In the framework of the WORCK Training School “Rewriting Labour History. Perspectives from the Globe”, Jakub Štofaník received a Virtual Mobility Grant aimed at bringing together international doctoral students working on the topic of coercion in labour history, as well as the broader academic public, and to reflect on the representation of labour history in today’s Warsaw urban space. Following is a report of the Virtual Mobility Grant including the presentations by the PhD students who participated in the WORCK Training School with the reflections on the labour history and heritage in the public space of Warsaw.

Warsaw, during the 19th and 20th centuries, was a site of coerced and forced labour, as well as rapid (although belated) industrialization, but also of massive destruction, and intensive migration. Its pre-war multi-ethnical and multi-religious character, and post-war gender transformations make it an attractive place to study labour from an interdisciplinary perspective.

In the framework of the Virtual Mobility Grant, three main online and hybrid activities facilitated scholarly discussion about the historical memory of labour in urban spaces in Warsaw:

  • A city tour focused on the labour history and its presence in actual urban space.
  • Streaming of a public lecture dedicated to the Ringelblum Archive created by Jewish scholars in the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War – accessible via Zoom for all WORCK members. Details about the public lecture can be found here.
  • A call for active participation by the participants of the Training School that stemmed from the two previous activities. Doctoral students were invited to prepare a presentation which gathered pictures and reflections based on the contents of the city tour and the public lecture, as well as their own research knowledge and experience on the topic.

The virtual mobility grant provided young scholars particiapting from different countries with the opportunity to exchange and discuss different aspects of labour history, contributed to the knowledge transfer and interdisciplinary perspectives in the analysis of labour history, and successfully promoted the mutual learning between Eastern and Western European academics.

Following are the presentations submitted by the PhD students in which they reflect upon the contents of the city tour, the public lecture, and their own research knowledge and experience on the topic.

The milk bar, bar mleczny, is often said to be a lasting relic of real-existing socialism in Poland. Their origins, however, reach back to the 19th century. After the foundation of the Polish People’s Republic, milk bars became part of the social fabric working as canteens that served subsidized, “traditional” Polish food with the idea of giving everyone access to a hot meal per day. Workers at small and middle-sized firms without their own canteen were especially reliant on the milk bars. The “milk” in their name refers to the focus on dishes using milk products as an alternative to then expensive meat. After the fall of the Polish United Workers Party regime in 1989 and Poland’s post-socialist transition, many of the milk bars went bankrupt. However, the bar mleczny has proven to be a durable institution and remain popular to this day. Although they are now run by private owners, they still receive government subsidies and the principle of affordable food has remained the same. When visiting a milk bar, like the Bar Bambino picture above, one sees people from all walks of life rubbing shoulders over a hot, affordable meal served cafeteria style. They represent a popular remnant of the controversial and hated “workers’ state” and serve as implicit monuments in Warsaw’s cityscape to the importance of and desire for accessible and affordable food for all people, regardless if they engage in wage labor or not.

Alexander Hass

Built in the late 1940s and early 1950s to house the headquarters of the Polish United Workers Party and fulfilling this function until 1989, the Centrum Bankowo-Finansowe hosted the Warsaw stock exchange in the 1990s and is an office building today.

During the guided city tour, our tour guide introduced the story of this building’s transition from communist party headquarters to marketplace for dealings in stocks as somewhat of a joke of history, evidence that the Polish people possess humour. Moreover, he described the building’s architectural style as unwelcoming and closed off. There are two things I find interesting about this. First, what our guide left out. After 1989, the building was first meant to house the new university library but was found unsuitable for this purpose. Eventually, its use as a stock exchange came to finance the creation of a new building for said library. Second, how our tour guide’s perception of this building compares to his perception of some buildings created since 1990. His description of the ever-growing Warsaw skyline behind the Palace of Culture and Science was characterized by one major theme: the tremendous change to the Warsaw skyline, understood as progress, that has taken place for the last thirty years. He did however not discuss the impression the architectural style of these buildings, often housing high-end luxury apartments and the local offices of multinational corporations, had on him or other inhabitants of the city.

Leonhard Engelmaier

This monument is known as Mały Powstaniec, which translated as “The Little Insurgent”, which was designed by Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz and revealed in 1983. It was created to commemorate child soldiers of the Warsaw Uprising 1944.

We see a child carrying a rifle and wearing a helmet that appears to be way too big for him. Through the collision of these spheres, the imagined innocence of a child and the terror of war, a feeling of uneasiness is created. This feeling of unease raises the question of what social role children played/ had to play during the war and uprising and under which conditions they had to fulfill it. At the same time, it makes us ask, how work, coercion and social obligations of children can be historically researched and how it is socially remembered. For example, there is also a gendered perspective in this memorial, as we see a boy associated with the war, but the role of girls and the work they performed is completely left out. Furthermore, the existence of this monument in public space also shows how rarely children appear in it, especially in terms of societal acts and work.

Lisa Horak

Standing in a schoolyard on Konwiktorska street is one of several monuments in Poland dedicated to Corporal Wojtek, a Syrian bear (Ursus arctos syriacus) and Polish war hero. During the Second World War, Polish troops from the 22nd company of the second Polish corps travelling from the Soviet Union to the war in Africa via Persia encountered a boy who had taken in Wojtek, then a cub, after the bear’s mother had been shot by hunters. The bear and the Polish soldiers took to one another, and the soldiers decided to adopt him, giving him the name Wojtek. The bear followed the Polish troops throughout the war. The troops amused themselves by wrestling with the bear and teaching him to drink and smoke, all of which the bear appeared to do with enthusiasm. Wojtek was also an eager mimic, copying the behaviour of his human comrades and learning to salute and march on his hind legs.

When the frontlines moved to the Italian mainland, the Polish army, then in Egypt, went with it across the Mediterranean. The British, who supplied the ships for the troop movements, did not allow non-essentials like 90 kg animal companions aboard. Not to be dissuaded, the Polish army formally recruited Wojtek into the army, with his own paybook and rank: private. At the intense battle of Monte Cassino (17 January – 18 May 1944), the bear helped the Allied effort by supplying artillery guns with munitions. He observed his fellow soldiers carrying 100-pound (45 kg) ammunition boxes to the guns and took up the behaviour himself, reportedly never dropping a single box – although the factuality of this event has been disputed. True or not, this act of heroism earned Wojtek a promotion to corporal and a place in the hearts of fans worldwide. Wojtek survived the war and spent the rest of his life in Edinburgh Zoo.

Wojtek’s quaint story is a tale of how unusual connections can be formed in the most adverse of circumstances and interspecies solidarity can lead to amazing acts. However, it is also a window into animal labour in wartime. At least since the invention of the war chariot around 1750 BCE, war has virtually always been a multispecies affair. Humans, horses, elephants, dogs, pigs, and many other creatures have been drafted to fight, and many more to supply armies with sustenance from their bodies. The multispecies nature of war shaped how those wars were waged. For example, the Mongol empire would never have been formed were it not for the labour of equids working in cooperation with humans. Many stories of animals involved in war end a lot more depressingly than that of Wojtek. In the Second World War, for example, the Soviet Union experimented with suicidal anti-tank dogs, equipped with explosive vests and trained to run underneath German tanks, their most vulnerable spot, where they would be blown up. Military animal labour is one of the most visible types of animal labour. Numerous monuments, like those of Wojtek, dot Europe, commemorating the labour and sacrifice of non-human fighters in our tumultuous history.

Daan Jansen

In the former main railway station of Warsaw – until 1967, the most important station of the city – now resides a museum. The Stacja Muzeum, which can be translated into “the railway museum”, is located on ul. Towarowa 3, and is one of few buildings in Warsaw which survived WWII practically unharmed. When the museum was still a railway station, it was a part of the Warsaw-Vienna railway, connecting the Russian Empire with Europe.[1] Even though the exhibitions predominantly consists of old locomotives and trains, worker’s history is still present. In 2021, the museum along with author Dominika Leszczyńska published the book “Railway Men from the Vilnius Region”, telling the stories about men who worked the railroads. In supplement to the book, a commemorative board was created, and named the “collective portrait of a borderland railway man”. The descendants of railway men helped by sending scans of family mementoes. The collective portrait can be seen at the building of the former Warzsawa Główna railway station.[2] The book by Leszczyńska was published as a part of the “Railway stories” series, and the goal of the project was to cultivate and restore the memory of Polish railway men and their families.[3]

The Stacja Muzeum collects monuments of railway technology, souvenirs related to the history of Polish railways, railway models, railway uniforms and banners of railway workers’ associations from the interwar period.[4] Even though the museum largely focuses on the history of railways in the world and in Poland, the railway men working the railroads are still partly visible, looking through the lens of work associations and through the personal documents of the railway workers. The Stacja Muzeum is thus a place to not only learn about the importance of the railway for Poland, but also about the many men who worked on the railways, contributing to connecting Warsaw to the rest of the world.

Through the Stacja Muzeum, the railway workers are made visible, and through the collective actions of the museum and the descendants of railway workers, their stories are told. The stories of workers and the labour history of railways, however, are not obvious at first glance. This is not a museum dedicated to workers, but rather it represents the product of the worker’s labour, with a large focus on physical memorabilia connected to the railway and the trains. As the museum themselves put it – they “present a fragment of their existence”.[5]

Sofi Vedin

[1] Warsaw Tour ”Station Museum” [Website] (accessed 20220530)

[2] Stacja Muzeum ”Portrait of the Borderline Railwayman” [Website] (accessed 20220530)

[3] Stacja Muzeum, ”Portrait of the Borderline Railwayman” [Website] (accessed 20220530)

[4] Stacja Muzeum ”About us” [Website] (accessed 20220530)

[5] Stacja Muzeum, ”Portrait of the Borderline Railwayman” [Website] (accessed 20220530)

I was staying at an apartment in Bednarska in Mariensztat, a lovely part of the city. A quiet and green neighborhood just around the corner of the Royal Castle yet there were only a few tourists and locals going after their business. What intrigued me about this place was the statue of a women in a posture of determination and resolution. She is holding a chicken in her arms. At her feed, there is a basket of fruit, apples maybe. She is a merchant woman looking to sell her produce on the market since the area used to be a busy place of commerce. Now it is rather quiet. I found out that the statue was done by the Artist Barbara Zobrożyna who lived between 1923 and 1995. This sculpture seems to be one of her best-known sculptures. Zobrożyna had a style that can be described as evolved from realism, with expressive and metaphoric elements. This part of the city was (re)constructed in the style of social realism and was a revolutionary concept of common housing in Poland. The art of Zobrożyna was of course part of the concept behind this new quarter, it was a showcase piece and soon became a sought-after place to life.

There are two aspects that tie this sculpture to Labour History. First, the making of such a piece of art is in itself a process of extreme hard labour. And second, the theme behind it reminds us of the history of this part of town as a place of commerce. I could imagine that man and women form Warsaw, and the surrounding rural areas came here to sell their produce and try to make a living. Of course, socialist art has a way of romanticizing such a topic and in the background, you can see that the plaster comes off the walls a little, but let me honest, it is a romantic place after all.

Philipp Haller