A pre-war nut grinder used by a family from Wroclaw to bake their favorite cake; a photo album discovered by Karolina after her grandmother's death, containing a picture of an unidentified woman; a pre-war radio disassembled and sold for scrap when no one wanted to purchase it; a sugar bowl from Breslau placed on a doily from Lviv; a dozen gingerbread molds adorning Agata's apartment wall; baker Andrzej's pre-war oven; tailor Hanna's repurposed desk; Jacek's toolbox; glasses found in Anna's grandparents' attic, now displayed prominently in the living room; a studio divided from a larger apartment, renovated by Natalia and Konrad. Each of these human and non-human configurations form the core of our recently published book The Order of Things. Relationships with Pre-war Objects in the Western Territories of Poland. This volume delves into the relationships between the inhabitants of the former German territories in Poland and the physical remnants of their predecessors.
Our research took us to the so-called "Recovered Territories", incorporated into Polish borders as per the decisions of the conferences in Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam. We focused on pre-war objects that had belonged to resettled German citizens and remained in areas successively inhabited by a new population. Seventy years after the establishment of the post-war order, we explored the contemporary usage of those pre-war objects, the practices they instigate, and the ways they are narrativized.
We conducted field research in two cities: Wrocław and Szczecin. Despite each city's distinctive characteristics, we found that the phenomena we describe in our work are prevalent in both locations. Through observation and interviews, we gathered the stories and experiences of people interacting with the above-mentioned pre-war objects, carrying out their daily lives amidst a physical past that is in constant interaction with the present.
In the center of our exploration was a collaboration with artist Łukasz Skąpski, who, inspired by Zofia Rydet's monumental photography project, Sociological Record, sought to visually encapsulate the intimate relationship between individuals and the interior spaces they inhabit. His photographs offer a visual narrative, a glimpse into the daily dialogues between people and objects, often overlooked but critical to understanding our societal narratives.
Our book unfolds in several parts, each highlighting a different facet of the research subject. We describe categories that establish the framework for attitudes towards objects and specific ways of using and narrativising them: the integrity of space and things, their co-existence, the use of a utilitarian approach, the adoption of things and their "proper" order.
Starting with the context against which the object-person relationships take place, ie. the discourse about the western territories of contemporary Poland, we shift our focus to practices surrounding objects. We delve into the process of selection that requires an active attitude toward materiality. We describe a sense of integrity of things and places grounded in a belief of the harmony of a place that, if disrupted, requires re-integrative action. This happens when people find a pre-war object, for instance part of an old newspaper in a basement of their house, and instead of throwing it away they refurbish it and keep in a prominent place. That thing then forms an integral part of the house.
The pre-war legacy constitutes a resource that – in spite of its economic value – generates obligations, a sense of constraint, or even oppression. It is accompanied by adversarial feelings, at times even treated as a burden. The utilitarian attitude towards pre-war things often precedes or completely replaces other reflections, including those on their cultural or social value. And even though the pre-war legacy had been a huge resource for new settlers after the war, it was and still is deliberately rejected or reworked as non-functional, unfamiliar, requiring time and money (such as renovation).
An essential component of our book is a critical examination of the term "formerly German", which was frequently used to describe the researched objects. We perceive it as a cultural category and a linguistic construct, validating the post-war property transfer. Revising this concept, we propose the idea of "co-existence" of past and present in the daily interactions with the given objects that are entangled as tools of varied provenance mixed in one box.
A significant research question we address is the role and meanings attributed to the former owners in the process of appropriation and ownership of the pre-war legacy. Despite the general ambiguity about the provenance of things, we posit that their possession is not a neutral state because it mobilizes certain ideas to justify it.
We introduce the notion of the "adoption of things", describing the process of affinity with or through things, which involves incorporating them into the sphere of significant, valued, and cared-for objects. This process relies on positioning the current owner as the rightful inheritor, as the object in question became an heirloom of the family. However, the adoption of things is also associated with limited knowledge about past owners.
Finally, we consider the "order of things", a "repeated pattern" intrinsically connected to the social milieu of the object, highlighting a recurring similarity between past and present owners of the objects. This pattern assures the object's "appropriate" care and has a restorative function, symbolically repairing any disruptions in the item's historical continuity. A thing, when associated with the imagined identity of its former owner (reconstructed primarily via the categories of "Germanness" and socioeconomic status), becomes a focal point of aspirations and related tensions. It's also incorporated into classification schemes that reinforce the social order, revealing the interplay between objects and societal structures: the academic professor and the clerk discover that the pre-war owners of their apartment had similar professions, or a blacksmith – and post-war settler – takes over a pre-war forge.
Throughout our study, we were 'thinking through things', focusing on anthropological concepts of ownership and the relationship between people and/through things. We examine the narratives these relationships generate, and how they're maintained and transformed over time.
The attitudes towards the objects and the stories they carry are often intertwined and mutually entangled. The legacy of pre-war objects provides a tapestry of narratives that continue to shape our understanding of a shared past and continuous dialogue between people and objects.