63 Days of War Photography

BY Chris Niedenthal

The 63 days in question is the time it took for the Warsaw Uprising to start and stop. The year it started was 1944

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The recent deaths of two photographers in Libya has left us all rattled. Young men go to photograph a distant war; unlike soldiers, they don’t have to be there. They don’t necessarily want to be there, but they do everything in their power to get there, be there and to record whatever is going on. That’s their mission. Yet they get caught up in a firefight and die. Just like that.

I mention all this because I want to write about the war that engulfed Europe and a lot of the rest of the world 72 years ago. More specifically, I want to write about a short period lasting 63 days that started about 5 years later. Even more specifically, I want to highlight the handful of people who documented those very 63 days.

The 63 days in question is the time it took for the Warsaw Uprising (or Rising, as some would have it) to start and stop. The year it started was 1944. The month was August. The day was the first of the month.

The clandestine underground army (AK – Armia Krajowa, Home Army) had its own Bureau of Information and Propaganda (BIP); it organised, and schooled a group of men and women to document what was happening in Warsaw. These were not necessarily professional photographers (Eugeniusz Haneman was one of a few) – that was often too much to ask for at the time. Amateurs, yes. Specially schooled amateurs, yes. They were used to using a camera, they had photographed their friends and families, and perhaps done a few jobs here and there. Eugeniusz Lokajski was Poland’s champion javelin thrower, and had taken part in the 1936 Olympics. He was not a professional photographer, but looking through his peacetime work you can see he was what we would today call an “advanced amateur”. But by no means were these brave people seasoned war photographers. Or, to correct that last sentence, they were indeed seasoned – by war, by the German occupation that was in its fifth year. So yes, they knew what war was about.

I can only wax lyrical about their work. They were Home Army soldiers first, documentary photographers second. They lived and breathed the life of the Home Army soldier. Little food, little rest, terrifying bombardments, rough living conditions. Death everywhere. They, like their fighting companions, wanted to fight the Nazi occupier to their last breath. But their job was to photograph, to document, to record everything that went on during those 63 days – for posterity. Today, that means us. Me, you and all who follow us. Thanks to them we can feel the heart-stopping tragedy of those days. We can see how people dressed, how they wore their hair, how they looked, what they did. A historical fashion show, in effect. And surprisingly, they lived life to the full – and the photographs show that. They laughed, joked, played. They could at last fight back, and they did it like no one else. The girls all looked pretty (hell, they WERE pretty!), they preened themselves for the camera, even with blood on their face. The boys/men fell in love with those girls/women, and some even managed to get married during lulls in the fighting.

Looking at the many photographs of the Uprising that survived the War, I cannot even begin to understand what they all, fighters and photographers alike, went through. Having lived during a virtually warless period for so many years, I cannot hope to grasp what it means to face death every living second. For some fighters, it was the time of their life: they were young, they yearned for freedom, they wanted the War to finish, they wanted the Germans out. I’m not saying they actually enjoyed it, but they lived life to the full as well as they could, and now, I suspect, they say it was the most incredible period of their lives. That I can believe. An understatement if ever there was one!

Around 50 photographers, both men and women, took part in the documentation of the Uprising. They used Leica 35mm cameras. They were small, portable, and relatively quick to use. Judging from the photographs taken then, a 50mm standard lens was used most of the time; sometimes also a short telephoto to bring things slightly closer. This was all a far cry from today’s motor-driven cameras with long zoom lenses, and one wonders what sort of photographs would have been taken had that sort of equipment been in use in 1944. But that’s not the point: they used what they had, and they used it well.

Looking at the many photographs taken by, say, Eugeniusz Lokajski (pseudonym “Brok”) I am amazed at what a beautiful city Warsaw had been, even in 1944, during the fighting. There were beautiful buildings all over the Śródmieście (central Warsaw) district, only a handful of which still exist today. A lot of them were still in place after the Uprising, but were systematically destroyed by the Germans soon afterwards. I find it heartrending to think how Warsaw could look today if all those wonderful buildings, pavements, squares hadn’t been destroyed, or had been rebuilt after the war. But communism tried to destroy, or at least deface, what hadn’t been destroyed already. Sylwester Braun (pseudonym “Kris” – I like that!) took many dramatic photos of 2-ton shells (from huge, armoured railway cannon parked by the Germans at the nearest station) hitting the “Prudential” building in central Warsaw. In a perverse way, they are beautiful images: huge plumes of smoke, dust, rubble exploding around what was then Warsaw’s tallest building.

But it is the “daily life” aspect of their photographs that I find most interesting, most moving. Partisans preparing for battle. Or resting after battle. Or burying their comrades. Cooking, eating or getting married. Or civilians living in the maze of cellars under most of the houses in the city. Standing in line for water from a dripping tap, while deadly Stuka bombers circle overhead. Dismembered bodies of innocent people lying in a haphazard pile in a doorway. Or terrified German prisoners of war being rounded up against a wall. Judging by their faces, they probably think this is the last moment of their lives. They themselves would have shot their prisoners on the spot, so they must have been mightily surprised that the Poles did not do the same.

The Uprising photographers were professional in that they did everything they could to save their films, for that is the duty of all photographers. Braun survived the Uprising and was deported from Warsaw soon after the capitulation. He managed to escape from his transport, only to head back to Warsaw a few months later to locate and collect his films. Only his Uprising material had survived, though out of over 3000 photographs he had taken only 1520 were still intact. Only 15 films shot by Eugeniusz Haneman survived. Lokajski, who was killed before the end of the Uprising, managed to save around a thousand shots; they survived thanks to his sister who hid them until well after the war ended.

The Nazis also took photographs of the Uprising as seen from their point of view. Perhaps I’m not being fair, but I will leave them out of the equation.

Maybe their photographs were just not good enough.

Beside the Point

Kraków, June 1979. This is Pope John Paul II’s first pilgrimage to his home country, and he is back in his beloved Kraków. It’s evening, and he is at a meeting with thousands of young people eager to see him, listen to him, and wonder at the fact that the Pope is Polish and is here with them. They sing, chant and laugh. JP2, sitting under a huge copy of the Black Madonna also sings, chants and laughs, but he is getting tired and wants to get back to his residence just across the street, have a bite to eat and call it a day. His pleading to go home is to no avail. So he gets up off his throne, sits on the step below it, and resigned, listens to the singing of the students. A very unregal, unpapal position to be in – a bit like a court jester.

But maybe that’s precisely what made him such a warm, humane man.