In 1941, photographer and journalist Joe Heydecker was ordered into Warsaw by Nazi authorities to join the local propaganda unit.
The German native was an anti-Nazi activist by nature, though not a Jew, and decided to instead use the most powerful weapon he owned—his camera.
Heydecker went down in history for his brave efforts to secretly catalogue some of the worst atrocities inside the Warsaw Ghetto. The hundreds of shots he captured survived not just as a testament of the crimes German officials would later try to deny, but also as actual evidence used during the famed Nuremberg Trials after the war.
One of the most enduring images from Heydecker’s work is of a little girl, shrouded in an oversized coat, huddled against a wall of the Warsaw Ghetto. The picture has been reproduced numerous times, and is on file at Yad Vashem as part of its massive collection of witness accounts.
The images remained a secret for decades, as Heydecker fought to keep them from enemy hands. At one point, the Gestapo ransacked the journalist’s home, but even then he was able to keep the film safe and secure.
Two of Heydecker’s friends, both photography lab technicians in his squad, as well as Heydecker’s wife, took great risk upon themselves to hide the photos from officials.
Heydecker spoke on Radio Munich after the war at the urging of a US commander, talking about the horrors he had seen in the Ghetto. He also acted as a reporter covering the Nuremberg Trials, one of the few German journalists to do so.
Following liberation, Heydecker moved around, living for a time in South America. It was there, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, that the photos were first shown to the public as part of a gallery exhibit. They have been part of the global collective ever since.
Heydecker died in Vienna in 1997, and the age of 81.