Search for Missing Woman from 1946 Photograph of the Warsaw Ghetto
The search for a mysterious girl photographed in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto almost 70 years ago has yielded no results so far. She would be in her eighties right now, and could be anywhere in the world.
Until recently this was not a very well-known picture in Poland. But over the last month thanks to the efforts of a couple people and a Facebook profile, the image has gone viral and is now on the path to becoming one of the most iconic images of destroyed Warsaw. Still, while the Internet was able to establish a lot of important facts, including the exact location of the place, the main goal of the whole effort has not yet been achieved, which is finding the girl in the picture and getting to know her story.
Here's the story behind the most viral image in Poland right now.
What the Image Says
The black-and-white image shows a girl (approximately 10 years old) looking at the sea of ruins of the Warsaw ghetto. She is standing on a roof of a building which in the course of a private investigation by Marek Kossakowski (follow here) has been identified as a building at 5/7 Stawki Street - which is one of the very few buildings in the area to have survived the war. The building still stands today at four stories tall, which is not so obvious when you look at the picture – it seems that the flattened background of razed rubble somehow distorts the perspective and proportions.
In the left top corner one can discern the silouette of the Saint Augustine's Church, well known from other pictures of the destroyed ghetto. The T-shaped cross-road on the left has been identified as the intersection of Muranowska and Zamenhofa, the streets that had formed the heart of the Warsaw's Jewish district before WW2.
The girl on the roof is smartly dressed, the only thing which is out of sync are the shoes - too big and probably belonging to a man, they make one wonder how she made it all the way up here. The girl is caught in the act of touching her hair (the wind must have blown furiously at this altitude). The power of this picture is best felt by comparing this image with another photo – made in the same place with the same girl but by a different photographer (below).
Hoover in Warsaw
This is what the image tells us, and it is not much. But we know also that the iconic photograph was taken on April 3, 1946 by Reginald Kenny who was a photographer accompanying former US president Herbert Hoover on the so-called Food Mission in Europe. In 1946 and 1947 Hoover visited around 40 countries struck by the war in an effort to estimate losses and provide the best relief for war victims. One of the places he visited was Warsaw.
This was not the first time Hoover visited the capital of Poland. He had been in Warsaw some 27 years earlier. Immediately after World War I he came to Poland on a similar mission. At that time he was, reportedly, shocked to see so many children running barefoot. This time, the sight of Warsaw must have been even more appalling. Polish capital was now utterly destroyed - with some parts of the city, like the Ghetto or Old Town almost razed to the ground, in the aftermath of the Ghetto Uprising of 1943 or the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, or both.
As we can learn from the old film footage of this visit (see the film at Repozytorium Cyfrowe) in April 1946 Hoover saw the most destroyed districts of Warsaw - and was devastated by what he saw. He also spent some time with pre-school children.
A photograph (above), captioned as 'Herbert Hoover visits children’s schools and orphanages in Warsaw, Poland, March 30, 1946' (Hoover Institution Archives, envelope SSS) shows the former president on the same visit, surrounded by children in the street of Warsaw. Could it be that one of the girls in this picture (or in the newsreel) is the same girl as the one photographed by Reginald Kenny on the roof of the building in the ghetto?
This is one of the hypotheses proposed by Grzegorz Kosson, Polish author and one of the persons involved in the internet search for the girl from the image. Kosson, for whom the figure of the girl was an inspiration for his book Gruzy (see preview), believes that the photo session on the roof of the building in Stawki 5/7 was arranged by the photographer, who very likely had picked the girl from a crowd of school children hanging out with president Hoover in the ruins of the Old Town. Old Town is not far from Stawki, Kosson explains. - Today it's a 15-minute walk, but back in those days, with real mountains of rubble in between, it could have taken considerably longer.
For Grzegorz Kosson finding the girl from the image would be a way to conclude the story of the photo, the city and also his book. He dreams of photographing the woman in the same place 70 years later. But is it possible?
Despite efforts from Kosson and others, we still have virtually no clue as to who the girl in the picture is. Who was she? Why was this photo even taken? What has her story been since then? And where is she now? – This still remains to be uncovered.
The search campaign, initiated by the Varsovian Facebook profile Tu było tu stało and Grzegorz Kosson, started over a month ago (i.e. May 18) and made the image go viral across Polish internet; however, it has not come to fruition. One potential link that points to Australia as the possibile wherabouts of the girl (who by now would be around 80 years old) has not been yet verified.
Meanwhile, the authors of the campaign decided to take the search to the street initiating a poster campaign in the Muranów district [a Communist housing estate located on the spot of the former ghetto]. This may be the right thing to do, considering that an 80-year-old person would not necessarily keep up with trending photographs on the Internet (no matter how viral the photo goes).
But it is also probable that the girl in men's shoes lives very far away from Muranów, Warsaw.
If you think you may know something about the girl from this image, please contact Patrycja Jastrzębska and Grzegorz Kosson at [email protected].
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, June 24, 2015