Haunting never-before-seen photos reveal Jewish life in first few weeks of Nazi German occupation
Published to coincide with commemorations marking 80 years since the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a new photo album has shed light on daily Jewish life in the years leading up to the doomed insurgency.
Released by the Warsaw Rising Museum, and compiled in collaboration with the Jewish Historical Institute, ‘W obliczu Zagłady’ (‘In the Face of the Holocaust’) begins by showing pictures taken in the first few weeks of the German occupation – not just before the Ghetto Wall was erected, but before Jews were even required to wear identifying armbands.
Poignantly, it ends with panoramic shots taken in 1945 – a sea of ruins and rubble where once stood the centre of European Jewish life. “These serve as an epilogue,” write the museum, “an empty background against which the memories of the survivors resound.”
Often haunting and occasionally disturbing, the images were principally taken by German soldiers using 35 mm cameras or the easy-to-use Leica.
“Most of the photos were taken by German soldiers - amateur photographers, for whom Warsaw was often just a stop on their way to the front,” writes Tomasz Szerszeń in the foreword. “They reveal the relation of power and the insurmountable distance between the photographer and the photographed.”
Continuing, he adds: “They also show a kind of ethnographic curiosity aroused by this ‘exotic’ part of the subjugated city.”
That such ‘tourism’ was a popular pastime among Germans is already well-known, however, these images underline the unsettling depths to which humanity sank.
In one image, we see a soldier – his hands arrogantly on his hips – pose over a group of crouching Jews.
Reminiscent of colonial era pictures showing hunters alongside their prey, the scene is almost repulsive to view: with a face full of contempt, the soldier stands proudly over his cowering subjects.
The joy elicited from the humiliation of others is clear, and several photographs clearly show the superiority that the occupier felt. “They had fun humiliating Jews, cutting off their beards and sidelocks, and forcing them to do various things,” says the project’s coordinator, Joanna Jastrzębska-Woźniak.
“There are also many shots of Jews toiling physically that show how they have been conquered.”
As uncomfortable as these are to view, the collected images – many of which were sourced from auctions in Germany, Belgium and the USA – shine a spotlight on life in the Ghetto, laying bear the hardships and contrasts.
In one photo taken by a member of the Luftwaffe, a haggard, elderly Jew wails whilst a young, smartly attired boy walks in the background almost oblivious to the despair.
The sense of entrapment felt by Ghetto residents is underscored as well: a set of tramlines are shown running straight into a dead end where a wall has been built. In another heartbreaking picture, a child plays in front of another segment of the Ghetto wall.
Although photos taken by Germans dominate, these are not the only ones featured in the book. Also showcased are those taken by Mieczysław Bila-Bilażewski, a Poznań-born Pole.
Moving to Warsaw in the 1930s, it was here he founded his own photographic studio. Bilażewski also worked as a cinematographer and actor, appearing in such films as ‘Everyone Is Allowed to Love’, and even earned a name for mimicking animal noises for Poland’s nascent film industry.
Whilst little is known about his life, he clearly enjoyed a healthy relationship with the occupying Germans as in 1940 he was appointed a ‘trustee’ of the Fotoris facility on Marszałkowska.
Among his various duties, he developed intelligence related images for the Nazis and shot propaganda pictures of celebratory gatherings and German theatre performances.
Later, he was asked to enter the Ghetto to document life inside it. Full of chaos, desperation, clamour and poverty, his images hit hard. Yet despite indications that he may have been a collaborator, Jastrzębska-Woźniak warns against judging him without any firm evidence to rely on.
Aware, also, that the album could stoke controversy for showing the Holocaust through the eyes of its perpetrators, the museum has likewise been quick to justify the book’s publication.
Invoking the words of the French philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman, Tomasz Szerszeń argues in his foreword: “A photograph has more power than the person who thinks he took it – they can show something completely different than what the photographer himself saw. As such, they can be used as evidence against those who took them.”