How the discovery of amateur 8mm film from 1941 uncovered the history of the Warsaw ghetto – the Calvert Journal
From March to November 1941, Alfons Ziołkowski, a 30-year-old Polish trader and motorcycle champion turned amateur filmmaker, documented the grim realities of the Warsaw Ghetto: everyday behavioral resistance, livelihoods, death, and conformity. Established in 1940, Warsaw’s Jewish Quarter was the largest ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe. When Ziołkowski filmed the footage, the ghetto would have reached its largest population. However, it will dwindle quickly, because between October 1940 and July 1942, nearly 20% of the ghetto population died of hunger, disease and cold.
At the time, Ziołkowski was probably unaware of the future commemorative significance that raw 8mm footage would take after the Holocaust. Indeed, it fell into oblivion immediately after. But 80 years later, Canadian-Polish director Eric Bednarski revealed exclusive material for his documentary. Warsaw: a divided city (2019), which invites the viewer on a journey through Warsaw in a tram – empty of passengers, but marked with the Star of David – crisscrossing the capital every January 27 in homage to the victims of Nazi persecution.
The documentary is bare in its intentions: Bednarski interweaves the voices of architects, architectural historians, artists and survivors with those of historical documents, archival footage, visual reconstructions and landscape plans contemporary urbanites to reiterate the intrinsic link between architecture, collective memory, and self-identity. The documentary seeks to transform sites of oblivion into sites of memory and to unveil how the Nazi Pabst plan envisioned the annihilation of Warsaw only to replace the multicultural metropolis with a German provincial town. Warsaw: a divided city is a thought-provoking reflection on the importance – and the difficulty – of remembering, what strength lies in the heartbreaking images of 1941, and the contrast between the intertwined shots of Warsaw today.