Photographic film taken during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by a Polish firefighter has been discovered by his son in the family’s attic 80 years later.
The film taken in 1943, when the Germans sent the Warsaw Fire Brigade into the burning ghetto to ensure the fire did not spread to the houses on the “Aryan” side, shows life in the ghetto in the aftermath of the revolt.
23-year-old Zbigniew Leszek Grzywaczewski, who was a firefighter in the city and photography enthusiast, documented the events through his personal camera. Grzywaczewsk’s photos are the only known images in the wake of the uprising that the German perpetrators did not take.
Forty-eight shots were recorded on the film, with thirty-three depicting the ghetto. Twenty-one pictures had never been shared before and were published on Monday by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
The photos show the smoke over the ghetto, the streets, the courtyards inside the ghetto, the burnt-out houses, firefighters putting out the flames, posing on the roof of a building or eating from mess tins in the street. Images of the burning buildings, the ghetto wall and people being led to 'Umschlagplatz', or holding areas, are repeated.
Jews deported from the Warsaw Ghetto following the revolt of April-May 1943 (Z. L. Grzywaczewski / from the family archive of Maciej Grzywaczewski, POLIN Museum)
The images prove the author and his camera entered the ghetto more than once, and in fact spent nearly four weeks there - with POLIN believing he was most likely there between 21 April and 15 May 1943 - during the Germans’ month-long operation to destroy the ghetto with flamethrowers.
Grzywaczewski’s diary during the war described how: "The image of these people being dragged out of there [out of the bunkers—ZSK] will stay with me for the rest of my life. Their faces […] with a deranged, absent look. […] 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."
Nowolipie Street in the Warsaw Ghetto, where buildings were set on fire following the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising , April-May 1943 (Z. L. Grzywaczewski / from the family archive of Maciej Grzywaczewski, POLIN Museum)
Grzywaczewski worked for the Warsaw Fire Brigade in 1941. Photography was his passion and he took photos throughout the German occupation. He fought in the Warsaw Uprising and was wounded in the leg.
Maciej Grzywaczewski, the son of the photographer, found the images after several months of searching his father's possessions. He had been asked by the curators of the exhibition, “Around Us a Sea of Fire: The Fate of Jewish Civilians During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” to look through his father’s photographic archive for the 80th anniversary of the uprising, discovering the negatives in the very last box.
The aftermath of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when German troops set the ghetto on fire to murder or capture 50,000 Jews hiding in bunkers in April-May 1943 (Z. L. Grzywaczewski / from the family archive of Maciej Grzywaczewski, POLIN Museum)
According to POLIN, “Finding the negatives is akin to reaching the source—the first original recording which contains all the frames and points to the sequence in which they were taken.
“The knowledge of the context in which this material came into enables us to fully understand it and to perceive it as a testament that goes beyond registering images of the Uprising.”