During several visits to Warsaw and its environs, I spoke with many people who didn’t think the Nazis would ever do what they did. That belief was based on how the Germans behaved during WW1, which was with a modicum of courtesy and respect.
I repeatedly heard, “When they tell you what they are going to do – believe them.”
Images found in attic taken by Polish firefighter who risked life to record how Jewish Poles fought the Nazis despite impossible odds. See other photos from the Warsaw Ghetto at this link.
The photographs are blurry, composed hastily and taken surreptitiously, sometimes with heads or objects in the foreground obscuring part of the view.
But Holocaust historians say the imperfect pictures, discovered last month in a Polish attic decades after their creator died, are nonetheless priceless. They are the only known photographs from inside the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising not to be taken by Germans.
The photographs will form part of an exhibition devoted to the 80th anniversary of the uprising, to be held in April at Warsaw’s POLIN museum of Jewish history.
The hunt for the photographs began last year, when curators began thinking about how to illustrate the upcoming exhibition.
The best known photographic record of the uprising comprises around 50 photographs taken for the so-called Stroop Report, prepared by general Jürgen Stroop for the SS chief Heinrich Himmler.
“One of our main ideas was not to consider this material. The exhibition is from the Jewish perspective, the perspective of victims, so it was a contradiction to illustrate this content with German propaganda material,” said curator Zuzanna Schnepf-Kołacz.
This led her to the only known other photographs of the uprising taken from inside the ghetto: 12 blurry prints, apparently taken by a Polish firefighter, Zbigniew Leszek Grzywaczewski, stored at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.
A letter written in 1968 by Hilary Laks, a Warsaw Jew who had survived the Holocaust and emigrated to the United States, explained the origin of the prints: “Risking his own life, Leszek managed to take a number of photographs. Knowing this, I approached him about 10 years ago with a request to send me these photos.”
There was also a tantalising clue: “The negatives are still in Leszek’s hands. Any additional information can also be obtained from him. As long as he’s alive, of course.”
Curious about the negatives and whether the firefighter who took them had taken more pictures, Schnepf-Kołacz began looking for Grzywaczewski, but found he had died in 1992.
She soon found his son, Maciej Grzywaczewski, who knew his father had been sent to the ghetto to put out the fires, but knew nothing about any photographs. He began to look through boxes of his father’s possessions stored at his house and his sister’s house, but found nothing.
“Then, in the final box, in the final carton inside it, I found them,” he said.
The reel of film contained 48 shots, of which 33 are taken in the ghetto. Others were taken outside the ghetto, including shots of walks in the park.
The Warsaw ghetto, set up in 1940, was the largest in Europe, and at its peak held almost half a million Jews, packed into a small neighbourhood and forced to live in appalling conditions.
Around 260,000 were deported from the ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp and murdered. After mass deportations in 1942, those remaining inside the ghetto began to make preparations for an uprising, smuggling in weapons and explosives.
The uprising began on 19 April 1943. Testimony suggests most participants knew it was doomed from the start, but were determined to go out fighting rather than be sent to the gas chambers.
The Germans set fires in the ghetto to smoke people out from bunkers and basements. They then sent in the local fire brigade to put out the fires and stop them spreading to other parts of Warsaw.
Leszek Grzywaczewski’s photographs do not show fighting, but they do show burning buildings, as well as Jewish people being marched out of the ghetto by German guards.
Grzywaczewski spent four weeks in the ghetto putting out fires, according to a diary he kept at the time, which was found after his death.
“The image of these people being dragged out of there will stay with me for the rest of my life,” he wrote. “Figures staggering from hunger and dismay, filthy, ragged. Shot dead en masse; those still alive falling over the bodies of the ones who have already been annihilated.”
Thousands died in the fires, while most of those who survived the uprising were sent to Treblinka and killed.
In his diary, Grzywaczewski did not mention taking the photographs. He also never mentioned it to his children, nor did he talk about the fact that his parents helped to hide Jews during the war. At least one member of the Laks family, who would later donate the photographs to the Holocaust museum, was sheltered by the Grzywaczewski family, according to oral testimony collected in the United States.
“He stopped writing his diary in 1948 when the Soviet takeover happened, and after that he never talked about the war,” said Maciej Grzywaczewski of his father.
The POLIN museum, on the site of the former ghetto, opened in April 2013, to mark the 70th anniversary of the uprising.
Holocaust memory has become a contentious topic in today’s Poland, where the nationalist government has tried to criminalise attributing any responsibility to the Polish nation for the Holocaust, and sought to focus on cases of Poles who helped Jews.
In 2020, the government refused to renew the tenure of POLIN’s director while a planned ghetto museum has been plagued by accusations it may seek to distort history.
The exhibition later this year will include testimony from people who survived the uprising as well as those who did not.
“We have two diaries that were written in the bunkers in the ghetto. We know the authors didn’t survive, though we don’t know exactly how they died. One of the diaries was found in the Majdanek concentration camp after the war,” said Schnepf-Kolacz.
In other cases, the curators have only a first name, or no name at all, of the person who wrote the testimony. They hope that the research for the exhibit, and the new photographs, will go some way to filling a small part of the huge gap of knowledge about life inside the Warsaw ghetto and the stories of its inhabitants.
“This is the story of Holocaust research. Even after so many years of research, we still know so little, there are still so many gaps,” said Schnepf-Kolacz.