History / Janina Struk

A Dangerous Occupation

 In occupied Poland during WWII Poles and Jews were not allowed to own cameras, buy film or take photographs. It is perhaps inevitable then that photography quickly became an underground activity.

A Dangerous Occupation

Roman Niemczynski, a professor of photography, was one of the first  people to recognise the important role that images could play in Poland’s resistance movement. Once identified, he quickly began to organise secret courses to train underground workers. Jerzy Tomaszewski, then sixteen years old, attended one of these courses on the advice of his older brother Stanislaw, who under the pseudonym of ‘Miedza’ became the Home Army’s artistic director and its most prolific artist. Stanislaw Tomaszewski did not take photographs, but portrayed Nazi brutality in his drawings, sketches and paintings. Some showed scenes from the notorious Pawiak prison, where he was imprisoned for a time. They depicted prisoners being cruelly beaten and subjected to interrogation. In one drawing a prisoner is being attacked by dogs watched over by members of the Gestapo – an image reminiscent of the photographs taken by American soldiers with digital cameras at Abu Ghraib.

In Warsaw, as in other Polish towns and cities, many pre-war photo studios and photo suppliers continued to function under the direction of the German occupying forces. They were largely staffed by Poles who had worked in the film and photographic industries before the war began. Niemczynski encouraged these workers to use their positions for the benefit of the resistance. In 1942 writer, broadcaster and documentary filmmaker Antoni Bohdziewicz established a photo studio called Foto Tres with colleagues Mieczyslaw Chojnowski and Andrzej Ancuta in one of Warsaw’s most fashionable city centre streets. Besides functioning as a commercial portrait studio, it acted as a front for clandestine work – producing false identity cards for the beleaguered population, microfilming manuscripts of unpublished books by outlawed Polish writers including the acclaimed poet Czeslaw Milosz, and preparing documents for dispatch to London. Bohdziewicz was also chief of the film department in the Home Army’s Biuro Informacji i Propagandy Komendy Glównej ZWZ-AK (Main Command Office for Information and Propaganda) and used the studio, as well as his apartment, to run secretly held courses on the basic techniques of filmmaking, including scriptwriting, directing and editing.

One of the largest photo shops in central Warsaw was called Fotoris, where in 1940 the young Jerzy Tomaszewski found employment as a darkroom worker alongside fellow conspirators Mieczyslaw Kucharski, Wlodzimierz Baran and Andrzej Honowski. The shop manager was Ludwik Herbert. Fotoris was frequented by all ranks of the German Armed Forces. Besides official photographs, they brought in their private pictures that featured girlfriends, social occasions – and at times images of Jewish ghettos, deportations, executions and atrocities. ‘The Germans loved photography’, said Tomaszewski.

The Polish workers were encouraged to talk with their German customers to find out as much information about the pictures brought in by them as was possible – where they had been taken, by whom, and exactly what they showed. ‘We had to be careful because it was highly dangerous work’, Tomaszewski said, ‘but we were young and we didn’t always understand the danger, or the importance, of the work we were doing.’

Jerzy Tomaszewski - Warsaw Uprising

During the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 Jerzy Tomaszewski took over 1,000 photos, documenting the conflict for the Polish underground Bureau of Information and Propaganda.

On occasions Tomaszewski and his colleagues processed film that they suspected showed Poles who were being sought after by the Nazis, or underground hiding places. Then they would damage the film by scratching it or ruining it with chemicals. Tomaszewski recalled that on one occasion he spoiled a film brought in by a German officer that showed portraits of Poles whom he thought were wanted.

When the officer returned to Fotoris to collect his photographs he was furious that the film had been ruined and threatened to send Tomaszewski to a concentration camp. Kucharski intervened and argued that it was an accident, that he was only a boy, though competent, and had developed hundreds of films. The young darkroom worker was spared.

As the war dragged on, the photographs brought in to Fotoris became increasingly macabre. As the marauding German Army swept through Poland, thousands of members of the Polish armed forces as well as Polish and Jewish civilians were arrested, deported to concentration camps or publicly hanged or executed. Many of these crimes were photographed. An image taken at Palmiry, near Warsaw, shows some of the hundreds of civilians who were taken to a forest and shot; during four years of occupation more than 2,000 people would be murdered at Palmiry. In Bochnia, on 18 December 1939, fifty- one civilians, including two Jews were taken to a nearby forest, made to dig their own graves and then shot and buried. Two other civilians were publicly hanged from one of the town’s lampposts. They were murdered as reprisal for an attack on a German police station. After the war an official photo album was found in the home of a former SS man in Bavaria entitled: ‘Retaliation in Bochnia’. It contained a detailed police report about the operation and pictures of the execution. During the war some of these pictures found their way into the hands of underground workers, including Tomaszewski and his colleagues. Tomaszewski does not remember when he first saw them, but he was horrified. ‘It was a shock for everyone,’ he said. It is possible they were distributed by a photo laboratory worker in Bochnia called Stanislaw Broszkiewicz, who was known to have smuggled photographs from his workplace. Evidence suggests that many Polish workers in photo shops throughout Poland were involved with duplicating or distributing incriminating pictures taken by Nazis or German soldiers.

At Fotoris photographs and negatives that were thought to contain valuable information were copied and smuggled out of the shop by the workers themselves, or they were placed in waste paper bins so that underground workers disguised as cleaners could pick them up. In early 1941 some of these pictures – including those from Bochnia – had begun to reach the government-in-exile in London.

By 1942 a large number of photographs and documents had accumulated in Britain and the USA. Some were published on leaflets, or in the press while others were used by the British government and printed on propaganda leaflets to drop over Germany, including one image that showed civilians being escorted through the forest by German soldiers at Palmiry, and another of a man holding the naked body of an emaciated young child in the Warsaw Ghetto. The information credited to them was not always correct. But that was not considered important; what was important was what they showed, or seemed to show. In London the Polish Ministry of Information published a 600-page book entitled The German New Order in Poland that included eyewitness accounts, reports on massacres, executions, the persecution of the Jews and photographs as evidence. In 1943 in the USA more than 300 pages of photographs and documents were published in The Black Book of Polish Jewry: An Account of the Martyrdom of Polish Jewry under Nazi Occupation, a book produced by the American Federation of Polish Jews. It also included reports on deportations, gassings at the extermination camps of Chelmno, (Kulmhof ) and Treblinka and Jan Karski’s account of his clandestine visit to the Warsaw Ghetto. Although publicly neither of these books made an impression on British or American governments, among the respective communities they had enormous impact. In the USA, in cities with large Polish populations, The German New Order in Poland was ‘in huge demand’ including in Cleveland, Ohio where in October 1942 it was in the ‘best seller’ category. In Pittsburgh and Chicago the local press ran articles and pictures, and the Detroit Evening Times printed extracts.

Throughout the war the Polish underground continued with their covert operation. But in January 1943 underground operations at Fotoris were uncovered. It is thought that the Nazi intelligence service, which was monitoring material published in the Allied countries, had managed to trace the origins of some of the German soldiers’ pictures back to Fotoris. The shop was raided. Tomaszewski and Kucharski were tipped off and got away, but Andrzej Honowski was not so lucky. He was killed during a struggle with German police. It transpired that he had been denounced to the authorities by Ludwik Herbert. As a consequence, Herbert was sentenced to death by the Polish underground’s Special Tribunal: the sentence was carried out on 16 January 1943 in front of his family in his apartment in Walecznych Street, Warsaw.

After Herbert’s execution Tomaszewski and Kucharski went into hiding until they received orders to organise a secret laboratory in Warsaw. It was in this laboratory in Chmielna Street in early 1943 that Tomaszewski first saw a photograph taken in Ivangorod. This photograph, thought to be a snapshot taken by a German solder, has become a symbol of the barbarity of the Nazi regime, being used in musuems, exhibitions and books. Although the laboratory workers were instructed to destroy material after it had been microfilmed, Tomaszewski often kept and hid pictures and documents in locations in and around the city, sometimes with help from his mother. She was known to stash photographs behind the altar of a church near the family home or to take them to the homes of relatives in the suburbs. In this way some of these images survived the war, and for Tomaszewski these pictures are not only evidence of the Holocaust, but of the resistance shown to the Nazis by the Polish Home Army, and the crucial role that photography played in that struggle.

Jerzy Tomaszewski and Mieczyslaw Kucharski continued their illicit work until the beginning of 1944, when they received news that a Polish courier who had visited their laboratory had been arrested by the Nazis. The underground authorities were worried that he would be tortured and reveal its location. As a consequence it was closed down. The two underground workers were not deterred. They opened a new laboratory in an empty apartment in a district of the city where German officials and soldiers were housed. They continued to work there until 1 August 1944 when the Warsaw Uprising began. ■

Private PicturesJanina Struk is a freelance documentary photographer, writer and lecturer. She is the author of the acclaimed book, Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence which presents a history and critique of images taken during the Holocaust, 1939-1945.

Image courtesy of foreverdigital.

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