World War 2 is over. The Germans have gone. You’ve survived, although many of your friends and neighbours haven’t. They’ve either been executed in reprisals, or killed in the underground or the Uprising. Your city lies around you in ruins, all the familiar places reduced to rubble. What do you do?
If you’re a kid, you make the most of the ruins for your games, that’s if you’re not crippled and destitute. You might look cheerful for the photographer: two of you have been captured wearing caps and broad grins. You might spin hoops along with your friends; fish in the river; wrestle with your mates amidst uprooted cobblestones and the wreckage of buildings; sit on the footpath playing knife-throwing games; read your first grade primer; pour over a book with friends; look after goats; or even go to school. Sometimes you see a candy floss seller in the streets, and maybe even a camel being used to advertise something or other. If you’re lucky you might find a gun and a helmet in the debris, so you can dress up for your games, maybe feeling really sad as you remember the horrible times you’ve just lived through. If you’re a bit older, don’t grow your hair long: you might be identified as a teddy boy and blamed for robberies.
If you’re a young person you might move from your home elsewhere in Poland to join the reconstruction as a volunteer or as a member of the young communists. You might even come from Denmark, Norway, Finland or Hungary to join the brigades of the Service to Poland National Organisation, and the general construction workers, as they lug and lay bricks and dredge the river. You might return to university; run alongside an effigy of Eisenhower riding an atomic bomb in a Mayday procession; or collect autographs and addresses from Sikhs in Warsaw for the Fifth International Youth and Students Festival.
For many of you bits of life go on almost normally as the rebuilding happens around you. You lug a piglet home on your shoulders, set up your street stall, peg out your washing, take your baby to the park, buy flowers, set up an easel to paint your destroyed city: and at the weekends you might kayak or swim or lounge on the beach at Saska Kępa. If you’re any good at motor biking or skating you might enter competitions, even win.
As you walk around your city you might see a statue of the Warsaw Mermaid being cleaned; the figure of Zygmunt lying fallen from his column; or Kazimiera Majchrzak, the pigeon lady of ul Piwna, still feeding the pigeons in the desolation. If you catch a tram, it often has a wagon attached, overflowing with people, although more still manage to squeeze on.
In the early days after the war, no matter who you are, you might have joined the crowds cleaning up the mess, passing bricks from hand to hand in a great long chain.
This is my second visit to this exhibition of photos taken in Warsaw between 1945-1955, showing at the History Meeting House. (See here for the first half of the exhibition.) The photos of children are especially moving, as I think about my life in post-war Australia at about the same age, wearing exactly the same big bows in my hair. The energy of the rebuilding is palpable as is the astonishing resilience of the survivors, although no doubt many of them were quite traumatised with years of loss and terror.
I haven’t included photos to match all the descriptions, because some photos were unphotographable, angled and lit as they were.
Footnote: Kazimiera Majchrzak’s house in ul Piwna has been restored and her pigeons have taken up permanent residence on the lintel.