Hecatomb of the Polish Archives in the Uprising
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small, Hecatomb of the Polish
Archives in the Uprising, Archive of New Records / Forum, full_archiwum_akt_nowych_forum_770.jpg
During the Warsaw Uprising and the period immediately after, as Nazi Germany methodically destroyed the city, it also decimated the Polish archives. An estimated 40 kilometres of shelves of valuable documents were lost.
The General Director of the State Archives, Władysław Stępniak, stresses that the history of the archives during World War II brings up many questions and doubts:
They concern the preparation and protection of the collections and the responsibility of the curators for what happened to them, even during the Uprising. One of the most difficult problems is the involvement of objects which carry national heritage in military action, which results in dire consequences.
He recalls that during the Uprising, the commander of the North Group defending Old Town, Karol Ziemski (also known as Wachnowski), used the Central Archives of Historical Records – then on the corner of Długa Street and Krasiński Square – as quarters and a command post. It was from the archives that insurgents evacuated Old Town on 2nd September.
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Reports show that the risk to the building’s collection, including 13 kilomtres of shelves with documents, was made clear to Wachnowski and the main command – but to no avail. There was a similar situation at the Arsenal, which had been restored and adapted for the needs of the city archives before the war. There, too, a unit of insurgents was stationed, which leads us to question if the matter of protecting cultural property was properly considered.
Stępniak also noted that the underground central authorities arrived at these issues late. It was not until 2nd September that they set up structures and issued orders for the protection of cultural heritage in the area covered by the Uprising. hat was the day the collections of the Central Archives of Historical Records burned.
Some of the most valuable parts of the Polish archive – for example, the Metrica Regni Poloniae – were secured even before the Uprising at Fort Sokolnicki in Żoliborz. During that time, a civilian shelter was also located there, furnished with a kitchen and a field hospital.
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In the beginning, documents were moved to different rooms; by the end, they began to serve as makeshift walls and beds. Under these conditions, cultural treasures were not particularly taken into account,
recalls the general director. He admits a paradox in the protective measure towards the Polish archives undertaken by the Nazi Germans:
Erich Randt was the head of archives of the General Government. It was under his direction that after the fall of the Uprising and under Soviet fire, Nazi Germans transported the ‘Metrica Regni Poloniae’ from Warsaw to Jasna Góra. Many of his officers were, in fact, professional archivists, and they appreciated our professionalism.
On the other hand, Stępniak stresss that we should remember that Nazi Germany had no qualms about burning the Central Archives of Historical Records after they took the Old Town building abandoned by insurgents on 2nd September.
And it was a difficult undertaking, because documents ‘tan’ – you have to put in a lot of effort to completely burn them. It was a deliberate act of destruction. The same happened to the Archive of New Records. And that was after the Uprising, in November. Part of the valuable documents burned there had held a significant part of the history of the Second Republic of Poland,
he emphasises. Stępniak also mentions the attitude of the archivists themselves:
Here, we have a little bit of a not-quite-recorded card. It is surprising that in the critical moments of the collection the most important people were not here – for example, Józef Siemieński was director of the Central Archive of Historical Records until 31st August 1939. When the war broke out, the new director did not show up. During the biggest bombing, Siemieński and several employees rescued the collection of the archive. At that time, treasury and education documents burned without care.
He notes that Polish archival losses are incomparable with those of other countries:
While the ‘Metrica Regni Poloniae’ was preserved, as were diplomatic archives and the archives of the Crown in Warsaw and Kraków, the books of landowners and municipal courts, records of citizens and government declarations were burned. [...] We lost unique archival materials dating from the fifteenth to the twentieth century. Documentation of the Duchy of Warsaw, the Polish Kingdom, post-partition time, local institutions, churches, the Commission of National Education. The files of the Crown Court and a number of related central courts went up in smoke. The destruction of those 40 kilometres of documents left a gap in our memories that will be impossible to fill.
Before the Uprising, Polish archivists submitted lists to Nazi German authorities of the most valuable documents they proposed be protected. After their approval, the documents were moved to Fort Sokolnicki. Nazi Germany took further steps to transfer the archives from Warsaw to Częstochowa. There, in collaboration with the abbot of the monastery at Jasna Góra, they prepared to preserve the archives. The Nazi Germans also set aside materials for their own collections. These efforts stopped at the outbreak of the Uprising.
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When the head of the archives of the General Government learned about the burning of the Central Archives of Historical Records, it was decided that the archives had to be saved. After the Uprising and the evacuation of the population, a group of art historians, librarians, and archivists, working under the ‘Pruszkow Action,’ penetrated the facility where the collections were stored and saved what survived. Many then went on to Częstochowa. In total, six train cars were evacuated. After the war, they gradually returned to Warsaw
In the general director's opinion, the archival losses arising from the war are much smaller than those that resulted from the process of deliberate destruction – above all, the deliberate burning of the Central Archives of Historical Records and the Archive of New Records after the Uprising. Municipal archives located in the Arsenal building were partially damaged during the Uprising, before the rest were destroyed by the Nazi Germans.
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Before the war the collections in Polish archives consisted of 90km of shelves. After the war, that number was reduced to 27 kilometres. Of course, this is partly the impact of territorial changes and the loss of large archives in Vilnius, Grodno, and Lviv. We only partially acquired archives in the western and eastern regions. The largest collection in Warsaw, unfortunately, practically ceased to exist,
world war ii
Edited by KK, Jul 2015, translated by AGA