August 1, 1944, Polish resistance fighters launched
the biggest insurrection the Nazis ever faced – the
Warsaw uprising. Two months later, a quarter of a
million Poles were dead, the city in ruins. Until
he was injured in the fighting, photographer Jerzy
Tomaszewski recorded the uneven battle. He tells
Janina Struk how he went to war with a camera.
Janina Struk is author
of Photographing the Holocaust:
Interpretations of the Evidence.
Tomaszewski was lying badly wounded in the rubble
of the devastated city of Warsaw. He managed to raise
himself on one arm and press the shutter to capture
the catastrophic scene around him. It was the last
war image he would take. It was September 6, 1944,
the 37th day of the Warsaw Uprising. The city had
endured continual bombardment from German forces
and there was more to come: in the 63 days of that
desperate struggle, more than 250,000 people lost
their lives in the biggest, most heroic insurrection
the Nazis ever faced.
Tomaszewski had used photography to defy the Germans
all through the war. In 1940, the eldest of his five
brothers – all of whom were members of the Home Army
(the Polish underground resistance) – recruited the 16-year-old
Jerzy onto a secret training course in photography. He
then went to work in Foto-Rys, a photographic shop in
central Warsaw that served the German occupying forces.
By 1940 Poles were no longer allowed to own cameras
or take photographs, but there was no lack of custom
at Foto-Rys. "The Germans loved photography," says Tomaszewski,
now 81 and still living in Warsaw's rebuilt Old Town,
site of some of the fiercest fighting. The 20 or so Polish
workers were kept busy processing and printing Nazi propaganda
photographs and snapshots taken by ordinary German soldiers.
They often showed atrocities – round-ups, Jewish ghettos,
public hangings and executions. "When we first saw these
pictures it was a shock for everyone," says Tomaszewski.
The underground established a secret cell in Foto-Rys.
It was run by a chemical engineer called Andrzej Honowski
who instructed Tomaszewski and fellow conspirator Mieczyslaw
Kucharski in making illicit copies of the incriminating
material. The copies were smuggled to the Polish government
in exile, based in London. "It was highly dangerous
work," Tomaszewski says, "but we were young and we didn't
always understand the danger, or the importance of the
work we were doing."
In fact it proved too dangerous – in 1943 the Nazis
got wind of the Foto-Rys operation and raided the shop.
Tomaszewski and Kucharski were tipped off and got away,
but Honowski wasn't so lucky – he was arrested and executed.
Undeterred, Tomaszewski and Kucharski continued their
activities, organising a secret laboratory where documents
and photographs were copied on to tiny strips of microfilm
so that they could be smuggled in pens, razor handles
In January 1944, the nature of the war was changing.
The Red Army was on the march, its relentless drive west
carrying it across the prewar Polish-Soviet border. By
the end of July the Soviets were only 12 kilometres from
the centre of Warsaw – close enough to hear the gunfire.
By that time the Soviets had set up the pro-communist "Lublin
committee" and had declared that the Home Army were no
better than fascists. Thousands had been interned.
In Warsaw, the Home Army realised it had little choice
but to go on the attack. If they did not, they would
be accused by the Soviets of collaboration, and if they
waited for the Red Army to march in, the Lublin committee
would be established in the capital. The decision to
begin the battle was based on the assumption that the
allies would airlift vital supplies and the Red Army
would support them. The assumption was misguided on both
When the uprising began, on August 1, 1944, Tomaszewski
was one of some two dozen photographers assigned by the
Bureau of Information and Propaganda (BIP) to document
the battle. Tomaszewski remembers the main principles
of his job: always be on the frontline; process the film
as soon as possible; and protect the negatives at all
costs. The underground commandeered a number of photo
labs, including one called Foto-Greger where a photographer
named Waclawa printed Tomaszewski's photographs. Each
print, captioned and dated, was dispatched to the daily
newspapers and bulletins.
After five years of brutal occupation, there was jubilation
that the fight had begun. "For the first three days," says
Tomaszewski, "it was a wonderful atmosphere." The cultural
life of this "secret underground state" as it was known,
flourished. Newspapers and cinema newsreels reported
on the uprising; there were concerts, and Polish radio
returned to the airwaves. But by August 7, the Germans
had begun to mobilise special forces, and a terrifying
array of military might. There were round-ups, deportations
to concentration camps, and executions: in the space
of a week, an estimated 35,000 civilians – men, women
and children – were massacred. The insurgents could not
compete militarily, but their ingenuity and the support
of the civilians helped them to maintain the uprising.
The human cost was enormous. "As the daily bombardments
increased, the death toll rose, and as food and water
supplies ran low the population became ever more desperate," says
Tomaszewski. "My duty was to photograph not only the
fighting but also the civilians, to find out how they
were coping as they were confined to cellars without
food or medicine, weapons or ammunition.
"It was difficult, they were suffering and I was taking
photographs and writing about it." But he never doubted
the importance of his photographic evidence. "Whenever
I was in trouble or covered in rubble, I worried only
about the camera and film."
He worked wherever possible, often with his Dolina 35mm
camera hidden beneath his coat. "We had no military training
and the work was increasingly dangerous. On one occasion
I was told to photograph a German unit that was bombarding
the city from the top of a building. I managed to get
on top of the building opposite. To test the situation
I put my hat on a stick. It was immediately blown to
By the end of August the Germans had tightened their
grip on the central Old Town area. The air raids and
artillery attacks increased. Armed mainly with Molotov
cocktails, the Home Army fought on, but faced an impossible
task. By early September thousands of fighters and civilians
began to evacuate through the city's sewers.
When Tomaszewski heard that the central power station
was under attack, he went to take photographs. "By then
the Germans were in the centre of town with tanks," he
says. "They were burning and destroying everything all
around me. I was very frightened. There was tragedy everywhere:
people carrying injured children, people being buried
alive in the cellars. I was scared all the time. Comrades
were shouting at me not to risk my life taking photographs."
With the Old Town collapsing around him, Tomaszewski
was running across a main street between tanks shelling
the buildings when he was caught in a blast of shrapnel
and falling rubble. With his legs covered in blood, his
comrades dragged him to the ruins of his nearby family
home where he collapsed. "I was desperate to take more
photographs," he says. There he took that last frame,
showing several bodies lying in the street and a woman
checking them for signs of life.
Tomaszewski's comrades took away his camera and underground
ID in case of capture - effectively saving his life – and dragged him to the hospital. "There were so many
other injured people worse than me – many without arms
or legs – that I asked to be left outside so that I could
be treated later," he says. "This was the worst moment
of the uprising for me. As I lay on the ground the hospital
was shelled. Everything was in flames and people were
jumping from the windows. I was crawling towards them,
but I couldn't help. They were burning alive and I couldn't
do anything to help them."
The fact was, no one was helping the Poles. Despite
endless pleas for assistance, the they were caught between
the conflicting interests of the western allies and the
Soviet Union and neither considered it in their interest
to help. While the Red Army sat silently on the eastern
bank of the Vistula, Winston Churchill pledged support,
but besides a few air drops, the support was pitiful.
When Stalin refused allied planes permission to land
on Soviet controlled airbases, making further air drops
impossible, neither Churchill nor Roosevelt exerted pressure.
In mid-September, when a German victory was imminent,
the Russians airlifted a few supplies, but it was too
late. By allowing the Home Army to be annihilated, Stalin
in effect had the Nazis do his dirty work for him.
On October 2, the Home Army capitulated. The Germans
expelled the surviving population and razed the city.
It was another three months before the Soviets rolled
into the eerie landscape of deserted ruins.
Tomaszewski had been rounded up at the hospital with
20 other people and sent to the Pruszkow detention camp,
about 20km outside Warsaw. But he managed to escape and
went into hiding in the mountains in the south. In February
1945, he returned to Warsaw to bury his mother and one
of his brothers - their bodies had been found beneath
the rubble of their home. He took a few photographs among
the ruins, balancing on his crutches. After that he took
no more photographs. "The trauma of the uprising left
a permanent scar," he says.
After the war, the insurgents who had survived were
effectively silenced. Under the communist regime any
mention of the Warsaw uprising was dangerous. Over the
next few years an estimated 50,000 members of the Home
Army were killed, interned or deported to the Gulag.
For almost 10 years the photographic evidence of the
uprising was hidden away, along with the memories, but
after Stalin's death in 1953 the "thaw" began and four
years later the first collection of uprising photographs
None of Tomaszewski's photographs featured in the book
- as far as he knew, they had all been buried beneath
the rubble. But in June 1975 he saw an advertisement
in a Warsaw newspaper from someone who was looking for
him. He did not know the surname, but it was Waclawa
Zacharska, who had printed his photographs during the
war. He had not seen or heard from her since 1944, but
she had taken all his negatives from the laboratory and
hidden them in metal cans. The building had been destroyed,
but the cans remained: although some were badly damaged,
more than 600 photographs survived. Two years later,
in May 1977, they were displayed in the first exhibition
of images from the uprising, in Warsaw. In 1979 his book,
Episodes in the Warsaw Uprising, was published.
Tomaszewski's home in the Old Town now doubles as his
archive, and includes the artwork of his eldest brother
Stanislaw, the Home Army's chief artist, and hundreds
of images from Foto-Rys which had been hidden by his
mother. He calls the collection his "family archive."
His apartment is within walking distance of the family
home in whose ruins he lay to take his last photograph.
He shows me the picture and falls silent. "Was it all
worth it?" I ask him. "Perhaps it wasn't," he says. "So
many lives were lost. It seems countries where people
collaborated had it better than us.
"But later I heard that the Nazis already had a plan
to destroy Warsaw and its population. Either way, the
people of Warsaw couldn't have won."