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February 13: Photographing the Warsaw Ghetto

Lawrence Bush
February 13, 2017
Joe J. Heydecker, a soldier in the Nazi army who preserved forty-two photographs that he made inside the Warsaw Ghetto in early 1941, was born in Nuremberg on this date in 1916. Heydecker was a journalist and photographer who was ordered into Warsaw to join a propaganda unit. Anti-Nazi in sentiment, he secretly took hundreds of photos in spite of a 1941 Nazi prohibition against independent photographers. With the help of two friends in his military unit and his wife, he kept the film safe and secure even when the Gestapo raided his home. Eventually, his images were used as evidence in the Nuremberg trials (he was one of the few German journalists to report on those trials). After the war, Heydecker spoke on German radio about the horrors he had witnessed. He moved to Brazil, where his photos were shown to the public for the first time as part of a 1981 gallery exhibit and a book. “I find it hard to explain why nearly forty years have passed before I was able to publish these pictures," he wrote. "I believe I simply had not strength enough to write the text, although I tried several times. . . . Now I do what I can to set down what is seared into my memory, weak as it may be, because time is running out.” Heydecker died at 81 in Vienna in 1997. "[I]n 1937 he had spent a year travelling with his parents all over Poland, especially in Galicia and Volhynia, where they were welcomed as guests of Jewish families. His parents worked in the film industry. Heydecker had broken off his work as an apprentice photographer in order to travel with his parents, who had previously spent time outside Germany, feeling uncomfortable with the political situation. Heydecker quotes his father as having said, 'In such a country as this I will not live.' . . . During the year Heydecker spent in Poland, he spent much time in Warsaw and states that he was 'able to move about in a world that was then still free, to read books, journals and papers and assimilate information that would have been impossible inside Germany after 1933. I saw Nazi Germany as it really was. This not only immunized me to its temptations, I opposed it.'" --Kathryn Berman, Yad Vashem

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.