Poland, 1946 «The Photographs and Letters of John Vachon»
In September 1939, the German invasion of Poland propelled the world into war. By the spring of 1946, Poland was beginning to recover from five years of cataclysmic destruction. Liberated from the occupation of the Third Reich, the nation celebrated a peace already overshadowed by the emerging Cold War. John Vachon was in Poland to witness this transformation of almost mythic proportions. Assigned to cover United Nations relief efforts, this American photographer documented in images and letters a nation at the crossroads of the postwar East and West. Taken with a keen yet sympathetic eye, Vachon’s photographs, most of them never before published, reveal the destitution and unfounded optimism of Poles, many of them returning in boxcars from German labor camps and Siberian exile, ready to reclaim their burned-out cities and farms left fallow by war. Vachon’s letters home to his wife provide a rare context for the images. He writes of the luxuries enjoyed by the foreign corps amid Warsaw’s rubble, the equal measures of hospitality and anti-Semitism among ordinary Poles, and of the anti-Soviet sentiment in the countryside, where «they love Russian songs, but always apologize when they sing one». In one account of a village fire, he conveys the often conflicting emotions of the photojournalist, documenting scenes of suffering he feels powerless to assuage.