‘Around Us A Sea of Fire’: Haunting new exhibition reveals the lives of civilians during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
As Poland’s capital pauses to recall the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, an exhibition officially inaugurated yesterday has shed new light on the impact that the insurgency had on those that remained trapped within the Ghetto’s confines.
Whilst much has been written about the desperate heroics of the poorly armed combatants, far less is known about the fate of the thousands of everyday people caught in the crossfire.
By shifting the narrative towards these civilians, the exhibition at POLIN has offered a compellingly fresh perspective through which to view one of the most tragic chapters in world Jewish history.
Titled ‘Around Us A Sea of Fire’, the exhibition’s name is taken directly from a diarist identified only by his surname, Maur.
Hiding during the insurgency in a workshop on Nalewki 38, it’s known that Maur later made it to the so-called Aryan side of the Ghetto wall only to fall victim to blackmailers.
Returning to the Ghetto, presumably to retrieve hidden valuables, Maur, we are told, was never heard of again.
It is in this spirit that the exhibition continues.
Oppressive in its lighting and layout, this is an exhibition that immediately cuts to the chase to present the hopeless sense of horror that must have prevailed throughout.
“The shelter is our sinking boat,” reads one presented quote. Another states simply: “the feeling is of complete helplessness – like an animal struggling to free itself from a trap.”
In all, it is estimated that 50,000 civilians were in the Ghetto when the rebellion broke out, and it is their forgotten memory that this exhibition honours.
Heroes in their own right, rather than responding to declarations summoning them to deportation points, they instead retreated into the cellars and shelters of Muranów. This, argues the exhibition, was in itself a form of resistance.
Beginning in earnest, the exhibition kicks-off by presenting the brief biographies of twelve non-combatants. Some of these, we are told, survived the war to lead prosperous lives.
Others simply vanished, their names swallowed in the senseless slaughter of the Holocaust.
However, with each of these people leaving some kind of written testimony as to their time during the Ghetto Uprising, it is these first-hand accounts that have been moulded to become the central element of the exhibition.
Along the way, visitors will hear remarkable tales of endurance – for instance, via the memories of Stella Fidelseid, a lab technician who gave birth in a bunker.
Yet it is the sheer range of emotions that is perhaps the most surprising – reading the testimonies, there are palpable feelings of bitterness, kindness, despair, hope, love, hate, resentment, resignation, fear.
“If someone didn’t have another shirt,” wrote Mietek Pachter, “those who had more would share with him.”
Later, Pachter, who would ultimately survive, would recall an encounter with a young girl as the maelstrom raged around them: “I didn’t know her. I knew one thing – that she was afraid of death and was looking for some sort of consolation with me. One step away from death, our hearts were looking for love.”
Though the written word possibly makes the biggest impact, the harrowing ordeals come all the more alive with the presentation of artefacts recovered in the decades since.
Discovered on the site of POLIN itself, we see such items as combs, inkpots and buttons – the bland mundanity of these objects sits in sharp and uncomfortable contrast to the dark reason behind their historical value and relevance.
Yet as evocative as these are, the photographs collected by POLIN prove even more so. Among these are images surreptitiously taken by Zbigniew Leszek Grzywaczewski, one of the Polish firemen press-ganged by the Germans to ensure that their purposefully set blazes did not spread across the wall.
Marta Dziewulska of POLIN stresses the importance of these photographs: “He tried his best to record these scenes, realising the importance of documenting events inaccessible to the eyes of people on the other side of the wall.
“This is the only photographic film that historians of the Holocaust know of which shows images inside the Ghetto that were not taken by a German.”
Found only recently in a Gdańsk attic, these photographs are complemented by others that were shot from a distance – for instance, the colour slides of Zbigniew Borowczyk.
Also notable, is an image taken by 22-year-old Bogdan Wójcik. Having eaten his Easter breakfast at his family’s apartment on Mickiewicza 25 in Żoliborz, Wójcik observed the streams of smoke billowing from the Ghetto. Shaken by the sight, he decided to photograph the scene for posterity.
Similarly, the photos of Rudolf Damec – donated by his granddaughter – show scenes close to the Ghetto Wall.
“Here’s a man who would walk along the eastern stretch of the Ghetto Wall and take photos,” says POLIN’s Joanna Fikus. “We know that he had great empathy as he offered a hiding place to a Jewish woman in his home – he was deeply moved by what was happening and he felt a strong urge to document what he saw.”
As touching as it is troubling, this exhibition looks set to be remembered as one of the most powerful ever to be presented by POLIN. Novel in its topic matter, and clear in its message, it finishes lingering on the point, “thou shalt not be indifferent”.