Trailblazer: Natalia Romik

Written by:
Emma Garman
Summer 2021 / 5781
Part of issue number:
Natalia Romik peeking out of a hole in the ground

For Dr. Natalia Romik, a Warsaw-based architect, designer, conceptual artist, and formidable foe of historical amnesia, architecture is a potent medium for keeping the past alive while enhancing the present. In her visionary commemorations of Jewish Eastern Europe, culturally significant buildings are not only saved from dereliction but revitalized, repurposed, and even replicated as traveling educational exhibits. “In Poland, Ukraine, Belarus,” she says, “there’s often a lack of knowledge about Jewish history. Especially in the former shtetls of the small, neglected cities.”

Working in dialogue with her fellow caretakers of Jewish heritage, such as the Cukerman’s Gate Foundation in Będzin and the Grodzka Gate–NN Theatre in Lublin, Romik aims to fortify the threads that link communities through centuries. This sense of continuity, she believes, benefits everyone. “When a synagogue, for example, is turned into a Jewish cultural center or a museum, then the population has more respect for its own local heritage.” She stresses that, given the erosion of uncared-for post-Jewish properties, time is running out. “I truly believe this is our last chance to take care of these towns.”

The renovation of a synagogue in Chmielnik, in southern Poland, was Romik’s first Jewish architecture project, carried out with the Warsaw firm Nizio Design International. Beginning in 2007, this once-grand ruin from the eighteenth century was transformed into a shtetl museum, with a concert hall in the prayer room and a theater on the women’s balcony. Romik was tasked with reconstructing the bimah—the raised platform for Torah readings—that the Nazis had destroyed. “Although we had photographs from the 1930s,” she says, “I wanted the new spirit of the synagogue to acknowledge its traumatic history.” She transfigured the original bimah into an intricate, life-sized sculpture of heavy glass. “By using translucent glass, the bimah reflects the void, a gap left by the murdered Jews of Chmielnik."

In Gliwice, around a hundred miles west, Romik gave new life to a disused beys tahare: a: funeral preparation house. Established in the early 20th century for the Jews of Upper Silesia (a historical region in southwest Poland), it was lavish in conception, with stained-glass windows and vaulted ceilings painted with a starry sky. But when Romik visited in 2013, she found decay and desecration. “Wild pigeons swarmed just beneath the ceiling of the grand hall. The floor was covered in a thick layer of dust. We spotted a couple of small skeletons in a room where the funeral rites had once been held.” The building’s regeneration into the Upper Silesian Jews House of Remembrance—an award-winning museum and event space—was the first commission for SENNA, the architecture collective Romik co-founded. Forging coalitions, she says, is fundamental to her work. “As architects and artists, we never work alone.”

Equally essential to Romik, who has a master’s in political science and a PhD in architecture, is working across disciplines. To protect Jewish heritage, she says, “we need different tools.” Design, however, is her constant. “I call design my shamash—my helper.” Her shamash even influenced the typography of her doctoral thesis, (Post-) Jewish Architecture of Memory within Former Eastern European Shtetls, which she completed in 2018 at University College London. Soon to be published, its page layout “is inspired by the Talmud, so that small parts of chapters surround other chapters.”

As part of her doctorate, Romik devised the Nomadic Shtetl Archive: a repository of prewar Jewish memories—books, maps, photographs, videos—arranged in a striking, mirrored mobile home, which she took to former shtetls in southwest Poland. “People were very attracted to it,” she says. “And they would eagerly fetch their own Jewish mementos and artifacts to show me. In Bychawa, for example, a family brought a student’s diary, written in Yiddish.”

Romik is currently immersed in her postdoctoral research project: Hideouts: The Architectural Analysis of Jewish Survival During the Second World War. One remarkable hideout she has investigated is a 650-year-old oak tree, named Józef, in the southeast village of Wiśniowa. Two Jewish brothers are reputed to have survived the Holocaust by living in Józef, and Romik, aided by a dendrologist and some high-tech equipment, found startling evidence: wooden stairs inside the nearly hundred-foot-tall trunk. “We were in awe,” she says.

Another extraordinary hideout story took Romik to a house in Michałkowice, Silesia, where in 1943 a miner named Piotr Kobylec dug a bunker under his kitchen floor. Complete with supporting pillars, electricity, and a system of warning lights, it sheltered many young members of the Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB). “The house is so tiny,” Romik says, “it’s hard to imagine how they escaped detection. Yet they all survived.” Her mobile 3-D replica of this heroic architectural feat, created in partnership with the stage designer Krystian Banik, will be exhibited next year.

Romik is the subject of a new Arte TV documentary, Surviving the Holocaust: Secret Hiding Places of the Warsaw Ghetto. The “huntress of hiding places,” as the narrator calls her, is working hard to break the still-prevalent taboo of discussing Poland’s Jewish past. “We often deal with amnesia,” she says, “regarding hideouts as well as formerly Jewish properties. Usually the inhabitants are aware, on a subconscious level, that today’s grocery was a yesteryear synagogue. But they tend to evade the problem.” Romik’s objective, fast succeeding thanks to her polymathic ingenuity, is for this “present absence” of Polish Jewry to be made tangible, resonant, and enduring.