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.