The gallery presents iconic photos of just-after-the-war Warsaw by Polish photographer Maria Chrząszczowa. Photographs show the war-ravaged Warsaw coming back to life as vendors take to the streets again and small businesses spring up.
In 1945 Warsaw, the sight of woman with a camera amid the ruins wasn’t a common one, even if we take into account that when people started returning to the city in January 1945, many of those who had a camera and film immediately stated documenting the vastness of the deconstruction. Pictures were being taken by both professionals and amateurs, but primarily by men – women were busy organizing the life of their families.
Drifting through a sea of ruins, Chrząszczowa recorded evidence of not only Warsaw’s destruction, but also of its vitality as it rose from its knees. The destruction of some 80 per cent of Warsaw’s buildings was an obvious loss. But it was also an opportunity. ‘We must build on a clear site!’ Le Corbusier stressed. Leaving aside the political circumstances, the wrongs and losses, the city’s near-destruction made possible (in theory at least) the creation of an urban organism genetically unencumbered and the realisation of many pre-war plans.
The photographs from a walk around the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto are a document of both loss and a new beginning. Particularly in Chrząszczowa’s picturesque, somewhat unreal images, the heaps of rubble look like geological formations, a virgin land waiting for an act of creation. It is worth remembering that the Jewish district was pre-1939 Warsaw’s pang of conscience, and not for religious reasons. The area had the highest development and population density in the city and alarming health and hygiene statistics; to address this, long-term revival plans were drawn up in the 1930s. Actual changes took place only after the war: in the early 1950s, the fi rst quarters of a new estate, called Muranów - housing estate on the site of the former ghetto, were built to the design of Bohdan Lachert, with respect for the place’s memory, but with no sentiments towards the sick urban tissue.
Shortly before the war, a new upmarket residential district, named after Marshal Józef Piłsudski, was planned in the Pole Mokotowskie green area. At the rear of Polna Street, where the cows can be seen, the National Library building was to be erected. On the right are the light-coloured residential buildings, designed in the late 1930s, at the corner of Polna Street and Oleandrów Street, and in the background, the Warsaw University of Technology main building with the skylight above the lecture hall destroyed.
The main Warsaw University of Technology building survived the war with relatively little damage. The Warsaw Reconstruction Bureau, estimated the burn rate of the interior at 60 per cent. The building was reopened in December 1948, on the eve of a crucial party congress that took place in the neo-Renaissance main hall. The congress saw the communist PPR ‘merge’ with the socialist PPS to create the now mono-party, PZPR. Plac Politechniki was renamed Workers’ Unity Square (plac Jedności Robotniczej) in memory of the event. The main building’s reconstruction was offi cially completed only in 1950 and the sculpted fi nial had to wait another dozen or so years for its turn.
Gothic church walls that had until then been covered by layers of plaster, paint or decoration. Brutal cuts made it possible to learn buildings’ history in cross section and put forward new hypotheses about their original appearance. Destruction and the subsequent reconstruction made possible among others returning to the original, classical form of St. Alexander Church in Plac Trzech Krzyży and aligning the dimensions and correcting proportions of buildings at streets that were planned to be regulated even before the war, that is, primarily, Krakowskie Przedmieście and Nowy Świat.
One of the most exquisite buildings of Starzyński’s Warsaw, the envisaged Warsaw of the 1940s, would have been the Central Train Station in Aleje Jerozolimskie, designed by Czesław Przybylski. It was to become Poland’s largest train station, with an extensive propaganda-decoration program, one of its main themes being precisely Warsaw as the country’s capital.18 The building, almost completed, was attacked by a fi re in June 1939, but was quickly renovated by the reoccupation authorities and put into operation as Warschau Hauptbahnhof. It was only during the Warsaw Uprising that it was dealt a deadly blow and afterwards the mighty ruin of the steel structure of the high departures hall haunted in the centre of Warsaw. After war the ruins were cleared, and in 1955 the Warszawa Środmieście underground station for regional trains was opened here.
The area is today’s Spacerowa Street, 1945.
On the left, the rear of the Hygiene Institute building; in the background in the centre, the Seidman house at Chocimska Street 33, completed in 1938 to the design of Maksymilian Goldberg and Hipolit Rutkowski. Already in early 1945, on the day of his return to Warsaw, Józef Sigalin, head of the Warsaw Reconstruction Bureau, chose the surviving building for the Bureau’s headquarters. Today the house is a residential building again.
Chrząszczowa’s photographs were shown on the significant, first after war exhibition in National Museum “Warsaw accuses”. However, the material created by Chrząszczowa rises above any implied accusations. It is a manifesto of pacifism and vitality. It shows not only what was lost, but also the city’s revival and will of life, which took root in the ruins regardless of which side of the Iron Curtain Warsaw found itself on.
A pâté shop called On the Ruins opens at Sienkiewicza Street 8, and in September 1945, at Chmielna Street 33, Kino Atlantic, left-bank Warsaw’s first post-war movie theatre, re-opens for the public. Instead of farewells, there are more and more welcomes and first times: first stalls, first tramways, first shops. This is not just the life of Robinson Crusoes, but of people who have no intention of leaving their city.
The city’s revival stands as a genuine miracle. If we take into account that at least one in two inhabitants today wasn’t even born in Warsaw and that of the city’s 1.2 million pre-war residents, only 200,000 managed to return, it means that most of Varsovians today are descendants of pioneers or pioneers themselves, who have come to the city from all over the country and with their daily effort keep ‘building their capital’.
Used fragments of texts: by Grzegorz Piątek 'An End and a Beginning' and by Karolina Lewandowska 'The Two Chroniclers' from the book 'The Chroniclers. Zofia Chomętowska – Maria Chrząszczowa. Photographs of Warsaw 1945-46' edited by Karolina Lewandowska, published by Archeology of Photography Foundation, Warsaw 2012.
Archeology of Photography Foundation is taking care of Maria Chrząszczowa's archives.
The author of all photographs is Maria Chrząszczowa (1913-1979) – Polish photographer best known for her shots of architecture, most of them devoted to Warsaw. She was born into a family of Warsaw industrialists and first came in contact with photography frequenting the two-year Photography School in Warsaw. After her marriage she moved in the countryside. In spite of relocating and changing her lifestyle she did not cease photographing, to the contrary, she intensified her practice. She captured family celebrations, everyday life in the countryside. Shortly before the outbreak of the war, in September 1939, she moved back to Warsaw. Almost her entire photographic output was lost in a fire during the war. The earliest preserved collection is a record of Warsaw in ruins. Towards the end of the 1945, Chrząszczowa documented the Auschwitz extermination camp and the cities of Wroclaw, Jelenia Góra and Kłodzko. Having returned to Warsaw, she worked as a photographer up till the mid-1970s, for, amongst others, the Polish Press Agency. From 1953 to 1974, Chrząszczowa ran a photographic studio at the Faculty of Polish Architecture at Warsaw Polytechnic.