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POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland

by Ron Bernthal

Apr 27, 2023

© Warsaw Convention Bureau Database

Daily

In 2023, POLIN Museum, in Warsaw, Poland, runs an annual program, Thou Shalt Not Be Indifferent: 80th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The key element of the program is a temporary exhibition titled Around Us a Sea of Fire: The Fate of Jewish Civilians During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Professor Barbara Engelking, head, Center for Holocaust Research at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Science, is the author of the exhibition concept, and Zuzanna Schnepf-Kołacz of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews is the curator. The exhibition is co-organized by the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland and the Center for Holocaust Research.

Old Town

© Warsaw Convention Bureau Database

In early December 2022, after several decades hidden away, a photographic film was discovered amongst family keepsakes. It contained a set of photos taken during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Zbigniew Leszek Grzywaczewski, a firefighter at the Warsaw Fire Brigade during the Second World War. Germans sent the firefighters into the burning ghetto — their job was to ensure the fire did not spread to the houses on the “Aryan” side. It was then a 23-year-old firefighter took the photos.

The images in the photos are often blurred, recorded in a rush from a hidden location, partially obscured by elements of the immediate surroundings — a window frame, a wall of a building or figures of people standing in the foreground. The photos, albeit so imperfect, are priceless. These are the only photos we know of, whose photographers are not the German perpetrators, taken inside the ghetto during the Uprising.

© Ron Bernthal

The search for the negatives lasted several months. Maciej Grzywaczewski, son of the photographer, was asked by the curators of the exhibition to look through his father’s photographic archive. He discovered the negatives in the last box.

A total of 48 shots were recorded on the film, 33 of which depict the ghetto. Aside from the 12 photos that have been published before, held in the form of prints at Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and Jewish Historical Institute, there are images that have never been shown before. These are photos depicting the smoke over the ghetto, smoke in the streets and courtyards inside the ghetto, burnt-out houses, firefighters putting out the flames and firefighters posing on the roof of a building or eating from mess tins in the street. Many images are repeated, especially those of the burning buildings, the ghetto wall and people being led to Umschlagplatz. It seems Leszek Grzywaczewski tried his best to record these scenes, realizing the importance of documenting events inaccessible to the eyes of people on the other side of the ghetto wall.

The photographic film presents a hitherto unknown sequence of individual frames. It testifies to the fact the author entered the ghetto with his camera more than once. The intensity of light in the photos proves they were taken at different times of day and in different weather conditions. The frames from the ghetto are interspersed with images of a walk in the park.

Castle square

© Warsaw Convention Bureau Database

The author of the photos spent nearly four weeks in the ghetto (most likely between April 21 and May 15, 1943). In a diary he kept during wartime, he noted:

“The image of these people being dragged out of there [out of the bunkers—ZSK] 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.”

There is no information in the diary on taking photos in the ghetto. However, by discovering negatives among his family keepsakes, Maciej Grzywaczewski made it possible to confirm their authorship.

Zbigniew Leszek Grzywaczewski was born on July 19, 1920, in Warsaw. He married Maria Magdalena Paprocka, with whom he had two children: daughter Dorota and son Maciej. From 1941, Zbigniew Leszek worked for the Warsaw Fire Brigade. Photography was his passion. He took photos throughout the German occupation, including those taken during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. He was also a Home Army soldier and fought in the Warsaw Uprising.

 

After the war ended, Zbigniew Leszek worked at the Fire Station in Katowice before graduating from the Ship Building Faculty at the Polytechnic in Gdańsk. He worked for the Polish Registry of Shipping and at the Maritime Institute. He was a member of the Association of Friends of the Maritime Museum, and the author of works including “Ilustrowana Encyklopedia: Okręty i Żegluga;” “Walka z pożarami na statkach;” “Wspomnienia Strażaków uczestników Powstania Warszawskiego;” “Żeglarz, Człowiek Morza.” He passed away in Gdańsk Aug. 28, 1993.

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