Lublin in the 20th century – a short outline

The city of Lublin, located in today’s Poland, underwent substantial transformations under the rule of different regimes throughout the 20th century and therefore exemplifies the general history of East-Central Europe: in the beginning of the 20th century Lublin represents a middle-sized city at the periphery of Congress Poland. Russian ruled administration and emerging Polish intellectual and bourgeois circles mingle with a suburban stratum of industrial proletariat living next door to traditionalist Jewish traders. Around this time, many of them get involved in various (political, cultural and professional) associations: hygiene-societies, Bundist circles, sewage-water-committees and enlightenment-associations. Fumes from smelly industries like distilleries, breweries, soap boilers and tanneries dominate the air; the First World War adds the aroma of gun powder but also the breeze of Polish independence and loosening censorship under Austro-Hungarian occupation. After the reconstitution of Poland in 1918 Lublin develops a vibrant multicultural urban life. The same year the Catholic University (KUL) is founded, which will host critical opposition for the next seventy years. Additionally, in 1930 the world’s largest Yeshiva is built in Lublin, giving evidence of the city’s relevance as a center of Judaism. In the 1920s and 1930s the odors of the still non-sewerized Old Town merge with the vapor of euphoric industrialization. Ill-kept habitation and increasing public and private transportation trigger sanitary reforms and public health measures. Growing Polish self-confidence and nationalism contest the image of a multicultural and therefore also multi-odoriferous city. Here, especially sensory history will help to examine the ways in which the senses have facilitated the creation of particularism (and nationalism).

During World War II, Lublin suffers severely under German occupation. The expulsion and liquidation of Lublin’s Jewish inhabitants, among others, had a far-reaching impact on the atmosphere of the city. The city’s smellscape is dominated by the exhausts from the crematorium of the nearby concentration camp Majdanek. Owing to the radical changes in the composition of both Lublin’s population and urban structure, the city’s diversity starts disappearing. It is in Lublin where the first government of the newly founded Polish People’s Republic, the Communist “Lublin Committee” takes up its work in 1944. After World War II some “traditional” industries lose their relevance, others like the sugar beet plant (Cukrownia) taint the city’s air far into the 21st century. During the period of Polish People’s Republic (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa/PRL) Lublin manages 45% of Poland’s automobile production, and prestigious housing complexes make Lublin an example of a socialist industrial city. In the 1960s and 1970s Lublin’s flourishing university landscape provides a hub of critical thinking as well as catholic consciousness and nourishes the spirit of resistance. Students in Lublin start demonstrating against the Communist regime. The staircases of Lublin houses are filled with the “Communist” smell of rosół but at times gradually melded with the pungent smell of denaturat used for underground printing. Especially Lublin’s strike movement in the 1980s signals transition. But political transition and economic globalization also make familiar scents disappear and give way to new aromas. Since 1989 Lublin has developed as a university town and a blossoming cultural center, however, the region still belongs to one of the poorest in the European Union.