President Herbert Hoover and the Girl from the Ruins. A World War II mystery.

President Herbert Hoover. (1928, US Library of Congress.)

Adolf Hitler’s plan for Poland’s capital Warsaw had always involved demolishing the city and rebuilding it as “a provincial German town”, but the 1944 Warsaw Uprising provoked the dictator into proceeding with the plan far earlier and far further than even he had at first envisioned.

The earlier 1943 Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto had already provoked Hitler to send SS-Gruppenführer Jürgen Stroop’s troops to annihilate 50 thousand people within its walls, deport 36 thousand survivors to die in concentration camps, and destroy any remaining structures, which constituted about 15% of the entire city. After the massacre and destruction was over, Stroop’s official report, sent to Himmler as a leather-bound souvenir album, triumphantly declared: “The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw Is No More!” on its title page.

Jürgen Stroop’s report (1943/1946, International Military Tribunal / Public Domain)

The vicious reprisal indeed resulted in the complete annihilation of the ghetto, but it was the news of the city-wide revolt a year later that truly sent Hitler into a manic fury, which resulted in a new order: Warsaw must be pacified — that is, razed to the ground.

Heinrich Himmler himself expanded upon the order by stating: The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth, and serve only as a transport station for the Wehrmacht. No stone can remain standing. Every building must be razed to its foundation.

Thus Warsaw became a testing ground for Hitler’s future “Nero Decree”. The first formal target of that decree would be Paris, but the city’s destruction was avoided when its commander von Choltitz ignored Hitler’s command which stated: Paris must not pass into the Allies hands, except as a field of ruins.

Warsaw in flames, Agfacolor slide, photographed by corporal Ewa Faryaszewska during combat. (1944, Museum of Warsaw.)

With Warsaw, however, the command was eagerly obeyed. SS-Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, and SS-Gruppenführer and future mayor of Westerland Heinz Reinefarth were tasked with its implementation.

Oskar Dirlewanger’s 36th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, the notorious unit described as “pardoned murderers commanded by a convicted molester”, was brought in to wipe out the city. They did so with enthusiasm, and Himmler’s spoken permission to rape, steal and murder at will.

View of the Warsaw Ghetto, before its destruction. (1943, Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe.)

Belgian Mathias Schenk from Wehrmacht accompanied the Dirlewangerers and recalled their actions after the war.

Children were standing in the hall and on the stairs. We looked at them for a few moments until Dirlewanger ran in. He ordered [the men] to kill them all. They shot them and then they were walking over their bodies and breaking their little heads with butt ends. Blood streamed down the stairs. There is a memorial plaque in that place stating that 350 children were killed. I think there were many more, maybe 500.

Dirlewanger's soldiers burst in. One of them took a woman. She was pretty. She wasn’t screaming. Then he was raping her, pushing her head strongly against the table, holding a bayonet in the other hand. First he cut open her blouse. Then one cut from stomach to throat. Blood gushed. Do you know how fast blood congeals in August?

There is also that small child in Dirlewanger’s hands. He took it from a woman who was standing in the crowd in the street. He lifted the child high and then threw it into the fire. Then he shot the mother.

Dirlewanger’s division was joined by an equally savage and even less disciplined group: the 29th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, the RONA, commanded by renegade Russian traitor Bronislav Kaminski, and consisting of a motley mixture of Russian and Ukrainian collaborators and criminals. An odd, morbid dichotomy of condescension formed: Zelewski (who was of partially Polish ethnicity  -  a fact which he carefully concealed, falsifying his genealogy chart and adding the made-up, pompously pseudo-aristocratic “von dem Bach” to his family name) had little but contempt for Dirlewanger’s dregs, whom he called “a herd of pigs.” Dirlewanger’s German troops, in turn, looked with derision upon Kaminski and his Russian and Ukrainian squads. All were united in their despisal and contempt for the denizens of Warsaw, and for the city itself.

Explosives were used to systematically blow up every structure, flamethrowers were deployed to burn out any shells remaining of the buildings. Special attention was given to locating and destroying any culturally significant items, such as books, particularly antique manuscripts and historically valuable volumes; while the exact numbers are not known, it has been estimated that over 1 million books were burned. Anything that could be looted, from artwork and jewelry to rebar and wires, was confiscated and transported to Germany via 40 thousand train cars and 4 thousand trucks. 90% of the city was destroyed and ca. 800 thousand people, 60% of the population, were killed.

SS soldiers from the Brennkommando of the Verbrennungskommando Warschau using Flammenwerfer 35 flamethrowers to burn out buildings in Warsaw (1944, Public Domain).

Two years later, with the war over, former US President Herbert Hoover came to Warsaw, as part of his Food Mission in Europe program, which saw him travel over 40 war-struck countries to estimate and oversee relief efforts. In Warsaw, Hoover was shocked to see the death-filled remains of the war’s most-damaged city, and promised his help.

Herbert Hoover had visited Poland shortly before War War II. When he returned in 1946, he was shocked by the scale of the destruction. (1946, Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe.)

The story of the girl from the ruins began that day.

A symbolic photo was taken by Reginald Kenny, a photographer who accompanied Hoover and had taken a series of his pictures: a girl, aged perhaps 10, was standing atop one of the few remaining structures in the city. Wearing shoes several sizes too large, she was looking at an apocalyptic landscape, peppered with what seemed to be piles of dirt, but which, in fact, used to be buildings and streets.

The mysterious Girl from the Ruins, as photographed by Reginald Kenny. (1946, Library of Congress)

In 2015, the photo began making rounds in the media, and a mystery was born: who was the girl? How did she come to be there at that time? Was she still alive? Was she looking at the remains of her family house, perhaps? Were her parents’ bodies left there, underneath the ruins, buried by SS explosives? Or was she a newcomer to Warsaw, the daughter of a family of repatriates, coming in to rebuild and repopulate the city?

Many questions were asked. No answers were in sight. Guesses were being made, from the possible (perhaps she was an anonymous orphan taken for a trip, as Hoover was shocked by the number of orphaned children he saw, and he did visit an orphanage) to the highly unlikely (Hoover’s entourage must have found her wandering somewhere in the ruins). Soon, however, some hints began popping up: an artificially colored version of the photo was published, but, more importantly, another picture of the girl was located. This picture, while clearly taken in the same spot and at roughly the same time, had a different author — photographer Hans Reinhart.

Another view and angle of the Girl from the Ruins, captured by Hans Reinhart. Herbert Hoover’s entourage is visible in the background. (1946, Library of Congress.)

The date and time of both photographs was established as April 3, 1946, probably a little past noon.

The girl’s location was identified and confirmed: it was the roof of Public School 153, at Stawki Street 5/7. During the war, the building was an SS precinct. This identification meant that the girl was, in fact, looking at a very specific part of Warsaw: the remains of the Jewish Ghetto. Was it a coincidence, or was there a personal connection?

The black limousine seen on the left came from the US Embassy, and may well have brought President Hoover himself to see the ruins, although it was unlikely that he would have climbed the roof — he was most likely somewhere on the ground, when Kenny and Reinhart were taking pictures from above.

Eventually, a commenter on Facebook suggested that the girl was indeed still alive, and was living in Australia, now aged 80-odd years. However, no confirmation of the statement has been made since then, nor have any new discoveries been announced.

If, by any chance, anyone should happen to recognize her, the campaign to identify her is a part of the “Here It Was, Here It Stood” project, whose aim it is to use old photographs, paintings and records to identify the parts of Warsaw that are gone forever as a result of the destruction. Its website can be found at: https://www.tubylotustalo.pl/

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