent visits with various members of her research team resulted in the first comprehensive overview of the site. Through interdisciplinary collaboration, the researchers were able to find out what the archives failed to reveal.
Vom Versteck zur Skulptur
Examination of the hollow interior of the oak, photo: Tourism and Cultural Center in Wiśniowa, 2021.
Hollow interior of the St. Joseph's Oak in Wiśniowa (Poland), photo: Natalia Romik, 2021.
Aga Szreder making a silicone cast in Wiśniowa (Poland), photo: Natalia Romik, 2021.
Sculpture of St. Joseph's oak, photo: Jakob Celej.
Sculpture of St. Joseph's oak, photo: Jakob Celej.
Nearly a Millimeter of Silver
The exhibition consists of a total of nine sculptures made from casts of the main sections of nine hiding places. The sculptures vary in size; some of the casts offer a stronger reference to the respective hideout than others. Each has a silver-coated side and a dark side. The sculptures’ various surfaces allude to (in)visibility as an essential characteristic of the architecture of hiding places. To serve as shelter, these architectural and natural environments had to remain visually unaltered: a tree had to look like a tree, a floor like an ordinary floor, a wardrobe like an ordinary piece of furniture. Their function, however, underwent a dramatic change: the hollow space in the tree served as a place of refuge, the invisible cellar as living space for an entire family, the wardrobe became a lair.
The art objects created for this exhibition were intended to shed light on the paradoxical nature of this architecture. The hideaway casts were coated in shiny silver and given reflective, mirror-like surfaces. Mirrors have no visual substance of their own; they reflect their surroundings and occasionally blend into them. Thus, Romik’s sculptures reflect both the light in the space and our own mirror image. “You see yourself in me,” these casts of hiding places seem to say, “but I am also the surface seen by those who hoped to survive, and I reflect their presence back to you.”
When you stand in front of the synthetic resin cast of a section of the monumental St. Joseph’s Oak, the first thing you see is the silver-plated front. The back, on the other hand, has the color and tactile quality of earth. On the front side, the surface texture reproduces the tree trunk’s remarkably filigree structure; at the same time, it calls to mind silver-plated human skin magnified many times over. In the upper part of the fragment is a natural hole that, a few decades ago, would have been about as wide as a human. The iridescent sheen of the front, with its mirror-like reflections of its surroundings, seems to speak of light, day, sun, movement, survival, and life—while its earthy reverse side, dark brown and resinous, evokes earth, trauma, darkness, and death.
View of the exhibition “Hideouts. Architecture of Survival” by Natalia Romik.
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