Perspectives on Public Space, from Pandemic Lockdown and Polish Jewish History
While working in the reading room at the Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw, Poland one rainy March day, I noticed archivists and staff whispering ominously in the corners. I was gathering materials for my dissertation on Jewish life in 1950s Poland, and I hurriedly photographed everything that seemed remotely relevant before an employee arrived to install a sign on the door: “Reading room closed until April 30th due to the Coronavirus pandemic.” I was shocked that they were closing for seven weeks. At the time, it seemed so extreme.
Two days later, I watched the unprecedented news unfold: Poland was closing its borders and commercial flights were ceasing the next day. My Title VIII and Fulbright grants, which were 9-month-long research fellowships intended to fund dissertation research, were soon cancelled. Many researchers were forced to throw their belongings in a bag and take the next flight to their home country. Americans who could not make it in time had to cross the border by car and fly from Germany or pay double or triple prices for a “Lot do Domu” return charter flight. I chose to stay in Warsaw through it all, yet the crisis of funding and visa revocation caused stress for months on end.
Thus began my experience under lockdown in Poland.
Figure 1: Empty streets in the early days of the pandemic, 15 March 2020. Old Town Warsaw.
I had embarked on my research year with grand plans including international conferences, lectures, a month conducting research in Wrocław, and visits to other regional archives across Poland. Now that was all impossible, and I found myself in Warsaw indefinitely. Warsaw’s city bikeshare closed during the lockdown, so I bought an old cherry-red East German city bike to stay active and improve my mental health. I decided to explore the city’s history outside of the archives in a way I had not had the time to do before.
Built on the ruins of war, Warsaw can often feel haunted. Seemingly every city block has a plaque commemorating people who were murdered on the same street. The neighborhood of Muranów, the location of the former Jewish ghetto, can carry a particularly heavy air. Large bloc complexes and Socialist Realist architecture can feel imposing, particularly in the gray winter months.
The early weeks of the pandemic magnified this uneasy feeling, drawing my attention to Warsaw’s public space. Streets and trams were largely empty except for the occasional well-ordered queue outside of a grocery store or pharmacy. I biked around Warsaw searching for hidden mosaics, statues, and signs of Warsaw’s previous lives.
Figure 2: The former Nalewki, a famous pre-war Jewish street, as it looks today in Muranów. Book is "Nalewki. Opowieść o nieistniejącej ulicy," published by the Żydowski Instytut Historyczny. 27 April 2020.
I am often asked about the reasons some Polish Jews stayed in Poland after the Holocaust. Many were secular or identified as Polish, and some Polish Jews wanted to help build a communist state. Yet in many cases, those who stayed simply felt that Poland was their home, felt connected to the specific physical place where they grew up even when that space became alienating or hostile. During the pandemic, I have come to understand my own connections to space and place more than ever, the ways these connections evolve, nourish, and harm us – and just how much we need them.
On one particular day in late April, my boyfriend and I went searching for the locations of pre-war Jewish Warsaw along Nalewki street, which no longer exists. We tried to match old photos to their approximate locations. Some photos were impossible to place because of property development, but others we were able to find.
Figure 3: The former Nalewki, a famous pre-war Jewish street, as it looks today in Muranów. Book is "Nalewki. Opowieść o nieistniejącej ulicy," published by the Żydowski Instytut Historyczny. 27 April 2020.
Standing in those places and matching the pre-war photos made Warsaw’s past feel haunting, yes, but also vibrant and immediate in a way that archival materials cannot always impart. I began to see not only Warsaw’s dark past but also the way its public space fostered community and energy even during and after hardship. On the darkest days of this pandemic, when isolation and despair take over, I think of Warsaw’s many lives and the way its inhabitants have rebuilt its public space in the aftermath of so much destruction.
Now I consider more carefully the dimensions of shared space – and our human yearning for it – in the history that I write. During Stalinism, Polish Jews were largely forced to practice their Jewishness in private and hide it in public. For a brief period in the mid-1950s during the Polish Thaw, socio-political liberalization led to a brief revitalization of the Polish Jewish community. Jewish centers and libraries saw increased activity, and public workshops and commemoration events among Jews were popular and well-attended. In the story of Polish Jewry in the 1950s, I see longing for long-withheld connection that was channeled into rebuilding public space.
Though I often regret that I did not make it to certain archives before they closed, I have discovered many collections that have been digitized and made publicly available. I recommend making contacts at necessary archives, joining their newsletters, or bookmarking their page and checking periodically. I turned my attention to secondary readings and digitalized sources, like the Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Central Judaic Library.
Poland began lifting restrictions on April 19 in the build-up toward a presidential election. Things largely normalized in Poland over the summer and I began returning to the archives on a limited basis, although socializing and professional networking continue over Zoom. My language classes, organized by Title VIII, had been cancelled in March, so I watch Polish videos and podcasts to keep up my language skills and I self-study other subjects like Yiddish and coding.
Now that Poland is experiencing a deadly second pandemic wave, archives are closing again. On October 19, 2020 the Polish government issued new restrictions, and from November 7 archives are again closed until further notice. I have gathered enough material to move forward with my dissertation, but there are gaps left to fill. Luckily many archives have digital collections and copying services available.
The second wave is rolling through Poland right as the weather is turning cold. I am preparing to put my bike away for the season, grateful for the perspectives it gave me in the depths of pandemic isolation and the opportunities it provided me to rediscover the city and history that I love.
Figure 4: "It will be okay :)" Central Warsaw, 24 April 2020.
Frankee has written a guide to conducting research in Polish archives during the pandemic and accessing archival files remotely. This information can be found on our online resources page
Frankee Lyons is a PhD candidate in Modern Eastern European History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is currently a visiting researcher at the Institute of Political Studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences. Lyons researches perceptions of Jewish belonging and participation in early communist state-building in Poland, focusing on the post-Stalinist Thaw and “Gomułka aliyah” period (1954-1960). For more information, see her personal website at frankeelyons.com and her department profile.