Fascinating never-before-seen photos offer rare glimpse of pre-war Poland
Offering a remarkable insight into a long-forgotten past, hundreds of candid pictures shot in 1930s Poland have been recently digitised and added to the National Library of Israel.
While nothing is known about the photographer, it has been established that he was part of a delegation of French war veterans representing the Union Nationale des Combattants.
Visiting Poland in 1933, the group arrived on July 30th and stayed for two-weeks – although the purpose of their trip remains unclear, it can be assumed they were visiting in an official capacity given the number of formal dinners they attended.
Certainly, the importance of their visit cannot be underestimated – when they arrived to Warsaw’s long-demolished central station, they were met by a military band.
Travelling the length and breadth of the country, other VIP moments include the group being greeted in Gorlice by Polish officers in full ceremonial dress, as well as meeting children in Wieliczka attired in typical regional costume.
Yet for all the pomp and splendour, there were clearly several moments of ‘down time’, something underscored by the sheer diversity of the photographs.
Taken on a 35mm camera – a model that entered mass production in 1925 – some 440 photos were snapped before being later placed on black cardboard inside a leatherbound album measuring 29 cm by 39 cm.
Featuring some brief notes as well as annotations identifying the locations, for decades the album sat in private hands before being purchased by the National Library of Israel in 2010. Now, the pictures have been digitised so as to make them more widely available.
Speaking to broadcaster TVN, Warsaw expert Ryszard Mączewski said: “The photos are quite amateurish and typical tourist pictures, but thanks to this we can see surprising details on places that are familiar.”
An example of this, says Mączewski, comes with the photographer’s depiction of the Adam Mickiewicz monument on Krakowskie Przedmieście.
“We can see several taxis waiting for customers on the other side,” he says. “Because the photographer showed a different angle to the ones we usually see, the photo is very interesting – in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a similar shot before.”
Beyond the formal photographs, it is these touristy images that are by far the more compelling, revealing as they do the capital in its everyday form.
On Warsaw’s first steel bridge, the Kierbedź, we see horse-drawn carriages making their way across, as well as a surprisingly empty Old Town Square – free from the restaurant parasols that dominate today, it makes for a striking, unusual sight.
With one picture featuring the Hotel Brül, a hotel that overlooked Saski Gardens, Mączewski theorises that it was here that the group possibly stayed. Destroyed by the Germans in 1944, this would have left the French delegation close to Warsaw’s most iconic landmarks.
Cramming in a long list of sights into their itinerary, the group laid a wreath at the nearby Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and ticked off such attractions as the Chopin Monument in Łazienki, Wilanów Palace, Zygmunt’s Column and Three Crosses Square.
Viewing the album, there are surprises as well. For example, on Napoleon Square two delegates pose by a bomb thrust into the pavement – an advert, apparently, for a paramilitary organisation called the Airborne & Anti-Gas Defence League.
For no apparent reason, the photographer also took a picture of the distinctly non-tourist area around Wschodnia station.
Following this diverse vein, the photographer also captured the other cities visited and as such we see the Tatra Mountains, Wawel Castle, Poznań’s main market square, as well as shots of Toruń, Katowice, Kraków and Gdynia.
Providing a telling glimpse into the past, neither does the album overlook Poland’s Jewish life, and it was this that prompted the National Library of Israel to purchase the tome.
Presenting a lost and exotic world, the photographer spent a significant amount of time north of Warsaw’s Old Town, exploring the maze-like streets that were then home to the bulk of the city’s 300,000 strong Jewish population.
Conveying the bustle, life and mayhem of this neighbourhood, we see an area with a thriving commercial spirit: traders stand on stoops flanked by advertising their wares, whilst men stroll by in traditional dress.
Providing an inkling as to the steamy summer weather, one picture depicts a busy street with every window flung open to the maximum. In the foreground, a curious youth glances at the photographer.
High on delicious contrasts, elegant women in fashionable dresses pass bearded old gents with weathered looking faces.
Bringing the past alive, so rich are the details that one can almost feel the atmospheric hubbub and gentle sense of chaos.
Staggering in its detailed depiction of normal life, the album can be viewed in full at: https://www.nli.org.il/en/images/NNL_ARCHIVE_AL990034330500205171/NLI