A newly discovered film roll with photographs taken in 1943 by Zbigniew Leszek Grzywaczewski, a member of the Warsaw Fire Brigade, shows the horrific aftermath of the Ghetto Uprising from a unique perspective.
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Most known photographs of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising were taken almost exclusively by the German oppressor. An entire series of more than 50 such images with brief descriptions made in neat, calligraphic handwriting is included in the Jürgen Stroop Report, named after the SS commander who led the suppression of the Jewish uprising in April and May of 1943. However, there are also rare photographs showing the horrific events from another perspective. The newly discovered collection of images taken by Zbigniew Leszek Grzywaczewski (1920-1993) - a graduate of the prestigious Stefan Batory High School, soldier of the Home Army, and member of the Warsaw Fire Brigade during the Nazi occupation - offers exactly such a unique view.

Oglądanie negatywów zdjęć Zbigniewa Leszka Grzywaczewskiego
Oglądanie negatywów zdjęć Zbigniewa Leszka Grzywaczewskiego  fot. Maciej Jaźwiecki / Muzeum Historii Żydów Polskich POLIN

When the uprising broke out, Polish firefighters were ordered into the ghetto. Their task was to prevent the fire set by Stroop's soldiers from spreading to the buildings on the so-called Aryan side of the wall. One of the firefighters – the 23 years old Zbigniew Leszek Grzywaczewski- secretly documented what he saw. Of the photos he took, 12 have been published to date, and are currently stored as prints at the Holocaust Museum in Washington and the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

A unique exhibition at the POLIN Museum

For the upcoming 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews has prepared an exhibition entitled "Around Us a Sea of Fire. The fate of Jewish civilians during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising".

- While working on this exhibition with Prof. Barbara Engelking, we decided not to show photos from the Stroop Report, because they represent only the perspective of the Holocaust perpetrators. So far, there were 12 photographs taken by Zbigniew Leszek Grzywaczewski known mainly to researchers. They appeared in publications and exhibitions, but no one was sure in what order they were taken, whether they are part of a complete material and whether they were all taken by a single author. I was anxious to get to the source, the negative, I mean. I decided it might be worthwhile to look for Mr. Grzywaczewski's descendants and ask if they still have something in their private archives, or if they know of anything- says Zuzanna Schnepf-Kołacz of the POLIN Museum, co-curator of the upcoming exhibition.

Zbigniew Leszek Grzywaczewski fought in the Warsaw Uprising and was wounded in the leg. After the war, he worked in the fire department in Katowice, and later moved to Gdańsk. He graduated from the Shipbuilding Department at the Gdańsk University of Technology. He worked at the Polish Ship Register and the Maritime Institute. He edited the journal "Shipbuilding". Among other things, he authored the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Ships and Shipping; "Fighting Fires on Ships"; "Memoirs of Firemen in the Warsaw Uprising"; "Sailor, a Man of the Sea". Together with his wife Maria Magdalena, they had two children: daughter Dorota and son Maciej. Mr. Grzywaczewski died in 1993.

Klisza ze zdjęciami Zbigniewa Leszka Grzywaczewskiego z getta warszawskiego
Klisza ze zdjęciami Zbigniewa Leszka Grzywaczewskiego z getta warszawskiego  fot. Maciej Jaźwiecki / Muzeum Historii Żydów Polskich POLIN

A forgotten film roll discovered in the attic

Zuzanna Schnepf-Kołacz got in touch with Mr. Grzywaczewski’s son, Maciej. The man is not an anonymous person. He is a well-known opposition activist from the communist era, co-author of the 21 demands issued by the Interfactory Strike Committee workers in 1980, and producer of television programs and films. She asked him to review his father's photo archive.

- These photographs had been in my parents' apartment for a very long time. After my mother's death 10 years ago, we did a general cleanup there and some of the boxes with photos ended up at my sister's house. Two months ago, I took the boxes to my cottage house and started going through them, one after the other. My father took a lot of photos, so going through all of them was not easy for me, also emotionally- Maciej Grzywaczewski tells us.

He found a film roll with previously unseen images of the ghetto in the very last box. At first, he noticed some frames taken during a walk in the park. - There were some girls, my mother among them. I already wanted to put the film away, but then I saw a well-known photo of a group of Jews being led to the Umschlagplatz.

Jedno ze zdjęć Zbigniewa Leszka Grzywaczewskiego zrobionych w ogarniętym powstaniem getcie warszawskim. Powstało na ul. Nowolipie. Niemcy patrzą na Żydów wyskakujących z okien podpalonej kamienicy
Jedno ze zdjęć Zbigniewa Leszka Grzywaczewskiego zrobionych w ogarniętym powstaniem getcie warszawskim. Powstało na ul. Nowolipie. Niemcy patrzą na Żydów wyskakujących z okien podpalonej kamienicy  fot. Zbigniew Leszek Grzywaczewski / archiwum rodzinne Macieja Grzywaczewskiego / odbitka z negatywu Muzeum Polin

His father kept a diary throughout the entire occupation and the first years after the war. In 1942, he wrote that he borrowed a Voigtlander Bessa camera from a friend. It was an Austrian-made small-format camera. His son suspects that it was this camera that he took to the ghetto. Using a special matrix, he exposed the film in half-frame increments, so he could take twice as many photos as with the traditional method, but of poorer quality. The found 35mm film roll contains a negative of 48 shots, including 33 showing of the ghetto. Most have never been shown to the public. The images are often blurry, taken in a hurry, secretly, partially obscured by other elements: a window frame, a building wall or people standing in front of it. They show smoke rising above the ghetto, burned houses, firefighters putting out the fire, standing on the roof of a building and eating a meal from metal bowls in the street. Some picture frames overlap, indicating inaccurate rewinding of the roll inside the camera, perhaps in fear of being caught.

Many frames are doubles of the same shot, particularly of burning tenements, the ghetto wall and people being led to the Umschlagplatz. Looking at them, one gets the impression that Zbigniew Grzywaczewski tried his best to record these scenes, realizing the importance of documenting events inaccessible to the sight of people on the other side of the ghetto wall.

80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

A closer analysis of the images indicates that their author entered the ghetto with his camera more than once. The intensity of the light suggests that they were taken at different times of the day and in different weather conditions. Dramatic views of the entire neighborhood being pacified by the German oppressors are mixed with images of a casual walk in the park. The contrast between these two worlds, separated only by a wall, is striking.

In 2023, the POLIN Museum is launching a year-long program entitled "Don't be indifferent. 80th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising". The temporary exhibition "Around Us a Sea of Fire. The fate of Jewish civilians during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising" opening in April will be its culmination. The newly discovered film roll will be exhibited as the blueprint for prints and copies made in subsequent years.

Pudełko z kliszami Zbigniewa Leszka Grzywaczewskiego
Pudełko z kliszami Zbigniewa Leszka Grzywaczewskiego  fot. Maciej Jaźwiecki / Muzeum Historii Żydów Polskich POLIN

"Finding the negatives is like getting to the source - the first record containing all the shots, showing the sequence of their recording. We can see unknown scenes from the uprising, and at the same time, we can see new details and fragments of the image, which was cropped on the prints, in the photos already shown to the public. The biography of the author and the circumstances surrounding the photographs are equally important. Knowledge of the context in which the material was created enables it to be understood and perceived as a testimony that goes far beyond the act of recording images from the uprising" the POLIN Museum writes in a press release about Mr. Grzywaczewski’s film roll.


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