Desert Island, Burrow, Grave

Wartime Hiding Places of Jews in Occupied Poland

by Marta Cobel-Tokarska (Author)
©2018 Monographs 304 Pages
Open Access


This book is an anthropological essay which aims to capture the elusive phenomenon of hideouts employed by Jews persecuted during the Second World War. Oscillating between life and death, the Jewish hideouts were a space of the most diverse and extremely complex human relations – a specific realm of everyday life, with its own inherent logic. Based on different literary sources, especially wartime and post-war testimonies of Jewish escapees, the author seeks to examine the realm of hideouts to develop a novel, interdisciplinary perspective on this often neglected aspect of the 20th-century history.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Introduction to the English edition
  • Translator’s foreword
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Subject
  • Definitions
  • State of research and literature
  • Research questions, structure
  • Critique of the sources
  • Methodology
  • 1 An attempted typology of the hiding places
  • Temporary and long-term hiding places
  • Temporary hiding places
  • Long-term hiding places
  • Independent–assisted hiding places
  • Hiding places “under the same roof”
  • Hiding places “at a distance”
  • City, countryside, no man’s land
  • Hiding places in cities
  • Big cities
  • Small and medium-sized cities
  • Hiding places in the countryside
  • No man’s land
  • Woodland hiding places
  • Concentration camps, labor camps, death camps, places of execution and other “excluded areas”
  • Solitary – collective hiding places
  • Wandering – looking for a hiding place
  • Summary
  • 2 Hiding place as a space. Perspective of social and individual experience
  • Part I. Hiding place as a social space
  • Part II. Individual perception of space
  • Summary
  • 3 Meanings in a space of a hiding place
  • Space of a hiding place – in search for meanings
  • Center and peripheries, oppositions of directions, the sacred and the profane
  • Availability and boundaries
  • Symbolical spaces of hiding places, archetypes and meanings encapsulated in texts
  • Summary
  • 4 Hiding place and a home
  • Home
  • Summary
  • 5 Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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We can’t truly enter an apartment with a hidden Jew, we can’t squeeze behind a wardrobe, into a corner of a room. Our imagination shies away from what we could find there, we have no words and are not ready to face the emotions we feel when accompanying such a situation. We sense hell.

Krzysztof Szwajca1


In this book, I am dealing with the spatial aspect of hiding places from the Second World War on the territory of Poland used by Jews hiding in ghettos (most often during “displacement actions”) and on “the Aryan side”. Why am I interested in the social phenomenon of a particular group of people hiding on the territory of the occupied country, a phenomenon that is so distant in time? Why have I chosen the category of space to describe them? In what follows I will try to briefly answer those questions.

Physical presence in the world is something obvious; it is a fundamental human right. Somebody who lives is also present. Others can see that person’s body. That person can interact with the physical and psychological presence of other people and with the surrounding space. To be physically present and visible means to have a right to space, freedom of movement, and ability to satisfy one’s needs with dignity; in other words – a right to function in the society.

During the Second World War, the Germans have challenged that natural order, shaping a new social reality in occupied countries. Apart from other restrictions, they have isolated groups of people that were unwanted in the society, for whom there was no place in the world they were creating. Wartime regulations introduced by the German occupant condemned those people to non-existence. In life-threatening situations, the right to occupy a scrap of space, to be visible and to be present is questioned. People stripped of that law have to hide, take their presence underground. It would seem that it is only possible to exist or not to exist, there appears to be no third option. Yet hiding, living “beneath the surface” is that third way, a compromise between wishing to save one’s life and inability to manifest that life on the outside. One can cross a border of life just as easily as the border of death, return to the visible world or die because of not disappearing well enough. ← 15 | 16 →

The Jews who decided to hide during the Shoah have suddenly found themselves in a space that was limited in a physical, social, and symbolical way. From that moment forward a hiding place they chose or where they happened to be by chance became their world. They could only escape its limits with their thoughts. When reading the testimonies of the hiding people, I was to some extent able to peek inside that underground, mysterious world, where thousands of people used to live secret lives against all odds. That is what I am writing about – hiding places, third way, liminal stage between existence and non-existence.

The phenomenon of Jewish hiding places is a part of history of Polish Jews during the Second World War. I believe it is not necessary to prove how much the subject of the Holocaust itself is important and worthy of academic interest. The issue of its importance is taken up, for example, by a collection of essays entitled Why Should We Teach about the Holocaust2. Distinguished Polish scientists, educators, and specialists of various fields argue that there is a need to preserve the memory of extermination of Polish Jews in process of education – I believe that the same arguments can be raised in relation to academia. Authors approach this subject from various angles. Jerzy Tomaszewski stresses centuries-old coexistence of Jewish and Polish societies, showing how much the Shoah has impoverished Polish society and culture. Stanisław Krajewski argues that the need for knowledge about the Shoah is everywhere, as this was an exceptional event in the history of humankind. Sergiusz Kowalski goes a step further in his essay entitled It’s Obvious. He says: “Why should we teach about the Shoah? And why not? After all, it happened on the territory of Poland fairly recently, during the course of life of my parents’ generation. We are not asking whether we should teach it – we teach about older events, good and bad. About the dynasties of Polish kings […], about partitions of Poland, uprisings, and positivism. […] Then why shouldn’t we teach about the Shoah, which claimed millions of Jewish citizens of Poland and Jews from all over Europe […]. This is indeed the most important reason. We have to teach. Just because it happened. Because it is a part – and a very important one – of Polish modern history”3. The subject of the Shoah has been present in Polish culture for years. It is in poetry, movies, novels, it is a silent background of Polish postwar history. Despite all that it still requires in-depth studies and research exploring the still not detailed areas thereof. ← 16 | 17 →

Another important point which highlights the significance of the subject is the number of publications on the Shoah in various research context created to date. After the immediate post-war period, marked by an abundance of publications about the Holocaust, Polish science has openly addressed the subject only since about the last quarter of the century4. Polish scholars working in The Polish Center for Holocaust Research of the Institute and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences write about that in their editorial foreword to the first issue of “Zagłada Żydów” [Holocaust] annual journal: “[…] there is a lot to make up for. The conditions in the Polish People’s Republic – unfavorable political climate, censorship, lack of working contacts with western historiography, break of continuity in domestic research on the Shoah caused by the destructive activities of 1968 and the following years – it all caused stagnation and marginalization of Polish research on the fate of the Jews during the Second World War”5. The authors continued that only the recent years have observed a visible change in this scientific paradigm – on the one hand, thanks to including new or forgotten sources into the academic circulation, and on the other hand, thanks to new generations of researchers who address the subject of the Shoah in their works without biases and limitations, tapping into the works of specialists in this field from Poland and from around the world.

While determining the scope of the studies, we need to think about to what extent the past can at all be the subject of a sociological work. This dilemma is resolved by Małgorzata Melchior in her The Holocaust and Identity6. The author invokes Krystyna Kersten’s opinion. The latter proved that while it is true that history deals with res gestae, i.e. human acts performed in the past, it is impossible to set a definitive border between the past and the presence of societies7. This is true especially when that past means fairly not so distant times, particularly the ones that are still present in social consciousness. This is the case of the ← 17 | 18 → Second World War, occupation of Poland and the Holocaust. Many people who personally experienced the events of that period are still alive, but those events are also indirectly affecting the second and third generation8.

Subjects connected with the Second World War are constantly present in general discourse, especially the areas that were tabooed for decades. Polish-Jewish relations are undoubtedly one of those areas, especially the most controversial aspects thereof – szmalcownictwo [a pejorative term meaning blackmailing Jewish escapees or the Poles who help them – translator’s note], violence toward the hiding Jews, active participation of Poles in the Shoah, taking over Jewish property, difficult fate of Polish Righteous Among the Nations. It is sufficient to mention Polish nationwide debate that lasted for months, which began with release of Jan T. Gross’s book in 2000 entitled Neighbors, or a bit less intense, but still symptomatic debate in 2008 connected with Fear by the same author.

In the above-mentioned work, Małgorzata Melchior writes that sociological study of events distant in time presupposes looking at them from the modern perspective – i.e. reflection about how are those events remembered today and how the participants thereof talk about them, how did they influence their current lives. Initially, when I was collecting the materials, I have attempted to build on that recommendation and analyze texts of in-depth interviews with witnesses and participants of the events that interest me, i.e. the people who were hiding during the war. Unfortunately, as I was conducting the interviews, it turned out that pursuing those assumptions would, in practice, require completely changing the scope of the research. Therefore, I have decided to use other types of sources, predominantly ones created during the war or shortly after it ended. I write more on the subject in the subsection on critique of the sources. ← 18 | 19 →


Why have I precisely chosen hiding places from the magnitude of themes and issues that can be distinguished in the history of the Shoah? The answer to that question is complex. First of all, I have for years searched for the least researched and described area in the subject with which I am fascinated. I shall write more on the state of research on the subject of hiding places and more broadly – hiding – in the latter part of the introduction. I will only mention here that in comparison with, for example, the issue of death camps or the Warsaw Ghetto this problem seemed to me to be completely unexplored. And yet this subject is very important, as it is an integral part of Jewish experience during the Shoah. Naturally, compared to the number of people killed in the camps we can estimate that hiding “on the Aryan side” was experienced by minority of people. I am also considering the experiences of people hiding from the Germans during liquidations of ghettos. This is still a minority – yet a significant and important one. I think that we cannot marginalize the problem of hiding places for quantitative reasons.

At the same time, this is an interesting subject, as it allows the researcher to try to peek behind the curtain of the “normal” world and notice life that persevered against all odds in ordinary places such as a forest, behind a double wall, or in ruins of a torn down building. I believe that researching the Shoah through analysis of everyday experience of people who were trying to at least partially recreate their former life in all kinds of places is a fresh and fascinating approach. It fits into modern tendencies present in sociology making us observe not only big social processes, but also be inclined to assume “micro” perspective. Through observation of everyday life, little things, phenomena, interactions and objects that were previously disregarded in descriptions for being not important enough, we arrive at a completely different perspective. Different does not necessarily mean better, but perhaps just as valuable; it is certainly enriching us with knowledge, allowing for deeper empathy and understanding of some social phenomena that previously defied cognition.

This trend in sociology is often called even a change of the research paradigm. It was followed, for example, by Piotr Sztompka and Małgorzata Bogunia-Borowska, the editors of an anthology of texts by distinguished sociologists from around the world9. In their theoretical introduction, they mention the classics: Georg Simmel, the creator of symbolic interactionism, and Norbert Elias, the creator of ethnomethodology. Thus, they present how much we can gain if we assume this new ← 19 | 20 → paradigm. Piotr Sztompka wrote the following on this subject in an abstract to his paper presented on the 13th Sociological Convention: “Sociological theory has a historical character […], it is a reflection of a variable state of a society, and this is why ways and means of theorizing sociology constantly change. […] Attempts to create sociological theory in an unprecedented way, looking for mechanisms and regularities not outside the ongoing social life, in verified ‘social facts’ – structures, culture, but inside episodes of everyday life of people, social praxis, that one final reality of human world, are becoming richer and more interesting”10. These premises can be seen in relatively new, but now already classical works of Polish researchers of the Shoah. Books describing everyday life of the Warsaw Ghetto can serve as an example here11. I am also assuming this perspective, because I believe that both the subject and character of sources available (personal documents) make it the most suitable and the most cognitively useful.

A similar, highly inspiring approach has emerged in the last few decades in historical sciences, where the scientists are more often – to use a vivid image – trying to recreate civilian life in villages at home front instead of describing troop movements and big battle strategies. Among the distinguished representatives of this approach, there are authors from the French school of historiography, including co-editors of multi-volume A History of Private Life12, Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby, as well as the historian Jean Delumeau.

Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy [State Publishing Institute – PIW] published such history books in its Everyday Life series. There are a few works assuming such a perspective and connected with the Second World War13. Historiography ← 20 | 21 → even distinguishes a notion of microhistory14, with the French historians Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Carlo Ginzburg considered to be its main representatives. Their works mostly deal with distant centuries; meanwhile the historians researching most recent history are keen on employing advances of oral history. I write about that notion in critique of the sources.

For me the answer to “why hiding places?” is closely connected with the answer to “why space”? The term “hiding place” itself means a certain place (as I write later in Definitions). A place becomes a hideout when it becomes occupied for that reason by a person in need of shelter. But the properties making a place a possible hideout belong to a spatial order – location, borders, size, construction, structure. I believe the space to be the basic category describing and determining human world, and yet it is rarely used in sociological world. Analysis of a social phenomenon through the lens of the space which determines that phenomenon, being its background, stage, and at the same time its indispensable element, seemed to me a fascinating and completely new way of talking about the Shoah. The only work known to me describing experience of the Shoah through the prism of a comparative category (time) was “Time Stopped for me…” an Analysis of Time in the Ultimate Situation by Barbara Engelking.

I was therefore intrigued by the challenge of approaching the issue of hiding places through the category of space, as this is an impalpable category, which is non-obvious despite its universality. The problem I had to face is the simultaneous scarcity and abundance of theories connected with sociological understanding of space. Since Emil Durkheim, through Chicago school, to Yi-Fu Tuan’s humanistic geography, proxemics of Edward T. Hall and environmental psychology, there were many fragmentary theories attempting to describe mechanisms governing human life in space. However, those theories turn out to be dispersed, often contradictory, and only a small number of them could apply to the specific phenomenon of wartime hiding places. I write more about useful theories of space in State of Research and Literature part of the Introduction. To complement the description and analysis of the phenomenon I base on them, I am also using other sociological categories, such as marginalization and homelessness (Chapter 4). ← 21 | 22 →


The research problem of “space of Jewish hiding places in occupied Poland” requires clarification and presentation of biding definitions.

A Polish language dictionary presents the following definition of “a hiding place”: “a place of hiding something safely; place where somebody hides, hideout, stash, shelter”15. Verb “to cover” means: “to be in hideout, to hide in order not to be seen; look for shelter, retreat from a dangerous ore uncomfortable place”16, while “to hide something” means: “1. Hide, place in a covered, invisible place, lock something up; 2. Hide from sight” and “to hide oneself”: “1. Hide; 2. Find shelter, a hiding place, remove oneself from a dangerous area”17. After searching for cognitively useful meanings in those formulations, I define “a hiding place” as a place that is inherently safer than the outside world, a place where a human being is invisible for people threatening him or her. Hiding is an experience as old as the humankind. Development of human civilization caused primitive shelters (caves, caverns, huts) to transform into homes, thereby at some point in history it was no longer necessary to look for shelter from wild animals or dangerous atmospheric conditions. Yet in societies there were always conflicts arising and disturbing the previous order, driving people out of their homes and causing certain groups not to be allowed to be on a particular territory. In fear for their lives people would look for hiding places: running away from armies, stern authorities or angry mobs. During the Second World War the large scale and long temporal scope of this phenomenon are notable (people stayed in hiding even for a few years).

I would like to stress that the definition of a Jewish hiding place during the Second World War have assumed has a broader scope than the one generally present in literature. For the purpose of this book I have practically abandoned the commonly used division into the ghetto and “the Aryan side”. Therefore, hiding places I describe include both shelters from displacement actions in the ghettos and hiding places used by people who have already escaped the ghettos. This way I go outside the frames of works describing the experience of hiding solely on “the Aryan side”.

The main axis of the analysis shall be space and humans in space. I start from the smallest one – space of a wardrobe or a basement, located in a bigger space. Let us assume, for our purposes, that the borders of the entirety of the bigger ← 22 | 23 → space shall be the prewar borders of Poland – lands occupied by the Germans. Source material is not spread evenly, some towns (for example Warsaw) are described in a great number of texts, while we have no or very little materials on events in other regions of Poland. However, the geographic dimension of space will not prove the most important here. I do not strive to present a historical description of the situation in individual regions of the country, but a phenomenological representativeness of cases. I shall write more on the subject later in the Introduction. The human dimension and the fate of individual people will be more important. As for the temporal scope, I assume the date of creation of the first ghetto on the Polish land (in Piotrków Trybunalski) to be a cut-off date. It was October 1939. The other limiting date shall be the date of Red Army stepping in, i.e. the end of German occupation. This date is different for various regions.

Actors of the events and authors of the analyzed texts are primarily Jews who chose a hiding place as a means of survival at some point of their wartime life, regardless of their previous or later fate. Their testimonies will be the base of descriptions and analyses. We are concerned with the people who were hiding their physical existence, and not only with the fact that they were Jewish. Therefore, it is not a matter of identity, but it is a matter of the body. Erving Goffman postulated a concept of a stigma, which aptly describes the situation of Jews hiding during the war. There are – Goffman claims – two kinds of stigma. When the features stigmatizing a given person are immediately visible (skin color, bodily injury), an individual is “discredited”. When those features can be hidden, disclosed or not, an individual becomes discreditable18. According to this pattern, there was a dividing line between the people who have chosen to live “on Aryan papers” and the ones who have hidden completely. People from the first group excluded themselves from the discreditable set, their lives became a struggle to not reveal the secret of their background. People from the second group knew or felt that they are discredited, therefore their only option was to fall off the face of Earth and hide their existence from the world.

Self-determination and choosing one group or the other would often not be entirely based on reason. Some people living “on Aryan papers” were characterized with “bad appearance” and perhaps they should have chosen to live in hiding. That status was changing depending on outside conditions and mental processes. It was decided by chance, temporary circumstances, a chance for specific help or physical well-being in a given moment, allowing people to take up ← 23 | 24 → one challenge or the other – without being fully aware of the consequences of that choice19. As a result, the group of Jews hiding “underground” is diversified in a manner that is hard to systematize according to a variety of social categories such as gender, social layer, level of assimilation.

The other actors are in the background (their voice can be only supplementary): local non-Jewish people (Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians or – without specifying the nationality – “locals”), but also Jews living among them under assumed identity. A separate place should be earmarked for the occupants – the Germans (and their helpers of various nationalities, just to list Ukrainian and Latvian troops). Therefore, these are everybody who took part in creating, sustaining and destroying Jewish hiding places during the Shoah.

State of research and literature


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2018 (November)
Holocaust War Sociology of space Anthropology of space Hideout
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 304 pp.

Biographical notes

Marta Cobel-Tokarska (Author)

Marta Cobel-Tokarska is a Polish sociologist working at the intersection of sociology of culture, anthropology, literature, and recent history.


Title: Desert Island, Burrow, Grave
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