"At times wind from the burning would drift dark kites along"
The photographs show the streets of Warsaw, the ruins and the flames over the ghetto. In one of the frames, over a dozen people climb a heap of bricks to look at the ghetto. The photos taken by Rudolf Damec were discovered in 2019 by his granddaughter Aleksandra Sobiecka. In January 2023, she brought them to POLIN Museum.
From 18 April 2023, the photos will be on display in the temporary exhibition titled "Around Us a Sea of Fire. The Fate of Jewish Civilians During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising" which marks the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
"Here’s a man who would walk along the eastern stretch of the ghetto wall and take photos. We know that he had great empathy—he offered a hiding place to a Jewish woman in his home, he was deeply moved by what was happening and he felt a strong urge to document what he saw," says Joanna Fikus, head of the POLIN Museum Exhibitions Department.
In 1943, Rudolf Damec was 34 years old. He was an engineer from Gdynia, but in 1940 he moved with his family to Warsaw. At the time of the Uprising they resided on Grzybowska Street, right next to the ghetto wall. Rudolf worked as a warehouse keeper at the Polish Optical Company. The photographic film contains portraits of his family—his wife Ewa, daughter Xenia and son Zbyszek. In one of the frames, a fair-haired boy hands Rudolf a pinecone. Right next to the portraits—images of buildings aflame, rubble and billowing smoke above it. And an empty playground wreathed in grey smoke.
Such photos—showing the ghetto burning during the Uprising and passers-by looking at it—are very few and far between. In the POLIN Museum collection, there are two colour slides taken by Zbigniew Borowczyk, on display in the Holocaust gallery of the POLIN Core Exhibition. The theme of witnesses to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is present primarily in literature—in novels, memoirs and essays—in the short story titled "The Good Week" [Wielki Tydzień] by Jerzy Andrzejewski, in Czesław Miłosz’s poem "Campo di Fiori", in the diaries of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, in Jan Błoński’s essay titled "Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto."
Aleksandra Sobiecka, donor of the photos, has been documenting her family history since 2017. At home in Warsaw, she found a box with the photographic film. The negatives were kept in envelopes—some big, some small—or simply rolled up. There were some transparencies, too. Aleksandra began to scan them. The negative with the images of the ghetto aflame was rolled up tightly. Aleksandra cut it into six-frame segments, put each segment in a plastic sleeve and placed them under piles of books to make them flat.
"These photos made an enormous impression on me—the ones taken next to the ghetto wall. I looked at them, then I put them aside again to straighten them up some more. It was obvious to me that these are photos taken in this part of the city with a view towards the ghetto. I immediately thought about the poem by Czesław Miłosz, about the carrousel at the Krasiński Square right next to the ghetto wall," says Aleksandra.
The negative of Rudolf Damec contains 36 frames, 27 of which feature the burning ghetto, the ruins of the ghetto and passers-by looking at the ghetto. The photos were taken in April-May 1943. The family of Aleksandra Sobiecka decided to donate the negative to the POLIN Museum collection.
Text: Joanna Król-Komła
In 2023, POLIN Museum is organizing an all-year program titled "Thou Shalt Not Be Indifferent. 80th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising." The key element of the program is the opening of the temporary exhibition "Around Us a Sea of Fire. The Fate of Jewish Civilians During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising" in April. Professor Barbara Engelking, head of the Center for Holocaust Research at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences, is the author of the exhibition concept; Zuzanna Schnepf-Kołacz from POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews is the exhibition curator.
The text contains a quotation from the poem "Campo di Fiori" by Czesław Miłosz written in April 1943 (Source: "The Collected Poems: 1931-1987", The Ecco Press, 1988).
Scans of the negatives: POLIN Museum, Archeology of Photography Foundation
Rudolf Damec was born in Dziećmorowice in the Cieszyn Silesia region, and perished in a car crash in Ghana on 11 May 1969. He was driving a rented cab in order to see a dam on the Volta River in Akosombo. The accident happened on Aleksandra’s second birthday, which she was celebrating in Warsaw. She never really got to know her grandpa, yet they do share—cross-generationally and spiritually—the explorer gene. Rudolf Damec was a Tatra mountain climber, photographer and avid traveller. Aleksandra Sobiecka has always been a passionate of maths and history. She studied pedagogy, risk management and philosophy. For years now she has been reconstructing and documenting her family history. She was given her first photo camera when she was 12 years old. Since then, she has been taking photos and documenting all the important moments in her life.