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Siege: Photographs and a Dramatic Narrative of Personal Experience

Jan Peczkis|Tuesday, November 16, 2010

This book, published in 1940, has inestimable historical value. It includes a large collection of photographs, which subsequently have been reprinted in innumerable books and encyclopedias

It also has relevance today. Nowadays, some Germans are trying to recast themselves as victims of indiscriminate Allied bombing policies, conveniently forgetting that it was the Germans who not only had started the war, but who had defined the very parameters of modern aerial warfare. Indeed, airplanes had played a trivial role in WWI, and both the how-to and moral limits of aerial bombing had been an abstract issue before WWII.

The German-Soviet war of aggression against Poland, the first phase of WWII, was the first major war in which airplanes played a significant role. Guernica was a triviality compared to what the Germans did to Poland. Julien Bryan estimates that the Luftwaffe dropped at least 250,000 bombs on about a thousand Polish cities and towns. (p. 19). Warsaw herself suffered the impacts of 10,000-30,000 German shells DAILY. (p. 32). Quite an overkill!

German propaganda, of course, blamed the Polish victim for starting the war, and also would have us believe that the attacks were limited to military targets (and, using modern parlance, collateral damage: e. g., Herr Goering: p. 10). Nothing could be further from the truth. The Germans deliberately bombed residential areas, hospitals (p. 25), churches full of people (p. 30), and crowds of refugees. Julien Bryan himself observed the Luftwaffe repeatedly and deliberately strafing columns of civilians, and took the famous picture of a Polish girl holding the bloody corpse of her older sister. (p. 28, and the photo with the caption: "Sisters").

In the Introduction, Maurice Hindus asks: "Is an old wooden church a military objective? Is a Catholic hospital a military objective? Are tenement houses in the poor quarters of the city military objectives? Are the tombs of the dead military objectives?" (p. 10).

Where railroad tracks were still intact, trains traveled at night in total darkness (p. 13) to avoid getting bombed. Everything worked against the Poles. Even the September weather was the best it had been in many years. (p. 52). Bryan notes the temporary successes of the "Polish artillery" (evidently the Bofor anti-tank guns) in repelling the initial German panzer thrust to Warsaw. (p. 53).

As for besieged Warsaw, Bryan commented: "I was impressed by Warsaw's will to survive." (p. 27). Bryan met, and described, Warsaw Mayor Stefan Starzynski, who rallied Poles in defense of Warsaw (and who was subsequently murdered by the Germans). Starzynski encouraged Bryan to take photos (p. 23, 44) and let the whole world know what the Germans were doing to Poland. Bryan managed to evacuate to East Prussia on September 21.

The third photo in the collection, the one showing Jews digging trenches, has been misrepresented by some Jewish authors as illustrative of how the Polish authorities singled out Jews for menial work out of some presumed anti-Semitic motive. Nothing could be further from the truth. The caption says: "Everybody Helping: Orthodox Jews, Like Others, Dig Trenches Under the Direction of Soldiers".

For newsreel footage, now on DVD, of the Luftwaffe's war against Polish civilians, see Siege: World War II Begins: Original Film Footage of the Seige of Warsaw, Poland, September 1939, and read the Peczkis review.
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