Stefan Kiełsznia (1911–1987) - the documentarist of Lublin
1, 3, 5, 7 Nowa St. and so on, and so forth. M. Aszman’s glass depot, H.M. Gladsztejn’s furniture store, J. Rydzewski’s lunch meats store, wine, vodka and liquor depot, Pharmacy of Mr. Szeliga, M.Sc. And further on... Lubartowska Street. Right turn. Kowalska Street. Or, maybe, a left one and uphill - onto Świętoduska Street. House after house. Step after step. One shop next to another. Another door. Another shop windows. Another advertisements.
This is how one can journey through Lublin while looking at the photographs taken by Stefan Kiełsznia just before the outbreak of World War II.
“As a token of perpetual remembrance”
Stefan Kiełsznia (1911-1987) - bookseller, photographer, documentarist of the pre-war Lublin. In his youth, he was interested in painting, but financial conditions did not allow him to get a training in the fine arts. He was a book enthusiast and worked in the St. Wojciech bookstore. In the interwar period, his collection of books on photography was the biggest in Lublin. He was a member of the Lublin Photographic Society (Polish: Lubelskie Towarzystwo Fotograficzne). He referred to his photographs as ... a token of perpetual remembrance. The artistry, so fashionable before the war, never appealed to me. In photography I saw a perfect instrument of stopping time.
In the interwar period, Stefan Kiełsznia created photographic documentation of the streets in the centre of Lublin: Nowa, Lubartowska and Świętoduska, as well as those located in the non existent Jewish quarter: Kowalska, Szeroka and Krawiecka. 145 photographs are known of at present.
Until 2010, it was assumed that Stefan Kiełsznia had taken those photographs in 1937 or 1938, to the order of the city Historic Preservation Officer, Józef Dutkiewicz. That operation was meant to precede the plans of the municipality of Lublin which had passed a resolution to remodel some areas of the city. Detailed research carried out by Marcin Fedorowicz, that consisted in analysis of the posters and adverts on the photographed buildings, leads to the presumption that the photographs were taken earlier - probably around 1934.
The situation is similar as far as the camera used to take the photographs is concerned. Initially, it was presumed that Stefan Kiełsznia had taken the pictures using a Rolleiflex camera, as he mentioned working with that type of camera in his memoirs. However, the analysis of the photographs - and especially the fact that Rollei did not produce cameras designed for 35 mm films, on which the photographs were taken, before 1939 - allows one to presume that Stefan Kiełsznia used a Leica camera in his work. He used Mimosa and Gevaert films.
The photographs mostly show ground floors of apartment houses. The photographer’s work is extremely precise. It was carried out with great orderliness. Buildings were photographed one after another. In the photographs, apart from architecture, signboards, the typical pavement or a newsagent, there are people walking through the city during the day. The viewer may notice a woman carrying a bundle on her back, a group of children, men standing in the gate of a house. In one of the photographs, Kiełsznia captured the moment of unloading a horse cart, another one depicts a standing hackney cab, and another, an empty pram. Several figures appear repeatedly in different photographs and we can trace their journey through the city. One of Kiełsznia’s photographs is unique - it was taken at 28, Szeroka St. The house of the Seer of Lublin. It is the sole surviving photograph of that remarkable house.
>>> see galleries of Stefan Kiełsznia’s photographs of Nowa, Kowalska, Lubartowska, Świętoduska and Szeroka streets
>>> see montages of Stefan Kiełsznia’s photographs
The number of photographs taken by Stefan Kiełsznia is unknown. In one of the interviews, the photographer said that he had taken about 600 photographs before World War II broke out. That number probably includes all Kiełsznia’s pre-1939 photographs, not only the collection of views of the streets of Lublin. It is known for sure that, because of exceeding cost, the photographer could not made copies of all his films. Nothing is known about how the negatives and the copies were stored during the occupation. What is known is that after the war, Stefan Kiełsznia was hounded by the UB (the socialist state’s secret police) in relation to his collaboration with the Home Army and he had to destroy some of his work. He did not prize it anyway: I did not attach any importance to what was left after the wartime turmoil. It laid, forgotten. However one day, while browsing through them, I realized that that Lublin did not exist any more and that the young generation did not remember it.
The preserved collection of Stefan Kiełsznia’s pictures of the streets of Lublin consists of 145 photographs. It includes 107 frames of 35 mm negative, 11 miniature gelatin silver prints on baryta paper in 13 by 18 cm format and 28 gelatin silver prints on baryta paper in 23 by 36 cm format.
Most of the pictures come from the collection of Stefan Kiełsznia’s son, Jerzy. The rest of them, initially kept in Symcha Wajs’ archive, were given to the “Grodzka Gate - NN Theatre” Centre. The entire material was digitized and since 2010, it is included in the Stefan Kiełsznia's Digital Archive (Archiwum Cyfrowe Stefana Kiełszni). The archive was created as a result of a Polish-German project "Bławatne z Lublina" ("Fabrics from Lublin").
Most of Stefan Kiełsznia’s pre-war photographs were first developed only in the 1970s. The first exhibition, titled "Dawny Lublin na fotografiach Stefana Kiełszni" (the old-time Lublin in the photographs by Stefan Kiełsznia) was organized in 1977, on the initiative of Henryk Gawarecki. Photographs from Nowa, Kowalska and Szeroka streets, views of the castle and pictures taken in the Old town were among those presented at the exhibition. Ten years later, those photographs were published in an album titled "Lublin trzech pokoleń" (Lublin of three generations).
In the early 1980s, Murray Forbes from the USA became interested in the collection and, acting on behalf of the Navigator Foundation from Boston, organized an exhibition of photographs documenting the pre-war life of Polish Jews. Stefan Kiełsznia’s photographs were exhibited there. The exhibition visited, among other places, Boston, San Francisco, Paris and Tel Aviv. Unfortunately, many photographs were lost during the tour.
In the late 1990s, photographs by Stefan Kiełsznia appeared as a part of the permanent exhibition at the “Grodzka Gate - NN Theatre” Centre. They were shown on three exhibitions: "Wielka Księga Miasta" (the great book of the city), "Portret Miejsca" (portrait of a place), "Pamięć Miejsca" (memory of a place). The photographs depicting the streets of the pre-war Lublin were also used to create a mock-up of the pre-war city which is exhibited in the Centre’s seat, and the 3D mock-up of Lublin created in the course of the project “Lublin 2.0”.
Beyond the Interwar
In July 1944, Stefan Kiełsznia took photographs in the prison at the castle and in one of the cells in the castle tower, where executions of the prisoners had been carried out. He also documented the war damage. After the war he photographed the events taking place in Lublin. Till the end of his life, he was an active member of the Lublin Photographic Society, where, among other activities, he ran the library. He took part in numerous photography contests, winning many of them.
In 2011, to celebrate Stefan Kiełsznia’s 100th birthday, the “Grodzka Gate - NN Theatre Centre” carried out an educational and artistic project called "Sztuka Pamięci. Kiełsznia" (the art of memory), which consisted in a series of interdisciplinary activities centred around the figure of the photographer.
The photographs by Stefan Kiełsznia, reproduced in many albums about Lublin and permanently exhibited inside the “Grodzka Gate - NN Theatre” Centre’s seat, are an inspiration for contemporary artists. Among them is Ulrike Grossarth from Dresden who, having seen Kiełsznia’s Photographs in 2006, launched her own artistic project "Bławatne z Lublina" ("Fabrics from Lublin"). Talking about her own reception of the photographs, she said: When (...) I first saw Stefan Kiełsznia’s photographs, I was astonished. Since the first moment, I was convinced that something that I had been trying to find for years in my artistic activity, was exposed there in a natural way. Different facets of both photography and human activity (...) manifested themselves there in the form of an ordinary scenario of the everyday.
Material compiled by:
Marcin Fedorowicz, Emilia Kalwińska,
Dominika Majuk, Wioletta Wejman, Agnieszka Wiśniewska
Edited by Joanna Zętar
Translated by Jarosław Kobyłko
Special thanks to Anna Kiełsznia and Jerzy Kiełsznia
Dawny Lublin w fotogramach Stefana Kiełszni, „Kurier Lubelski”, 13.12.1977.
Dokument dla refleksji, „Sztandar Ludu”, 06.05.1985.
Dziś w obiektywie, jutro już historia, „Kurier Lubelski”, 05.08.1985.
Gawarecki H., Dawny Lublin na fotografiach Stefana Kiełszni, Towarzystwo Miłośników Lublina, Lublin 1977.
Kwaśniewska E., Czar starego Lublina, „Sztandar Ludu”, R. 1986, nr 103.
Młynarczyk J., Ulice sklepów cynamonowych, „Kobieta i Życie”, R. 1992, nr 20.
Odnous B., Fotograf zaginionego miasta, „Karta”, R. 2000, nr 31, 2000, s. 10–15.
Toczyński Z., Cynamonowe sklepy Stefana Kiełszni, Fotografia, R. 1985, nr 1, s. 13–17.
Ulica Nowa 3. Stefan Kiełsznia. Historyczne zdjęcia ulic dzielnicy żydowskiej w Lublinie, Lipsk 2011, s. 31–53.
>>>see the full bibliography