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Rare footage of life in Warsaw Jewish ghetto shown in Poland

Warsaw's infamous Jewish Ghetto wall (built by the Nazis from 1940 to 1943 during Poland's occupation) is seen on April 11, 2013
Warsaw's infamous Jewish Ghetto wall (built by the Nazis from 1940 to 1943 during Poland's occupation) is seen on April 11, 2013 AFP/File
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Warsaw (AFP)

Scenes of starving Jewish children smuggling food, a dead body on the sidewalk, were captured in never-before-seen footage of Warsaw's wartime ghetto by an amateur fillmmaker in 1941.

For decades, the only available footage of the Warsaw ghetto has been Nazi propaganda films. Now, thanks to the discovery of an amateur film, the public can get another take.

The rare black-and-white footage of the Jewish quarter is included in a new hour-long film "Warsaw: A City Divided" by Polish-Canadian director Eric Bednarski.

Shot by amateur Polish filmmaker Alfons Ziolkowski, the 10-minute raw footage languished in the man's family for decades before Bednarski managed to obtain it through relatives.

Screened for the first time this month at the documentary festival Millennium Docs Against Gravity in the Polish capital, the film shows everyday life in the ghetto.

"We see crowds of people on the street. We see partially destroyed buildings," said Bednarski, who began work on the movie 15 years ago after film school.

"We see children smuggling food from the Aryan side, as it was called, to the Jewish side. Desperate children who were starving, who were pushing food through a hole in the wall," he told AFP.

A year after invading Poland in September 1939, the Nazi Germans created a special district in the capital for 480,000 Jews.

Many would die from hunger or disease in the ghetto, while 300,000 would be sent to the Treblinka death camp to be gassed.

- Risked his life -

In 1941, Ziolkowski was 30 years old. An amateur filmmaker, motorcycle racer and merchant before the war, he managed to obtain a pass into the ghetto.

There, he risked his life by documenting what he saw.

This was still before the terrifying scenes of the ghetto in its final phase when the streets were littered with bodies on the eve of its 1943 liquidation.

But already the sight of a lifeless body on a sidewalk full of elegantly clad passersby gives a sense of the tragedy to come.

Some of the footage was shot covertly from a car. But other scenes must have been filmed out in the open as people look right into the camera and appear to know they are being filmed by Ziolkowski, according to Bednarski.

"I think if he'd been caught, he would have been arrested, at the very least. He might have been shot," Bednarski added.

Warsaw ghetto survivors who were shown the footage have said they recognise some of the scenes but could not identify any of the people.

"How lucky that the film was preserved, that the Ziolkowski family kept it and it didn't end up in the trash," said Warsaw teacher Kaja Rupocinska, who attended the film screening.

"Did he want to document the war? Did he go there out of curiosity? Could he tell that an unprecedented tragedy was about to happen?", she asked AFP.

"We don't know and we'll never know. One thing is certain: what he did was invaluable."

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