Previously unpublished photographs of the Nazis brutally suppressing the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Revolt were released Monday by POLIN: Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Captured in secret by a Polish firefighter while German forces set the Jewish ghetto ablaze, the images were recently discovered by the photographer’s son in a family member’s attic.
The uprising, the largest act of resistance of Jews against the Nazi regime during the Holocaust, took place April 19 (Passover eve) through May 16, 1943. While 50,000 “civilian” Jews hid in bunkers, Jewish fighters held off Europe’s mightiest military for weeks in an attempt to prevent German forces from “liquidating” the ghetto of its remaining inhabitants.
With at least 700 Jewish fighters and over 7,000 Jewish casualties, the uprising “was the first significant urban revolt against German occupation in Europe,” according to the United States Holocaust Museum. After the month-long revolt, 42,000 Jews were transported to concentration and death camps.
Grzywaczewsk’s are the only known images of the revolt’s aftermath that were not photographed by the German perpetrators. Before his son’s new discovery, some of his photos were known to historians, but the attic trove includes the negatives for dozens of new images.
“Their faces […] with a deranged, absent look. […] figures staggering from hunger and dismay, filthy, ragged,” wrote Grzywaczewski. “Shot dead en masse; those still alive falling over the bodies of the ones who have already been annihilated,” recorded the firefighter in his diary.
In the well-studied “Stroop Report,” the German SS commander responsible for destroying the ghetto sent Berlin headquarters an array of photos documenting the brutal clean-up aktion following the revolt.
The new set of images turned up by chance, while son Maciej Grzywaczewski was helping the POLIN museum in Warsaw prepare an exhibition based on his father’s photos.
In one of his late father’s boxes, Grzywaczewski found the negatives of 48 photos from the war. Of those images, 33 photos depict the ghetto, of which 21 have never been published.
All the previously unreleased images will be shown in April to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the uprising at the POLIN museum’s temporary exhibition titled, “Around Us a Sea of Fire: The Fate of Jewish Civilians During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.”
‘Smoke over the ghetto’
In 1941, amateur photographer Zbigniew Leszek Grzywaczewski joined the Warsaw Fire Brigade.
For most of the occupation, the brigade operated outside the ghetto in Aryan Warsaw. The aktion to put down the Jewish revolt, however, led the Germans to task the brigade with preventing fires inside the ghetto from spreading to Aryan parts of the city.
During the Germans’ month-long operation to destroy the ghetto with flamethrowers, Grzywaczewski surreptitiously took photos in between his tasks.
“Finding the negatives is akin to reaching the source — the first original recording which contains all the frames and points to the sequence in which they were taken,” said POLIN spokesperson Marta Dziewulska.
“We can see images from the uprising we have never seen before, or spot new details and fragments of the frames that were cut from the prints. The story of their author and the context in which they were taken are just as important,” said Dziewulska.
Prior to summer 1942, more than 400,000 Jews were incarcerated in Europe’s largest Jewish ghetto. After most of the Warsaw Ghetto population was deported to the death camp Treblinka in summer 1942, the ghetto’s resistance groups united to gather weapons and plan a defense of the remaining inhabitants.
The Jewish fighters knew they had no chance of winning, but — according to primary sources — resisting the Nazis was a matter of Jewish honor. In addition to the testimony of survivors, much is known about life and death in the Warsaw Ghetto from the Oneg Shabbat Archive, several troves of documents buried before the revolt.
In his diary, Grzywaczewski documented the experience of operating inside the smoldering ghetto for one month. Although he did not refer to his clandestine photographs in the diary, the negatives uncovered by his son bear witness to Grzywaczewski’s descriptions of the revolt’s aftermath.
“We knew that as a firefighter, [our father] had helped extinguish the ghetto fires, just as we knew that he had participated in the Warsaw Uprising and was wounded then,” said Maciej Grzywaczewski, known for his activism against Soviet control of Poland.
“However, my father did not talk about [the revolt], just as he did not tell us that he had been in the [underground] Home Army. I think it was a matter of security in the communist era,” said Grzywaczewski.
Over a year after the Jewish revolt, during occupied Warsaw’s uprising against German control in August 1944, Grzywaczewski’s father was one of many firefighters who fought for 63 days to liberate the city. In response to the uprising, German forces murdered more than 150,000 Polish civilians in mass executions, while 16,000 resisters were killed fighting the German army.
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