Princeton Portrait

Illustration: Daniel Hertzberg, based on a photograph from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

On a cold autumn night some 80 years ago, a passenger train bound for Warsaw lurched to an unexpected halt. The train discharged the passengers abruptly — among them, Julien Bryan 1921, who was carrying movie cameras, still cameras, and rolls of film for a documentary he was making about peasant life in Europe. German planes had just bombed the main station, the beginning of a campaign of destruction. The date was Sept. 7, 1939. Bryan found himself a witness to the siege of Warsaw, which lasted 20 days and ended with the German invasion of the Polish capital. 

At the American embassy, Bryan learned that the embassy staff, foreign diplomats, journalists, and the entire Polish government had left the city. “Maybe I should try to get out of here at once,” he said to one of the few consular officers remaining. 

Ultimately, Bryan chose to document the siege for the rest of the world to see. He obtained papers from the mayor of Warsaw, Stefan Starzynski, that gave him permission to photograph the city. Starzynski also gave him a car, a guide, and an interpreter, who helped him to interview the city’s dazed civilians. (Bryan left Warsaw two weeks later.) 

“Wherever one looked there were hundreds of people on foot, on bicycles, pushing wheelbarrows and even baby carriages loaded down with their bedding and a little food,” Bryan later wrote. “Each night at 5:30 the Nazis sent over more bombers, and each morning a whole new section of the city was destroyed. So they went, not always wisely, to another part of town where they hoped they might be taken in. Poor and rich mixed together, but money no longer had any meaning. ... Blankets, mattresses, and bread were the most precious possessions.” 

In 1940, Bryan produced a documentary film, titled Siege, that recorded these experiences. He also published a book of photographs, many of which appeared in Life magazine. A major theme of his images is the horror of warfare against civilians. Bryan recorded people standing in breadlines who were killed by shrapnel; the dead lay in place, for a time, while the living remained in line. He recorded a church destroyed, a hospital destroyed, a house destroyed — with a father, the lone survivor of the family in the home, bending to sift from the rubble bullets from German machine guns. In one field, where women dug for potatoes because they had no food, two German planes descended and dropped bombs on a nearby house, killing the inhabitants. The women kept digging — and the German planes returned, strafing the field with machine-gun bullets and killing two of the digging women. 

“While I was photographing the bodies,” he wrote, “a little 10-year-old girl came running up and stood transfixed by one of the dead. The woman was her older sister. ‘What has happened?’ she cried. Then she reached down and touched the dead girl’s face, and drew back in horror. ‘Oh, my beautiful sister!’ she wailed. ‘What have they done to you! You are so ugly!’ Then, after a few seconds: ... ‘What will become of me without you!’ ” 

His book includes a photograph of the girl and her sister’s body. 

Bryan had served — at the age of 17 — as an ambulance driver in France during World War I. In college, he shaped his diaries from the period into a memoir, which lamented his former eagerness to “get some excitement”: “I have finally seen what I came over for, and a lot more besides — war, real war, stripped of glory. ... You realize how absolutely weak and helpless you are when a load of dead are brought in, some with arms and legs gone, others with heads and trunks mixed together; and quite often you learn there wasn’t anything left to bring.” Just a few years later, he found himself once again in a world of atrocities and brutal folly.  

Watch Bryan’s short film, Siege, at