Never-Published Images of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Discovered

Nowolipie Street in the Warsaw Ghetto, where buildings were set ablaze following the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt, in 1943. (Z. L. Grzywaczewski/From family archive of Maciej Grzywaczewski, POLIN Museum)

Previously unpublished photographs of the Nazis brutally suppressing the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Revolt were released this week by POLIN: Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.

In early Dec. 2022, after several decades, original negatives of the photographic film was discovered amongst family keepsakes. It contains a set of photos taken during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Zbigniew Leszek Grzywaczewski, a firefighter at the Warsaw Fire Brigade during World War II. The 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 that the 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 that we know of taken inside the ghetto during the uprising whose authors are not the German perpetrators.

The search for the negatives lasted several months. Maciej Grzywaczewski, son of the photographer, was asked by the curators of the exhibition “Around Us a Sea of Fire: The Fate of Jewish Civilians During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” to look through his father’s photographic archive. He discovered the negatives in the very 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 the Holocaust Museum in Washington and the Jewish Historical Institute, there are images that have never been shown before. These are photos depicting the smoke over the ghetto as well as in the streets and courtyards inside the ghetto, burnt-out houses, firefighters putting out the flames, 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 the Umschlagplatz. It seems that 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 that the author entered the ghetto with his camera more than once. The intensity of light in the photos proves that 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.

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] 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.”

The Warsaw Ghetto Revolt’s aftermath. (Z. L. Grzywaczewski/From the family archive of Maciej Grzywaczewski, POLIN Museum)

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.

In 2023, POLIN Museum is running 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,” which will open in April. Professor Barbara Engelking, head of the 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.

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