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In October 1940, German authorities ordered Jewish residents of Warsaw restricted to a closed quarter of the city. A month later, the Warsaw ghetto was sealed off, enclosing roughly 400,000 people in 1.3 square miles behind a ten-foot wall. Conditions in the ghetto were extremely harsh. Residents received only meager food rations, far below the levels necessary for survival. Many soon died of starvation and disease. According to Jewish officials in Warsaw, 1,700 people starved to death in the first half of May 1941 alone. By the summer, 5,000–6,000 people were dying every day.1 Mass deportations from the Warsaw ghetto to killing centers began in July 1942.2
From the beginning of its existence, images of the ghetto became a propaganda tool for the Nazi regime. Although the terrible living conditions there were the direct result of German policies, the poor health and hygiene of Jewish ghetto inhabitants seemed to confirm antisemitic prejudices that Jewish people were dirty or immoral. German photographers were sent to document the ghetto. The Propaganda Kompanien—the arm of the German army tasked with producing propaganda images on the front—took photographs that dehumanized the Jewish residents and attempted to justify their horrific treatment. Photographers in occupied countries were often enlisted to contribute to such efforts.
The photographs featured here demonstrate examples of how Jews were depicted in the Warsaw ghetto. Although they were produced by a Polish photojournalist named Mieczysław Bil-Bilażewski, these images were found in a German soldier's photo album of occupied Warsaw. The featured album page demonstrates how photographs shaped and circulated antisemitic prejudices as they projected different stereotypical images of Jewishness—long beards, racialized facial features, tattered clothes, and poor hygiene. The subjects' white armbands also highlight their identity. One photograph also suggests that the camera could function as an everyday tool of oppression—an official (likely a Jewish official working for the Judenrat) photographs a resident of the ghetto for identification.3
Little is known about Bil-Bilazewski—also known as M-Bil—or the circumstances under which these photographs were taken. From the 1930s into the war years, he operated his own photography studio in Warsaw. By at least 1942, M-Bil began taking propaganda photographs for the German administration. Some images depict the world of Warsaw's occupiers, including German theater and other cultural events, as well as German political leaders' activities in the city.
These figures are quoted by Janina Struk in Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence (London: IB Tauris, 2004), 79–80. For more on life in the Warsaw Ghetto, see Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak, The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Ruined City (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).
For more on deportations from the Warsaw ghetto, see the related Experiencing History items, Diary of Janusz Korczak and "Report for the period from July 22 to September 30, 1942".
The Judenrat employed Jewish photographers to take portraits of officials, to document social functions, and to photograph every ghetto resident for ID cards. Struk, Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence, 86.
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