Album of a German Soldier
While the ghetto’s Jewish leadership decided to immortalize its positive activities in pictures, the Germans used their cameras to document the harsh reality of life in the ghetto. In addition to the official photographers who came to the ghetto to shoot news and propaganda photos, there was also a widespread phenomenon of “soldier tourists” in the ghetto. The Warsaw region encompassed a large number of German military bases and the city also served as an important crossroads for military transportation on the Eastern Front. Many soldiers passed through the city and spent their free time there. The Jewish ghetto, following its closure in November 1940, quickly became an anthropological attraction for these soldiers. We know of at least ten collections of photos in varying sizes that were taken by soldiers in the ghetto during their off hours. Over time, some of the pictures taken by soldiers have become “standard” photos of the ghetto, which is what happened to the more than 150 photos taken by the soldier Heinz Jost in the ghetto over the course of several days in 1941.
The photographs shown here were taken by a soldier who served in a supply unit for the German Air Force in the Warsaw region. They were arranged by him, together with other photos of Warsaw and his army experiences, in a fine, leather-bound album that read, “Das Warschauer Ghetto. Ein Kulturdokument für Adolf Hitler” (The Warsaw Ghetto. A cultural document for Adolf Hitler). Of the 109 photos contained in the album, 56 of them deal with the ghetto. Some of these pictures were taken from a car, and we assume that the soldier came to the ghetto on a cold but sunny day, with someone else in the vehicle, exited the car somewhere in the ghetto and wandered around on foot. Unfortunately we do not know the exact date on which the photos were taken, but we can guess it was in 1942. All of the photos were taken outdoors and they depict all of the things that the Judenrat’s pictures did not: the suffering and difficult conditions in the ghetto. In many photos we see people who have collapsed in the street, children begging and the general misery that shrouded the streets of the ghetto. Nevertheless, the photos also show the people’s efforts at maintaining a normal way of life under these difficult circumstances, and their attempts to engage in commerce and trade. Particularly notable are the two extremes of commercial life in the ghetto: on the one hand there are depressing stores that have managed, somehow, to remain in business; on the other hand, we see the active street trading that characterized the ghetto streets.
In contrast with official photographs taken by Jewish organizations, in which it would seem that the subjects were asked to ignore the camera, in the soldier’s photos we can sense the subjects’ awareness of the camera’s presence. People stood facing the soldier’s camera, and smiled for him. In one of the pictures (15) we even see a Jewish policeman saluting the photographer. Evidently, at this stage the ghetto residents had a ready response when a photographer appeared in their midst – a further indicator of the large number of photographers who came to the Warsaw ghetto.