Harrowing never-before-seen photos from Warsaw Ghetto Uprising found in family attic
Taken by a firefighter serving with the Warsaw Fire Brigade during WWII, a roll of negatives taken during the pacification of the Jewish Ghetto in 1943 have been discovered after lying hidden for nearly 80-years.
Shot surreptitiously by Zbigniew Leszek Grzywaczewski, the 23-year-old firefighter took 48 pictures on the film, of which 33 depict the Ghetto.
One shows smoke billowing over Nalewki, a street that was formerly famed around the world as the chaotic, commercial heart of Jewish Warsaw.
In another, a group of German officers can be seen admiring their handiwork whilst firefighters look on, one seemingly grimacing.
Yet another shows a group of Jewish men, women and children being hurried under a military escort to Umschlagplatz, the notorious transport hub that took Warsaw’s Jews to Treblinka.
In the top of the frame, a firehose can be seen snaking on the pavement.
Hauntingly almost, another image shows an empty courtyard filled with household clutter, presumably taken after the tenement had already been emptied of its residents.
Breaking out on April 19th, 1943, following rumours that the Jews that remained in Warsaw would be imminently transferred to the gas chambers of Treblinka, the Ghetto Uprising was the biggest such Jewish rebellion that the Nazis faced during the war.
Undertaken in the face of insurmountable odds, Warsaw’s ill-equipped and starving Jews employed classic street fighting tactics to frustrate the Wehrmacht, who responded with their full might.
As part of their strategy, swathes of the Ghetto were methodically torched in order to flush out the Jewish resistance and it is here that the Warsaw Fire Brigade entered the picture.
Called into action by the Germans, it was their job to prevent the conflagration spreading over the wall and into Warsaw’s Aryan side.
According to a diary entry, Grzywaczewski spent up to four weeks in the Ghetto combatting these blazes, with the most likely dates of his service thought to have come between April 21st to May 15th.
In his diary notes he wrote: “The image of these people being dragged out of there [out of the bunkers] 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.”
No reference is made in the diary of his camera, but the sequence of the individual frames show that Grzywaczewski crossed into the Ghetto more than once.
Moreover, analysts have determined that differing light intensity demonstrate that his photographs were taken in varying weather conditions during different times of day.
Interspersed with pictures of a park, the frequently blurred nature of Grzywaczewski’s Ghetto pictures suggest they were taken covertly and in a rush; despite this, they have been hailed as “priceless” and “unique”, existing as they do as the only known photographs taken inside the Ghetto during the Uprising by a non-German.
Born in 1920, Grzywaczewski passed away in Gdańsk in 1993 following a colourful life that saw him wounded as a participant in the Warsaw Uprising.
A passionate photographer, he later resumed his career as a firefighter in Katowice before moving north where, among other things, he became the editor of Shipbuilding magazine and authored books such as ‘Fighting Fires on Ships’ and ‘Reminisces of the Firefighters of the Warsaw Uprising’.
His son, Maciej, has been credited with uncovering his father’s wartime photos after being asked to search for them by the curators of an upcoming exhibition to be held at POLIN.
Searching for months, he finally discovered the negatives in the last box of family heirlooms that he looked at.
These pictures, as well as the role of film, will now form part of POLIN Museum’s forthcoming exhibition, ‘Around Us A Sea of Fire. The Fate of Jewish Civilians During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.’ Opening on April 17th, the exhibition will form a core part of commemorations marking the 80th anniversary of the insurgency.