May 1942. The Germans shoot a film in the Warsaw Ghetto

Written by: Przemysław Batorski
On May 1, 1942, a German film crew came to the Warsaw ghetto to prepare an anti-Jewish propaganda film. It was entitled Das Ghetto. Read how the members of the Oneg Shabbat group saw these events.

Praying Jews – staging for a German propaganda film shot in the ghetto in May 1942.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-134-0791-20A / Knobloch, Ludwig / CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia


In May 1942, two months before the start of the great deportation action, a German film crew arrived in the Warsaw ghetto. Its aim was to create anti-Jewish propaganda material showing the allegedly prosperous life of the inhabitants of the gated district, and above all that rich Jews did not help the poor.

One and a half years after the closing of the ghetto borders, inhuman conditions prevailed in the closed district. There were about 376,000 people per square mile (currently the population density in downtown Warsaw is approx. 18,000 people per square mile, in Manhattan, New York about 70,000 people per square mile; today, only some districts of Dhaka, Mumbai or Cairo have a population density similar to the Warsaw ghetto). The average food allowance for an adult ghetto inhabitant in 1940-1942 was around 300 calories a day. From autumn to 1940 to July 1942, approximately 92,000 died in the ghetto, mostly from cold, hunger and disease. people. The ghetto reached highest population, approx. 450,000 people, in 1941. In January 1942, there were about 35,000 children up to 7 years old and around 50,000 at the age of 7-14. The hunger was particularly bad for the children.

The Germans forced Jews to act out scenes showing that some people in the ghetto lived well, and others starved to death. The “real” scenes from the ghetto looked like that they drove better-dressed Jews to the Szulc’s restaurant at the corner of Nowolipki and Karmelicka Streets. They ordered them to take tables and eat various dishes. Poor, badly dressed Jews were also led into the restaurant and asked those sitting at the tables for help. At the behest of German directors, the richer Jews beat and pushed the poor, [1] recalled Lucjan Gurman, whose account is kept in the Archives of the Jewish Historical Institute.

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Warsaw ghetto, Jews play cards in the club. German propaganda photo.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-134-0794-11A / Knobloch, Ludwig / CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia

Yesterday in Warsaw something happened that cannot be properly expressed in our poor, human language. I do not know a word that could adequately define, evaluate and qualify it. So I will only give the fact, as it was told to me by various people and someone who learned about it from a direct participant immediately after the end of this devilish game.

Yesterday, the Germans caught – with the help of the Jewish police – on the street, especially among the inhabitants of the house at 38 Dzielna Street, Jewish girls, young and old women and men with and without beards. Two large cars with Germans arrived in front of the house at 38 Dzielna Street: airmen, SS men and soldiers of other formations. A small car with officers also arrived. First of all, they photographed young girls. It should be noted that the young girls and women who were caught were especially cleanly and richly dressed. Then they herded everyone – Jewish women and men – to a bathing establishment in the yard of the house. Women were photographed again in the bathing facility. After that, they forced all the Jews present – men and women – to strip naked, like Adam and Eve. The German officers matched the pairs of Jews of both sexes. They assigned an old Jew to a young girl and vice versa – an old woman to a young man. They then forced them to have sexual intercourse.

This scene, i.e. the sexual act (it should be assumed that it was only simulated), was filmed with special cameras, which were brought and assembled for this purpose. The witnesses said these cameras were operated by Poles. The number of Germans present is estimated at 200. This unheard–of and macabre barbarism happened in the Warsaw Ghetto between 3 and 6 pm on Tuesday. [2]

– wrote Abraham Lewin in his diary on Wednesday, May 13, 1942.

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Abraham Lewin

The following I was told about further filming in the ghetto: there is a Jewish restaurant on the corner of Żelazna and Chłodna Streets. Yesterday at 9 am, the Germans took all the waitresses, young girls out of there, put them on the street and made them make cheerful and provocative faces. At the same time, they gathered a group of begging children and ordered them to march in front of selected waitresses with outstretched hands, but these hands received nothing. This was filmed to show that the Jews live in luxury and do not share their goods with the starving.

Then they took the waitresses to the flat of the president [of the Warsaw Jewish Council] Czerniaków at 20 Chłodna Street, seated them at the table and ordered to serve tchem decanters with water, which was to imitate vodka, and other types of dishes. The waitresses had to be cheerful and noisy again. This scene was also filmed. Later, the Germans shot some more pictures in private Jewish apartments, in a house at 6 Chłodna Street and elsewhere. They only filmed nicely furnished apartments. It was supposed to show “the world” that Jews live quite well in the ghetto. And this is to be proof of it. [3]

–  Lewin wrote three days later, on May 16.

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President of the Jewish Council in the Warsaw Ghetto, Adam Czerniaków.
The photo comes from an album documenting the work
of the Order Service in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940-1941. JHI Collection

Four days later, Szmuel Szajnkinder wrote:

20th of May. Tomorrow is the Feast of Shelters. The sun is shining like it does it summer, but it is still cold. People are dressed in half winter clothes. The clock shows 4 pm. The worst hour of the day, when I finish work in the office and come home, where I am waiting for two hungry household members. Neither they prepared dinner for me, nor did I leave them any money for that dinner this morning.

At Leszno Street, near my house, a crowd of passersby. On one side of the street is a huge power plant truck. Two long hoses are dragging from the car, like from a fire engine, across the street to “Adaś”, a pub popular with Jewish collaborators, Gestapo men, other suspicious individuals and simply war heroes. What is going on here? Fire? No! This… they are making a film. For several days now, the occupant has been shooting and editing a propaganda film about the life of Jews in the ghetto.

It is difficult to say what is going on here, at least the director and the author came up with a wild idea and the whole story is commented on in various ways. On the one hand, people do not understand how they, at such a serious moment, when a river of blood is flowing in Kerch and Kharkiv [where heavy fighting took place on the Eastern Front in May 1942], can have their heads on shooting Jewish horror films. On the other hand, people make the assumption that this movie will not do us any good.

Why be surprised? In the display windows [there are] […] cakes, delicious pastries and other delicious food. The premises and gardens are flaunting […], and our women wear striking make–up, elegant clothes and move in a provocative way. Naturally, the occupant cannot bear this. This gives him the basis for further […] humiliation. There are various versions of this filmmaking. The fantasy works a bit too [hard], creating a nightmarish image together. People talk about making a movie in the Commune. Jews with beards were caught on the street, seated in the meeting room at Grzybowska Street under the leadership of Czerniaków, and a meeting of the Judenrat was organized. Jews had to behave like madmen, Czerniaków too, he had to make a laughingstock of himself, and the cameras shot everything…

They caught Jews with beards and elegant young women in the streets. They took them to the public bathhouse at Dzielna Street, ordered them to strip naked, arranged them in pairs in various drastic positions and ordered them to dance. One Jew who did not want to dance died a martyr’s death [al Kiddush Hashem]. So they say.

They came at Gęsia Street to film the house of prayer. One of the praying, an elderly man, approached the head of the “artists” and asked him what his name was… He replied, “Why do you need to know?” “I would like to pray for your health,” was the answer that had been prepared in advance. The boss got confused and they all went away… So they say.

They also came to film at the popular Szulc’s restaurant on the corner of Nowolipki and Karmelicka, where before the war there was a ‘nice company’ nest. They called people from the street, seated them at tables, ordered them to order the best dishes and filmed… Then they lined up a row of ragged tramps in front of the entrance, and a fat, elegantly dressed Jew with a cigar stuck in his mouth had to walk through this line and… spit on them. They photographed… circumcision, a Friday evening was staged. Yet many different versions and variants of these events could be heard in the city. Now they are filming at “Adaś”. Previously, they were in “Sztuka”, a “better” place at 2 Leszno Street, and on a brand new, luxuriously decorated beach on the ruins of 26 Leszno Street. They filmed everywhere. They walk everywhere with Jewish traitors and denunciators doing them favors…

What are they doing this for? For whom? No one knows. However, it feels like nothing good will come of it. People only ask why they are not filming the “departure point” at the corner of Karmelicka and Leszno Streets, where yesterday a gendarme smashed with a rifle the head of a 10–year–old Jewish boy who was running with 3 or 5 kilograms of potatoes. Why do they not film Pawiak [prison], where the sounds of shots are constantly heard, or Więzienna Street [Prison Street], where they catch passing Jews, transport them at Pawiak and inflict barbaric, monstrous (really) suffering on them? Why don’t they film a car that often drives Karmelicka Street and kills innocent passersby? Why don’t they film the wall in front of the Iron Gate, where the monster shoots Jews every day for breakfast and prides himself on being the best shooter of all German pilots? He has already shot 171 Jews. Why aren’t they filming policemen who walk down the street and beat them, kicking Jewish pedestrians?

Why? This single word embodies the cry of despair of tens of thousands [of Jews], clotted blood, suffering beyond human strength and pain, hunger and poverty. Why and what for? […] Also the film, which is now being shot and edited, will not provide any answers to these questions. [4]

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Pawiak prison, around 1906. Wikipedia

On June 11, Jechiel Górny wrote:

Today, around 2.30 pm, several Jewish policemen came to the bakery of Goldfarb and Frasz at 16 Pawia Street and demanded 5 loaves os bread for the Jewish Police Headquarters. According to the order of the German authorities, they explained, this bread must be delivered to  18 Pavia Street, where a film is being shot. At 18 Pawia Street, dozens of Jews were already gathered – mainly Hasidic types, with beards and sidelocks. Plates with fish, brought from the “Szulc” restaurant in Karmelicka Street, were placed on the tables. Germans with cameras were standing in the corners of the room, taking pictures. The Jewish policemen reported that the film made in the ghetto was financed entirely by the Jewish community. [5]

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 Jechiel Górny, entry in the journal of June 11, 1942.
Ringelblum Archive, Central Jewish Library

On July 22, 1942, the great deportation action from the Warsaw ghetto began. By September 21, the Germans deported nearly 300,000 Jews to the extermination camp in Treblinka and murdered them there.

Materials filmed by the Germans for propaganda purposes in the spring of 1942 in the Warsaw ghetto were included in the documentary A Film Unfinished by the Israeli director Yael Hersonski. It premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, receiving the World Cinema Documentary Editing Award. Fragments of the German film are also used in the permanent exhibition at the Jewish Historical Institute.

The original German film can be viewed at the United States Holocaust Museum Memorial website. In the first frames, we can see the building of the Main Judaic Library, today’s seat of the Jewish Historical Institute. [6]

Written and translated by:
Przemysław Batorski
[1] Lucjan Gurman, [report written after the war], JHI Archive, signature 301/6146.
[2] Archiwum Ringelbluma, vol. 23, Dzienniki z getta warszawskiego [Warsaw Ghetto diaries], ed. Katarzyna Person, Zofia Trębacz, Michał Trębacz, transl. Sara Arm et al., JHI Press/University of Warsaw Press, Warsaw 2015, p. 23. The spelling of fragments of the journal has been simplified in some places, and a few missing words have been supplemented. Also, paragraph breaks and boldings have been added.
[3] Ibid., p. 30.
[4] Ibid., p. 352-353.
[5] Ibid., p. 284.
[6] Ibid., p. 23, note 39. Information about the film in the lead of the article: Ibid., p. 352, note 548.
Przemysław Batorski   JHI Web Editor