Photographs of the Warsaw Ghetto

by Sybil Milton

Ulrich Keller, ed. The Warsaw Ghetto in Photographs: 206 Views Made in 1941. New York: Dover Publications, 1984. 160 pages.

Two images have come to symbolize the complex series of events now known as the Holocaust: the first shows a child with his hands raised in surrender in the Warsaw ghetto; the second shows a British bulldozer burying skeletons in mass graves at Bergen-Belsen. Both images were part of the official administrative record of the perpetrators and the liberators; the first, of German provenance, was the twelfth of 53 photos appended to the official report about the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto in the spring of 1943; the second was produced by British camera crews after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.1 These two photos also reflect the nature of the surviving photographic record: the largest volume of material consists of the official and private snapshots of German professional and amateur cameramen; a somewhat smaller body of material was made by the liberators; and the smallest quantity was made by the Jewish victims and the resistance. Although more than two million photos exist in the public archives of more than 20 nations, the quality, scope, and content of the images reproduced in scholarly and popular literature has been very repetitive during the past 40 years and largely derived from Gerhard Schoenberner's classic volume The Yellow Star, first published in 1960.2 Ulrich Keller's study and reproductions of the unofficial photographs made by several members of propaganda company 689 in the winter of 1941 in the Warsaw ghetto is a welcome addition to the growing literature linking the concerns of Holocaust research with those of serious analysts of photographic communication.3

The first photographic publications after 1945 appeared under Allied military auspices. In the spring of 1945, the Office of War Information in conjunction with the Supreme Commander of the Allied Military Forces published a slender illustrated brochure entitled Concentration Camp, containing 38 images from Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Gardelegen, Nordhausen, and Ohrdruf.4 The gruesome scenes from the liberated camps were to serve as an instantaneous emotional indictment of the Nazi regime and it was believed that the shock value of the published photographs would prove salutory for the denazification and the re-education of the civilian populace. Also, more than 250 Nazi photos were published in the official proceedings of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.5 These images had been an integral part of the administrative record of the Final Solution and were printed as appendices to the German reports about the murder of Galician Jews, the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the facilities at Auschwitz and Janovska.6 The photos were accompanied by minimal captions, usually in the language of propagandists, that were found on the original documents. Details providing precise dates, locations, and personalities were usually absent.7 Although these materials were submitted as prosecution evidence to the International Military Tribunal, the Nuremberg staff neither interrogated nor planned to question,Nazi military and propaganda photographers about their official and candid snapshots. The only photographer to testify at Nuremberg was the Spanish concentration camp prisoner Franqois Boix, who identified several photos from Mauthausen and Gusen and described the work of the photo section of the Mauthausen identification department between 1941 and 1945.8

In the immediate postwar period, survivors also published photo- graphic accounts and documentation that, they had collected and preserved during the war.9 Many of the memorial albums included photographs of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before and during the Nazi occupation. One such album published by the Documentation Center of the Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Slovakia contained most of the images rediscovered and republished in 1981 under the title Auschwitz Album.10 The work of Jewish D.P. organizations and historical commissions provided the transition to the major institutional publications about the Holocaust. During the 1950s, Yad Vashem Martyrs' and Heroes' Memorial Authority, the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland, the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, and YIVO Institute for Scientific Research in New York published serials and monographs about the Holocaust.11 Few of these basic historical books contained photographs. This can be attributed only in part to the economics of publishing.

During the 1950s, Allied teams in Washington and London studied the more than 1,600 tons of captured German documents transferred into their custody for analysis and microfilming. The massive amount of these records was daunting, and the problems of photographic documentation were secondary. Moreover, most historians were not formally trained in the evaluation and interpretation of visual sources and thus were uncomfortable with the nuances of the photographic record. They sorted and cataloged more than one million photographs in very large bulk categories, such as "Atrocities-Eastem Front." Unlabelled images and gaps in photographic sequences were common and considered irreparable. The photographs had obviously suffered damage from destruction by perpetrators seeking to hide their complicity in Nazi crimes, from Allied bombing, vandalism, and postwar souvenir looting. Moreover, the overabundance of textual sources inhibited research and publication from the accompanying visual sources.12

A number of coincidental factors led to the resurgence of interest in these historical photographs during the 1960s and 1970s. The rise of a new generation unfamiliar with the history of the Holocaust contributed to the demand for images that would provide explanations, immediacy, and authenticity. Hollywood had already discovered the Holocaust and presented a bowdlerized version of reality in dramatic films such as The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Exodus (1960), and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).13 Coincidentally the television coverage of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem was widely viewed in the United States and the need to understand the perpetrators as well as the victims was reflected in academic literature such as Raul Hilberg's Destruction of the European Jews (1961), Isaiah Trunk's Judenrat (1972), and Reuben Ainsztein's Jewish Resistance in Nazi- Occupied Europe (1975).14 Similar developments in cinema and academic research were also taking place in Western Europe and Israel.15 The trend toward a starkly realistic understanding of the concentration camps continued during the 1970s. The post-Vietnam and post-Watergate era was generally also nostalgic and witnessed a boom in ethnicity and genealogy that in turn reinforced interest in old historic photographs. In a parallel development, the literature about concerned photography and photojournalism rapidly achieved sophistication as American audiences began to understand the potential subjective and political manipulation of visual symbols.16 The result of these many simultaneous developments was a more sophisticated reappraisal of visual material from the Ho locaust. Initially, art of the Holocaust received more systematic scholarly attention, although new approaches to understanding Holocaust photography were apparent in books about the Warsaw and Lodz ghettos and their photographers.17

It was within this framework that Lucy Dawidowicz criticized BBC television for its 1968 documentary The Warsaw Ghetto, assembled from still photos and film footage made by Nazi propaganda teams in 1941 and 1942.18 While Ulrich Keller uses these same images for his book The Warsaw Ghetto, he handles the problem of the reliability and legitimacy of his sources in an intelligent 25- page introductory essay, where he carefully differentiates the ideological biases implicit in the propagandist photographers' choice of subject.19 He reflects on the nuances of propaganda photography, but draws sharp contrasts between "outside photography" (i.e., the illustrations in his volume), however sympathetic, and "inside photography" such as the clandestine Mendel Grossman snapshots made in the Lodz ghetto. He also explains that in official Nazi photography there is enough sophistication to account for sympathetic and neutral photos, which adds a valuable corrective to Dawidowicz's parochial outlook.

Keller selected his images from the record group Bild 101 located in the Bildarchiv [Photo Archive] of the West German Federal Archives in Koblenz.20 Since many of these images were only identified with minimal captions on the back surfaces of the photos and most daily log books and data sheets of propaganda units had been lost, he provides additional information where street signs, posters, and other data on the images themselves allow him to augment the obvious. The 206 images are divided into eight categories: 1) Warsaw ghetto administration (including medical, postal, and food coupon facilities as well as the Jewish ghetto police); 2) labor inside the ghetto and forced labor outside the ghetto; 3) the amusements of the ghetto elite; 4) worship; 5) street scenes (including market scenes, charity food programs, and street vendors); 6) portraits of ghetto inhabitants (including beggars and children); 7) burials and death (including victims of hunger and typhus); and 8) one small section of 18 images from the Lodz ghetto, showing the physical layout, street scenes, and ghetto labor. The contrived sense of oppressive normality is most apparent in the smallest subsection on the "amusements of the ghetto elite."21

Unfortunately Keller did not realize that many images taken by PK 689 in Warsaw were published in the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung in July 1941.22 A correlation of published and unpublished photographs would have revealed how easily any image could be propagandized through appropriately slanted captions and texts. Despite this failure to check the contemporary illustrated Nazi press, Keller's volume is an important study and perhaps an indispensable supplement to volumes without illustrations, such as Yisrael Gutman's The Jews of Warsaw, 1939-43,23 and it is an important addition to any Holocaust library collection.

Supplementing Keller's presentation of the official photography of the Warsaw and Lodz ghettos are candid images recently published by Joe Heydecker, an anti-Nazi photographer, who was stationed with the same propaganda unit 689 in Warsaw, where he worked in the photo laboratory.24 The coincidence that Keller's and Heydecker's images come from the same unit at the same date makes these volumes complementary. Heydecker recorded the ghetto in candid photos made in January and February 1941, snapped from his barracks roof and inside the ghetto. Heydecker explained why he documented the Warsaw ghetto: "I photographed for myself and at my own risk, fortunately without the knowledge of any official body. I felt simultaneously torn by shame, hate, and powerlessness."25 Heydecker's compassionate imagery is similar in quality and perspective to the work of Mendel Grossman. Heydecker's unique photographs include the ghetto lending library, bookshops, and portraits of street children in the ghetto.

Even the fragmentary photographic record of the Warsaw Ghetto is widely scattered in the archives of eight nations on three continents.26 The problem is magnified when one considers the whole range of topics commonly understood to comprise the Holocaust. The potential travel costs to correlate the available resources would be prohibitive. In the attempt to create cost- effective technical solutions, Yad Vashem published a microfiche of 15,000 photographs from their archive. Despite the best of intentions, this is a particularly unfortunate example of photographic publication marred by utterly inadequate labels.27 Other compendia published in book form, such as La Deportation, Deutsche Chronik, and The Hitler File offer hundreds of images of Holocaust photography, and place the Warsaw ghetto in a broader geographical and substantive context.28 Some concentration camp memorial authorities have also produced excellent photographic source books about their particular sites. The best examples are the respective volumes about Dachau and Auschwitz.29 Both contain a few token images from Warsaw. If every memorial museum issued similar volumes, it would certainly make a substantial dent in our ignorance of the visual record of the Holocaust. It is clear that the unfinished agenda for a history of Holocaust photography is larger than what has been accomplished since World War II, and it is to be hoped that more volumes like Ulrich Keller's book on the Warsaw ghetto will appear in the near future.


1. The Stroop Report: The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw Is No More, trans. and annotated by Sybil Milton (New York, 1979), photo 12 in unpaginated photo section; and "Out of the archives: the horror film that Hitchcock couldn't bear to watch," The Sunday Times (London), 19 Feb. 1984, p. 5.

2. Gerhard Schoenberner, Der gelbe Stern (Hamburg, 1960); and idem, The Yellow Star (rev. exp. ed.; London, 1969).

3. Sybil Milton, "The Camera as Weapon: Documentary Photography and the Holocaust," SWC Annual 1 (1984): 45-68; Harry James Cargas, "Holocaust Photography," Centerpoint: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 4, no. I (Fall 1980): 141-50; Zosa Szajkowski, An Illustrated Sourcebook of the Holocaust, 3 vols. (New York, 1977); and Diethart Kerbs, Walter Uka, and Brigitte Walz- Richter, Die Gleichschaltung der Bilder: Zur Geschichte der Pressefotografie 1930-1936 (Berlin, 1983).

4. U.S. Office of War Information (on order of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Military Forces), KZ: Bildbericht aus funf Konzentrationslager (n.p., 1945); facsimile edition published by the Witness to the Holocaust Project, Emory University, Atlanta, 1983.

5. Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal [Blue Series] 42 vols. (Nuremberg, 1947-49) [hereafter cited as TMWC1.

6. TMWC, 37: 391-431 (Doc. L 018); 26: 628-94 (Doc. PS 1061); and 30: 357-472 (Doc. PS 2430).

7. The captions in The Stroop Report are typical. Photo 12 is captioned: "Pulled from the bunkers by force."

8. TMWC, 6: 263-78. Boix was born in 1920 in Barcelona and died in France during the 1960s. He was a Spanish news photographer who fled after the Civil War to France, where he was subsequently captured as a prisoner of war in 1940. Biographical data provided by Dr. Helmut Fiereder, Deputy Director of the Mauthausen Museum Archive, Vienna, August 1984.

9. Centralna Zydowska Komisja Historyczna, ed., Zaglada Zydowstwa polskiego: Album Zdjec (Lodz, 1945); Jerzy Andrzejewski, Warszawa 1939-45 (Warsaw, 1946); and International Information Office for the Former Concentration Camp Dachau, comp., Dachau Album (Dachau, 1946).

10. F. Steiner, ed., The Tragedy of Slovak Jewry (Prague, 1949); see Auschwitz Album, ed. Lili Meier and Peter Hellmann (New York, 1981). Duplicate photographs are located today in the State Jewish Museum in Prague and in Yad Vashem.

11. Henry Friedlander, "Publications on the Holocaust," in The German Church Struggle and the Holocaust, ed. Franklin H. Littell and Hubert G. Locke (Detroit, 1974), pp. 69-94.

12. See Robert Wolfe, ed., Captured German Documents and Related Records (Athens, OH, 1974); John Mendelsohn, "The Holocaust: Records in the National Archives on the Nazi Persecution of the Jews," Prologue 16, no. 1 (Spring 1984): 22-39; Mayfield S. Bray and William T. Murphy, Audiovisual Records in the National Archives relating to World War II (Washington, DC, 1974); and Josef Henke, "Das Schicksal deutscher zeitgeschichtlicher Quellen in Kriegs- und Nachkriegszeit: Beschlagnahme, Riickfuhrung, Verbleib," Vierteljahrshefte ffir Zeitgeschichte 30 (1982): 557-620. See also Thomas Trumpp, "Zur Geschichte, Struktur, und Nutzung der photographischen Oberlieferungen des Bundesarchivs: Bildarchiv, Bildsammlung, oder Bildagentur," Der Archivar 36 (1983): 365-79.

13. Annette Insdorf, Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust (New York, 1983), pp. 7-10.

14. Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago, 1961); Isaiah Trunk, Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe under Nazi Occupation (New York, 1972); and Reuben Ainsztein, Jewish Resistance in NaziOccupied Europe (New York, 1974).

15. Representative dramatic films include: Jacob The Liar (German Democratic Republic, 1978); The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Italy, 1970); The Last Metro (France, 1980); and The Tin Drum (Federal Republic of Germany, 1979). Documentary films include Marcel Ophuls The Sorrow and The Pity (1970) and The Memory of Justice (1976). Representative examples of the new literature are: Uwe Dietrich Adam, Judenpolitik im Dritten Reich (Dusseldorf, 1972) and H.G. Adler, Der verwaltete Mensch: Studien zur Deportation der Juden aus Deutschland (Tubingen, 1974).

16. See Gisele Freund, Photography and Society (Boston, 1980); Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York, 1978); and Allan Sekula, "On the Invention of Photographic Meaning," in Thinking Photography, ed. Victor Burgin (London, 1983), pp. 84-109.

17. For art, see Janet Blatter and Sybil Milton, Art of the Holocaust (New York, 1981); Janina Jaworska, Nie wszystek umre (Warsaw, 1975); and Hachiro Sakonishi and Age Shuppan, eds., Ecce Homo (Tokyo, 1980), in Japanese. New literature on photography of the Warsaw Ghetto includes G. Deschner, Menschen im Getto (Gutersloh, 1969) and on the Lodz Ghetto, Mendel Grossman, With a Camera in the Ghetto (Tel Aviv, 1970).

18. Lucy Dawidowicz, "Visualizing the Warsaw Ghetto: Nazi Images of Jews Refiltered by the BBC," Shoah (New York) 1, no. 1 (1978): pp. 5-6. Dawidowicz is incorrect in her assertion that the Nazis "made no photographs of schools which the Jews operated for their children ... [or] of Jewish cultural activities, of the secret lending libraries." In Lodz, the Jewish ghetto administration prepared four albums in 1942, containing images of schools, hospitals, and recreation areas. Bibliographical entries for these publications are located in Guide to Jewish History under Nazi Impact, eds. Jacob Robinson and Philip Friedman, YIVO and Yad Vashem Joint Documentary Projects, Bibliographical Series No. 1 (New York, 1960), p. 320, entries 3577a and 3577b. Dawidowicz could obviously not have consulted the candid photographs published after her article appeared showing the Warsaw ghetto lending libraries and book carts; see Joe J. Heydecker, Where is Thy Brother Abel? Documentary Photos of the Warsaw Ghetto (Sabo Paulo, Brazil, 1981).

19. Keller, The Warsaw Ghetto, pp. xvii-xxi.

20. Ibid. Keller's photographic selection is from record group Bild 101/111, which contains ca. 775 images, including 720 images taken in the winter of 1941 by Albert Cusian, Erhard Josef Knobloch, and Wiesemarm as part of their official propaganda duties for PK unit 689 then stationed in Warsaw, and ca. 55 images by Zermin in the Lodz ghetto during the spring of 1941. The images selected by Keller show atypical and relatively unprejudiced photography by Nazi cameramen, in contrast to the Adolf vom Bomhard record group, Bild 121, which contains more biased images by the photographic section of the Order Police in Warsaw, Cracow, Kattowitz, and Kielce. Information based on my visit to the Bundesarchiv/Bildarchiv Koblenz, Sept. 1984.

21. Keller, The Warsaw Ghetto, pp. 39-47.

22. "Juden unter sich (Bericht uber das Warschauer Getto)," in Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, no. 30 (24 July 1941), pp. 790-93, contains 12 photos by Knobloch, 5 by Cusian, and 1 by Helmut Koch.

23. Yisrael Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw, 1939-1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt, trans. Ina Friedman (Bloomington, 1982).

24. Joe J. Heydecker, Das Warschauer Getto (Munich, 1983).

25. Ibid., pp. 22-23. See Sybil Milton, in SWC Annual 1: 49-51, 55-57.

26. The American repositories include the National Archives, the Library of Congress, YIVO, and the Leo Baeck Institute. Sources in West Germany are at the Bundesarchiv/Bildarchiv, Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz, and Ullstein Bilderdienst. In East Germany, a partial list of repositories would include the ADN official news agency, the Museum for German History, and the German Central Archives in Potsdam. In Poland, one would visit the Historical Museum of the City of Warsaw, the Jewish Historical Institute, the Pawiak Prison Museum, and the archives of the Auschwitz and Treblinka memorials. In Austria, photographs of the Warsaw Ghetto are found in the Documentation Archives of the Austrian Resistance; in France, the Centre Documentation Juive Contemporaine and the agency FNDIRP hold relevant images; and in England, the Imperial War Museum, the Public Records Office, the Wiener Library, and the Sikorski Institute could be consulted. In Israel materials are located in Yad Vashem, Moreshet, and the Kibbutz Lochamei HaGhettaot. There are also private news agencies with relevant images in the United States and the Soviet Union.

27. Yad Vashem, Archives of the Destruction: A Photographic Record of the Holocaust (Jerusalem, 1981) contains 15,000 images on microfiche; however, more than 60 percent of the entries are either unidentified, misidentified, or obscurely listed without date and photographer's name or nationality. The fiche collection also incorporates many images from the Bundesarchiv and other repositories without informing the reader that the originals are not in the Yad Vashem collections.

28. Federation Nationale des Deportes et Internes Resistants et Patriotes, La Deportation (Paris, 1978); Heinz Bergschicker, ed., Deutsche Chronik: Alltag im Faschismus, 1933-1945 (Berlin, 1983); and Giinther Bernd Ginzel, ed., Judischer Alltag in Deutschland, 1933-1945 (Dusseldorf, 1984). The latter, although attempted from a Jewish point of view, has no discernible organizing principle and the sequence of illustrations and text is somewhat haphazard. For comparable English-language pictorial source books, see Szajkowski, An Illustrated Sourcebook of the Holocaust and Frederic V. Grunfeld, The Hitler File: A Social History of Germany and the Nazis, 1918-1945 (New York, 1979).

29. Kazimierz Smolen, ed., KL Auschwitz: Documentary Photographs (Warsaw, 1980) is a multilingual volume with all captions and texts in French, German, English, Russian, and Polish. See Barbara Distel and Ruth Jakusch, ed., Concentration Camp Dachau, 1933-1945 (Brussels and Munich, n.d.).

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