Travis Currit

University of Washington, Department of History


"The Streets are Yours, the Tenements Ours": The Changing Meanings of Urban Space in post-Holocaust Łódź

The tenement building (or kamienica in Polish) carried tremendous symbolic weight in mid-20th-century Poland, concentrating attitudes about modernity, capitalism, and, as commonly accompanied these two issues in Central Europe, nationality and the Jewish question. The reformation of the tenements and the unhealthy and unjust urban modernity they represented provided a focal point for reformist movements and thinkers across the industrialized world; in Poland, these movements were led by conservative Catholic critics who saw the tenements as a sign of a degenerate and immoral urban modernity, at times framed in anti-Semitics terms, as well as by postwar Communist critics, for whom the tenements represented the failure and injustice of capitalism. The Communist Polish government thus made the replacement of the prewar tenements with modern housing a key (and popular) part of their transformation of postwar Poland. By the 1980s, however, opposition to this destruction and a call for the preservation of 19th-century buildings became an important rallying cry for Solidarity and affiliated groups of artists and architects. In the post-Communist period, the symbolic makeover of the tenements was complete, as they became highly desirable housing options for those with the means to renovate and modernize them.
This paper traces the symbolic reinterpretations of the prewar tenement in postwar Poland in the city of Łódź, a 19th-century industrial boomtown that survived the war relatively intact, leaving it with by far the largest prewar housing stock in all of Poland. Yet while the buildings survived, the residents changed, as nearly all of the Jewish inhabitants of Łódź, a third of the prewar population, were killed in the Holocaust, their places literally taken by Polish immigrants from the surrounding countryside. This paper examines the experience of these immigrants to give more nuance and depth to the study of urban reinvention and the memory of the Holocaust in late-20th-century East Central Europe. While many such studies tend to focus on analysis of the discourse of politicians and cultural elites, this paper looks at oral histories, personal memoirs, letters, and sociological data in order to retrace the lived experience of post-Holocaust space. In finds that amongst the residents of the tenements of Łódź prewar ethnic divisions of space (summarized by the popular saying that while the streets belonged to the Poles, the tenements belonged to the Jews), persisted long after the Holocaust, leading to a feeling of insecurity and temporality amongst residents continually wary of a return of rightful Jewish owners which shaped their reception of elite attempts starting in the 1980s to revive interest in the Jewish past of the city.

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