The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest of its kind in Europe – but the story of its inhabitants has always been told using Nazi footage, until now.
Never-before-seen footage shot by amateur Polish filmmaker Alfons Ziolkowski in 1941 shows what life was like for Jews inside the ghetto – from children smuggling food, to a dying man on the sidewalk, to Nazi guards dishing out beatings.
The 10-minute film is the only known footage of the ghetto that was not recorded by Nazis, and provides an invaluable historical record of the Jewish experience there.
Polish filmmaker Alfons Ziolkowski shot this footage inside the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941, and it is the only known footage not taken by Nazis showing life inside
The rare footage, which languished in family archives for decades before being uncovered, shows Nazi guards beating Jewish children
A child is beaten for smuggling food in footage that was clandestinely recorded by Ziolkowski, who was a racing driver before deciding to document the ghetto during the war
Until this footage was uncovered, the only known film taken inside the ghetto – the largest in Europe – was shot by a Nazi film crew for propaganda purposes
The black-and-white footage of the Jewish quarter is included in a new hour-long film ‘Warsaw: A City Divided’ by Polish-Canadian director Eric Bednarski.
Mr Bednarski said: ‘The film footage many of us have seen from the Warsaw Ghetto was shot in 1942 by a Nazi German propaganda film crew.
‘Their work has been used in literally dozens of documentaries about the Holocaust and the Second World War.
‘It was shot from the perspective of occupiers and perpetrators, and was used for anti-Semitic propaganda purposes.
‘The footage that appears in my documentary was shot by a Pole, with a completely different perspective.
‘This is the first known non-Nazi, non-propaganda footage from the Warsaw Ghetto.’
Despite its value the film had languished in Ziolkowski’s family archives for decades until Bednarski managed to obtain it.
Screened for the first time this month at the documentary festival Millennium Docs Against Gravity in the Polish capital, the film shows everyday life in the ghetto.
‘We see crowds of people on the street. We see partially destroyed buildings,’ said Bednarski, who began work on the movie 15 years ago after film school.
‘We see children smuggling food from the Aryan side, as it was called, to the Jewish side. Desperate children who were starving, who were pushing food through a hole in the wall,’ he said.
A Jewish child locked inside the ghetto runs to the wall to pass food through a drainage hole
Documentary-maker Eric Bednarski was given permission to use the footage in his film Warsaw: A City Divided, marking the first time it has been shown to the public
People who appear to be new arrivals at the ghetto clutch suitcases before being marshalled inside. At its height the ghetto contained 400,000 people in an area of just 1.3 square miles
People walk down the streets of the ghetto. Sometimes Ziolkowski appears to be filming secretly, while at other points people look at the camera, aware they are being recorded
A year after invading Poland in September 1939, the Nazi Germans created a special district in the capital for 480,000 Jews.
Many would die from hunger or disease in the ghetto, while 300,000 would be sent to the Treblinka death camp to be gassed.
In 1941, Ziolkowski was 30 years old. An amateur filmmaker, motorcycle racer and merchant before the war, he managed to obtain a pass into the ghetto.
There, he risked his life by documenting what he saw.
This was still before the terrifying scenes of the ghetto in its final phase when the streets were littered with bodies on the eve of its 1943 liquidation.
But already the sight of a lifeless body on a sidewalk full of elegantly clad passersby gives a sense of the tragedy to come.
Some of the footage was shot covertly from a car. But Bednarski is convinced that other scenes must have been filmed out in the open as people look right into the camera and appear to know they are being filmed.
‘I like to think he [Ziolkowski] did what he did to document the horror that was unfolding in the city in which he was living,’ said Mr Bednarski.
‘He clearly chose locations for their significance. This was not accidental random filming.
‘He had shot home movies before the Second World War, so he was able to use an 8mm camera,’ said Mr Bednarski.
‘But as a Polish motorcycle racing champion of the 1930s, he was clearly someone who liked to take risks.’
Little is known about Ziolkowski – such as why he made his film or how, as a non-Jew, he was able to enter the ghetto
A tram rattles down the streets of the Jewish quarter which was turned into the largest ghetto in Europe by the Nazis after they seized Warsaw
The film has been verified as authentic by survivors who were able to identify locations, and historians familiar with other images of the ghetto
Warsaw ghetto survivors who were shown the footage have said they recognise some of the scenes but could not identify any of the people.
‘How lucky that the film was preserved, that the Ziolkowski family kept it and it didn’t end up in the trash,’ said Warsaw teacher Kaja Rupocinska, who attended the film screening.
‘Did he want to document the war? Did he go there out of curiosity? Could he tell that an unprecedented tragedy was about to happen?’, she asked AFP.
‘We don’t know and we’ll never know. One thing is certain: what he did was invaluable.’
Previous footage of the Warsaw Ghetto was published by Jewish filmmaker Yael Hersonski as part of her documentary A Film Unfinished about life in the ghetto.
But for her source material, she was forced to draw on footage recorded by a Nazi film crew as part of propaganda before the ghetto was eliminated.
While it was never released in Germany during Hitler’s rule, the fact that the film was shot at his regime’s behest makes it an unreliable historical record.
For a glimpse into daily life inside the ghetto, historians largely rely upon the Oyneg Shabes – an archive buried inside time capsules shortly before the ghetto was wiped off the map.
The archive comprises some 35,000 pages – including documents, materials from the underground press, photographs, memoirs, belles lettres, labels from ration packs and more.
However, it does not contain any footage of the ghetto – which makes Ziolkowski’s record all the more valuable.