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I’ve just returned from Warsaw. For two weeks while in the besieged city, I photographed the struggles and agony of a people faced with the horror of modern war. I arrived in Warsaw the seventh day of the war to find a third of the city already a shambles. The situation was far more serious than the meager censored news reports had indicated. The Polish government, and with it all foreign correspondents, had fled Warsaw two days before. These were the only pictures made in the city during the siege. Barricades were being thrown up throughout the town. Everyone had to help, and soldiers conscripted civilians on the street, putting them to work. I saw one man who was stopped six times on his way home with a loaf of bread. It took him all afternoon to get back to his family. By the time I arrived Warsaw had already been the target for hundreds a bombing raids. Rails from the trolley car system were torn up from the streets and replanted as tank traps. The newspapers and radio were giving reports of army victories to keep up civilian morale. Of the progress of the war outside the city we received only false reports, but suddenly we knew the truth. On the tenth day soldiers started flooding back, retreating. Warsaw was almost surrounded. The bridges over the Vistula were the main military objectives of the air raiders, but, although thousand of bombs were dropped, no bridge was permanently put out of commission. I spent much of my time ducking into cellars, for German planes were almost constantly in the sky, and huge craters were blasted in the street, sometimes almost at my feet. Bombs did great damage to buildings and morale, but artillery fire was far more deadly, and neither man nor beast were safe on the streets. When one part of the city was destroyed by small incendiary bombs, the people who escaped would search for some relative or friend. They huddled together, perhaps drawing some courage from contact with their fellow sufferers. It was pitiful, for in groups like this, a bomb could rub out scores of lives. Between three and four hundred enemy planes a day were overhead. By the twelfth day, it was absurd even to sound alarms, for there was always an air raid. The fifteenth found a great shortage of food. Stores had kept open so long as there was anything to sell. Then the city established bread lines where more than half the population lined up for their daily rations. People were constantly moving, sometimes saving the least useful but most prized possessions from the debris of their homes. Demoralized, they shifted about the city, seeking safety. They were lucky who owned a horse and wagon because the entire family, even to the house pets, could be moved together with enough necessities to keep them alive, but any sort of vehicle would do. While a few carted unnecessary things, most of the refugees save their bed clothes, almost by instinct. By this time the German air force, which had outnumbered the Polish planes by twenty to one, had left not a defending ship in the sky. German planes dive low over the city as they attack. Polish anti-aircraft batteries actually made many direct hits. About fifty German planes, all told, were brought down while I was in Warsaw. Incendiary bombs took comparatively few lives, but they left hundreds of thousands homeless. In their wake remained only the smoking embers. It was almost impossible to put the fire out. The water mains had been blown up. At times machine gunners tried their marksmanship zooming low over the city after they had dropped their cargos of destruction. A new type bomb appeared, a 500-pounder with delayed action fuse. Each afternoon at 5:30, enemy air squadrons would drop incendiary bombs, and by nightfall whole sections of the city would be blazing. At night I roamed through the city photographing blocks of closely packed apartments, which were in flames. Blackouts were completely ineffectual, and the fires lighted up the city for miles around. Many churches in Warsaw were damaged in the weeks of the siege, when one direct hit on a military objective was accompanied by 25 or more misses. I made these scenes on a Sunday afternoon. The church had been struck during Mass that morning. This hospital was hit five times the day before I photographed it, and I followed the returning surgeons and nurses as they inspected the damage. Wounded civilian victims of earlier air raids in the city had occupied these beds when this raid came. It was like a grim avenger, relentlessly determined that they should not escape, that they should find no peace. From the head nurse I learned the details. She  had been on constant duty seven days and seven nights. The patients had been moved as quickly as possible. In the operating room, surgeons had been ushering a new life into this world of death. For this was Warsaw’s largest maternity hospital. When the siege had begun, the hospital had taken in other patients as a gesture mercy, so it’d been unusually crowded at the time of the raid, but there had been more than fifty mothers with babes only a few days old. When the bombs started falling, most of these mothers were removed from the wards and taken to the cellars. There, they sat on the cold, dank tile floor holding their newborn infants on their laps. Four days old and already a casualty of war, here were youngsters with life just starting being hidden away from death. This story almost missed being told. The developing tank, but I had moved them across the room to a dryer half an hour before the bomb struck.  It was the twenty-first day, and I was leaving that city of sorrow. In the fields outside was the most tragic scene I ever witnessed. Seven women had been machine gunned from the air while digging potatoes. Beside one mother’s body a stunned child waited for what might happen next. Even as I passed the peasants were returning to the potato field. They knew that if they dug, they might be machine gunned, but if they didn’t they would surely starve. I questioned the residents of a small suburb lying on the outskirts of Warsaw. When they learned that I was an American photographer, somehow they seemed to believe that I’d come all the way from the United States to help them, but I could do no more than capture the record written in their faces: dazed, angry, magnificent. One woman explained that the planes flew low just above the treetops, praying the fleeing women with machine-gun bullets. Still another told of nine who were killed by shellfire as they stood in a bread line. Many of the middle-aged were sullen and angry. Youngsters were half resentful, half resigned, while their elders turned to prayer. These are the faces of a nation besieged. These helpless civilians were the real victims and the unhappy heroes of the war of siege. May God have mercy on them!

Siege. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum, gift of Julien Bryan Archive

In September 1939, American filmmaker Julien Bryan spent two weeks in and around Warsaw documenting the devastating impact the German invasion of September 1 had on Poland. He screened some of this footage at the White House in January 1940, after which First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “I do not think anyone can see these pictures and fail to be impressed with what happens to any individual when we indulge in this madness called war.” Later that year, Bryan compiled the footage into this short film, titled Siege, which was nominated for an Academy Award.

Learn more about Julien Bryan