“An invaluable document”. A film with unique photos of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, taken in secret by a Polish firefighter at the time of the uprising 80 years ago and found in an attic, was presented on Wednesday in the Polish capital. “Photos taken by the Germans make up the bulk of the photographic documentation of the Holocaust,” so “today we imagine the ghetto through their eyes,” says Holocaust historian Jacek Leociak, during a conference at the Polin Jewish History Museum.
Suddenly, “this film is an invaluable document because it goes beyond this German perspective, (…) this perspective of the executioners, who photographed the Jews as dehumanized, anonymous victims”, he adds. The photos do not represent the fights. On one of them, taken from above, a group of Jews – men, women and children – is escorted by German soldiers, weapons in hand, towards Umschlagplatz, the place of departure towards the extermination camps.
On another, in a deserted street, thick smoke coats buildings, rubble and cables litter the roadway. On the third, firefighters put out the burning buildings. The whole thing exudes an apocalypse atmosphere. “These are the only known photos which were not taken by the Germans (in the ghetto during the uprising) and which were not made for propaganda purposes”, explains Zuzanna Schnepf-Kolacz, one of the curators of the exhibition. “Around us, a sea of fire”, which will present them to the general public from April.
A total of 33 photos of the ghetto appear on this film miraculously found in December. They were all taken by Zbigniew Grzywaczewski, a Polish firefighter called in to put out fires started by the Nazis after the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on April 19, 1943. The Germans routinely set fire to buildings in the ghetto to drive out the inhabitants and the insurgents who were hiding there.
The Warsaw ghetto had been created by the Germans a year after the invasion of Poland in 1939. Their aim was to exterminate its inhabitants through hunger and disease, or to deport them to the death camp of Treblinka, 80 kilometers east of Warsaw. On April 19, 1943, a few hundred Jewish fighters attacked the Nazis, preferring to die with weapons in hand rather than take the path to the gas chambers.
“War and Love”
Only 12 photos from this film were known so far, but only as imprints on poor quality paper, tightly framed, the film itself having long been untraceable. The fingerprints were passed on by the author to a Jewish family who hid in their apartment during the war and later emigrated to the United States. In the 1990s, she donated them to the Holocaust Memorial in Washington.
About six months ago, the organizers of the upcoming exhibition, who knew of these shots, contacted the photographer’s family, hoping to find more. And it was Zbigniew’s son, Maciej, who found the old film with damaged edges in a box forgotten for decades, containing the photographic archives of his father, who died in 1993.
“My father never told us that he took pictures in the ghetto, maybe because it was too hard. Not so long ago I learned that his photos were in Washington,” said Zbigniew Grzywaczewski. “At the request of the curator of the exhibition, I started looking, for a long time without success. Finally, looking in the last box of the last of the boxes containing my father’s photographic archives, I found this film.
On the film are photos of his mother, his family as well as images of the ghetto. “You could say that all this film is called ‘war and love'”, he adds. His father also kept a diary during the war. In May 1943, he wrote: “I will keep, I think, all my life in my head the image (…) of silhouettes tottering with hunger and dread, dirty, torn. Of (these people) shot massively, the living tripping over the corpses of those who were slaughtered”.