UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)


POSTPONED The Damaged Body: Disability and Disease in Polish Worker Memoirs of the 1930s

01 March 2023, 5:00 pm–7:00 pm

A collage of Polish works in the 1930s

A SSEES Study of Central Europe seminar with Dr Katherine Lebow (Oxford University)

This event is free.

Event Information

Open to









Masaryk Room
UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies
16 Taviton street

This event has been postponed until next academic year

Reminiscing about his childhood in late 19th century Poland, the worker Jakub Wojciechowski described each household in his village and their inhabitants. What strikes the modern reader is how many of his neighbours had a physical or mental disability: a child whose ear had been burned off; a young man who had lost his mind; a war invalid; a farmer whose cow had gouged out an eye. In short, disability or disease marked nearly a third of the families in Wojciechowski’s neighbourhood.

Wojciechowski’s account is not unique. In the corpus of working-class biographies composed in Poland between the two world wars, the damaged body is a common trope – so common, it seems, to warrant no special comment from Wojciechowski. However, other authors drew explicit connections between physical deprivation and social marginalization, on the one hand, and bodily deformation, on the other.

Dr Lebow's paper explores the body as a site of narrating working-class identity. Drawing on memoirs written by Polish workers in the 1930s for prize competitions such as Memoirs of the Unemployed and Workers Write, Dr Lebow considers how authors present the body – theirs and others' – as a terrain of poverty, power, and conflict. In conclusion, she argues that the working-class body is physically marked by disability and disease in these memoirs much as the peasant body, according to some scholars, was marked by the lash in folk memory.

About the speaker

Katherine Lebow (Ph.D., Columbia) is Associate Professor of Modern European History at the University of Oxford. She is the author of Unfinished Utopia: Nowa Huta, Stalinism, and Polish Society, 1949-56 (Cornell, 2013). Her current research focuses on the history of social science and personal narrative ca. 1920-50. Projects include a monograph on peasant and worker ‘everyman autobiographies’ in interwar Poland and a translation, with A. Müller, of Halina Krahelska’s World War II chronicle.

Image credit: Public domain