Rebuilding Warsaw 

I’ve always been fascinated by the old/young identity of Warsaw, more than 80% of which was reduced to rubble by the Germans in WW2. History House is hosting an exhibition of photos taken in the decade between 1945 and 1955 by delegates from photographic agencies and occasional others, who visited Warsaw for a variety of reasons. John Phillips produced a 9-page photo report for Life in August 1945;  Hans Reinhart accompanied J Edgar Hoover on his visit in 1946; John Vachon and Julien Bryan photographed for UNRRA in 1946; Tony Linck’s photos were used in a 1947 article by the American ambassador entitled “How Russia governs Poland”; in 1947 the amateur photographer Henry Cobb, an architecture student at Harvard, took colour photos when he came with a group of American and Canadian architects visiting wrecked European cities; David Chim (one of the founders of the Magnum photographic agency) photographed for UNESCO’s 1948 investigation into the fate of children in countries devastated by war; Robert Capa (a co-founder of Magnum) photographed on his way back from the Soviet Union where he’d been travelling with John Steinbeck. 

After the war, only 16% of homes on the left bank were habitable and there was a strong push to relocate the capital to either Lublin or Łódź, leaving the rubble as a permanent memorial. But, as one of the information panels says, the people of Warsaw “voted with their feet”. A few thousand returned to Warsaw and began to move rubble and rebuild; pressure on the authorities to stop demolition increased; and the slogan became “a whole nation rebuilding its capital”. One woman said later “We just have to make an effort and it will all take shape.”

John Vachon wrote to his wife in 1946

By 1952, heavy reconstruction work was under way and 15% of the labourers were women. Cheap labour was brought in from the countryside: by 1950 a third of the population of 694 000 were newcomers and resentments flared, mainly because of the shortage of housing and the fact that  the “carrot crunchers”, “country bumpkins”, “storks” were building houses on the outskirts using bricks reclaimed from the ruins.
My apologies. Some of the images that follow are distorted. They are displayed in slanted glass cases and it is a choice between distortion or glaring reflections of overhead lights – or not sharing the images at all. 

Most of the places shown in the photos are familiar to me, and to you too perhaps, as readers of my blog. Those photos taken of very familiar places are particularly moving.
The people of Warsaw return, January 1945

Exhuming the body of an insurgent in the Warsaw Uprising

Funeral of victims of the Warsaw Uprising 1945

A family dining in a damaged building, overlooking Puławska St and Park Morskie Oko, near where we live

Scenes photographed from a documentary screening in the exhibition

A boy begging along the route I take when I catch a tram (Stanisław Dąbrowiecki)

Two women, 1946 (Julien Bryan)

Chapel in the middle of ruins, 1947  (John Vachon)

Dancing at the junction of Nowy Świat and Al Jerozolimskie on the Rebirth of Poland National holiday July 1947 (Stanisław Dąbrowiecki)

Ujadowski Park, 1847: PAP – a park I’ve been to with the twins

Ruins of the ghetto and  in the background the ruins of the Old Town and the New Town, 1947 (Henry Cobb). Site of my early morning walk

View of Świętokrzyska St 1947 (Henry Cobb)

All Saints Day, 1947. Families of people killed in the Warsaw Uprising crossing the Old Town Square on their way to the graves (PAP)

Holy mass at a temporary altar in the rubble of St Jan Cathedral, 1947 (Stanisław Dąbrowiecki)

Street trading, 1948 (Stanisław Dąbrowiecki)

Cab rank, 1948 (Jerzy Baronowski)

Marszałkowska St, October 1948 (PAP)

This post only offers half the exhibition: after an hour or so, my stamina and attention span both expired and I wasn’t doing justice to what I was seeing.

About morselsandscraps

A retired Australian who spends a lot of time in Warsaw, and blogs as a way of life.
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12 Responses to Rebuilding Warsaw 

  1. restlessjo says:

    Terrible images, some of them, Meg! It does fill you with awe at the human spirit, doesn’t it? I could look at this over and again, partly in disbelief, partly in anguish. Our terrible world, where we never learn. Hugs, sweetheart!


  2. Lucid Gypsy says:

    Meg what a wonderful collection they have gathered together. The people are so determined and it shows on some of the faces. Some photos are desperately sad but then there’s thy joy of the dance and the women’s chatty, smiling faces. My city was heavily bombed in the war, including the cathedral. Unbelievable less than a hundred people died despite many air raids. And still wars continue.


    • Hitler embarked on WW 2 determined to eradicate Poland. A lot of the destruction was in the last days, while the Russians looked on from the other side of the river. Such savagery, and no respect for civilian life or children. It’s unbelievably horrible. I don’t know how English people kept on during the blitz – the awful uncertainty of it all. Syria, amongst other places, right now.


  3. findingnyc says:

    What an account of resilience and determination! I knew that Warsaw had been bombed during World War II, but I had never realized the amount of destruction. The photos are really powerful, and it must be very meaningful to realize how the locations in these images correspond to your life today. Thanks for sharing your visit to History House, Meg. I found it fascinating! Hope you’re having a good weekend. Best, Susan


    • I studied history for three years at university, but it never got into my bones as the history of Warsaw is doing. It makes a huge difference being here and seeing traces still.

      Weekend has been a mix of lazy, park-rambling and cooking. I’m waiting the summons to go to the twins until their parents return from a weekend away bike riding: the plan was 100 km on Day 1, but then they rode for 18 months, from Tokyo to Warsaw a few years ago. Hope your weekend was a good one too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • findingnyc says:

        I studied history (and geography) at university as well – even went on to get a Ph.D. in history. But none of it is as fascinating to me as when I get to travel to places where the events I’ve studied actually took place. My weekend was overall quiet, aside from the trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I teach at a law school now, and graduation was today – so I pretty much lost the entire day today!


        • Thank you for this glimpse into your background. It’s strange in the blogging world – we get and give a slice of ourselves, with only occasional glimpses of the matrix, both present and past. I like the slow rounding out of my blogging friends. Although I suspect this is the way real world friendships develop too – tile by tile, the mosaic slowly becoming more complete – but we cohabit in the matrix, so there’s more immediate knowledge.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. freebutfun says:

    Strong images!


  5. Pingback: You live in post war Warsaw. | 12monthsinwarsaw

  6. Irene Sanderson says:

    I had the honour of visiting Warsaw a number of years ago and will never forget the courage and conviction of the Polish citizens in rebuilding their devastated city and country to its former beauty. I am returning at the end of Sept., 2018 to revisit Warsaw and carry on from their to the Baltic States.
    Irene, Winnipeg, Canada


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