‘They stopped being children and became witnesses of terror and violence!’ Archive of postwar drawings reveals children’s harrowing experiences of WWII
Shocking drawings of the horrors of war seen through the eyes of young children have been uncovered after lying forgotten in archives for decades.
Created in 1946 as part of a post-war nationwide school project, the pencil and crayon images show the full, terrible experience of war from the perspective of children.
They include scenes of the murder of family members, the murder of Jews, street roundups, deportation for labour or to concentration camps, public hangings, theft and destruction of property, punishments metered out by Germans, families being forced into exile, humiliation at the hands of Volksdeutsch, the pacification of villages and the shooting of prisoners.
Uncovered in archives in Warsaw and Kielce by Ewa Kołomańska, the head of the Mausoleum of Martyrdom of Polish Villages in Michniów, they also contain scenes witnessed by children from the Warsaw Uprising and the massacres in Wołyń drawn by children who had escaped to Kielce and settled there after the war.
Kołomańska told TFN: “These pictures are authentic, children do not use a filter, change facts or twist things, they draw what they see.
“The children saw what fear was, which came with the first air raids. When the war started, they ceased to be children and became witnesses of war, terror and violence.
“From September 1, 1939, instead of hearing the school bell, they heard the swish of bullets, the sound of falling bombs, the screams of the wounded and the moans of the dying.”
She added that hundreds more photos are probably in archives around the country.
Set to form part of an exhibition as part of a larger project entitled War Through the Eyes of Children, the initiative will include a book aimed at school children containing some of the images and many of their wartime accounts.
Kołomańska said: “We want to confront the young generation with the horrors of war.
They often see war through the prism of a computer game. Being shot by a machine gun only means they don’t advance to the next level.
“To children growing up during World War II, guns were associated with death and fear. The exhibition will not be pretty, it will be difficult and reflective."
Due to post-war shortages, most of the pictures were drawn just in pencil. The occasional splash of colour, often red for blood, gives them a striking quality.
Kołomańska said that a psychologist working with the project will be able to judge which of the pictures show first-hand accounts and direct trauma, and which were drawn based on stories the children heard.
At the end of the war, schools throughout Poland asked pupils to write essays on one of four topics: the moment they remember most from the German occupation; their memories of German crimes; what they remember from school classes held in secrecy from the German; and what meaning mass graves have for them.
Many of the pupils, especially the youngest ones who could not write well at that age, drew pictures instead.
But while the drawings are visually shocking, the accounts written by slightly older children are no less so.
Irena Olszewska in the 5th grade of primary school in Kielce described a mass shooting in the city’s football stadium.
“It was in the summer of 1944, when I was herding goats near the stadium. I noticed some movement. A lot of German cars were driving towards the stadium. […] Since we saw the Germans getting out, we went home with the goats. Then we heard shots and machine gun fire. When the cars drove away a lot of people went to see what had happened. So my friend and I went to see for ourselves. Here we saw ten Poles lying lifeless. Their hands were tied behind their backs. This moment was deeply engraved in my heart and I will remember it till the end of my life.”
Maria Sowa in the 7th grade of elementary school in Suchedniów wrote about when the Germans came to arrest her neighbour.
“They entered the yard, surrounding their buildings, and at the same time set up machine guns on the neighbouring fences. Several entered the house to arrest a young man, whose name was Edmund. But they did not arrest him because he had hidden himself. His father, who was lying in bed, was handcuffed, and his mother was locked in a room so that she would not disturb them during their search.
“One of them looked into the bread oven where Edmund was hiding.They pulled him out and started stabbing him with a bayonet. The blows were more and more cruel. Edmund kept shouting "Mummy, save me". Hearing this, his mother, unable to help him, took a statue of the Virgin Mary and, clutching it to her heart, begged fervently for help for her dearest son.
“After this cruel torment, he was led into the yard where he was to die. But he plucked up courage, slapped the German on the cheek and ran off into the field. The bullets of the German thugs followed him from afar. He was not far from the house, maybe a hundred metres from it, and fell in a furrow among the rye, hit by a bullet.
“When the Germans reached him, they smashed his skull and left, certain that he was already dead. After the Nazis left, crowds of people went to him. He lay in a pool of blood among the silvery rye. The people paid homage to the Polish hero.”
Now, Kołomańska is trying to trace the artists and writers. She is asking anyone with information to contact her at the Mausoleum of Martyrdom of Polish Villages in Michniów.
The exhibition is expected to open in Warsaw at the beginning of next year.