During the Holocaust, Jewish photographer Henryk Ross used his camera as a tool of resistance against the Nazi regime by documenting the harsh realities inside the ghetto of Lodz, Poland.
The Clandestine Photos of Henryk Ross at Lodz Ghetto
Jews are rounded up at Lodz ghetto for deportation to various concentration camps.
Henryk Ross/Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross 1940-1945
CLANDESTINE CAMERAMAN: Photographer Henryk Ross smiles from his work ID card. But his photos of Jews in the ghetto, taken in secret and at great personal risk, were mostly grim. After the war, Ross published his work in a book he later testified at the 1961 trial of Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann, where the photos served as evidence in sentencing Eichmann to death. In 1956 Ross emigrated to Israel he died there in 1991, at age 81.
W hen the Germans invaded Lodz, Poland, in September 1939, Henryk Ross, a former sports photographer from Warsaw, had just moved to the city. That December, the Nazis began plans to construct a ghetto for Jewish laborers. They ordered Ross, a Jew who had been assigned to the town’s statistics department, to photograph fellow Jews for ID cards and show them engaged in hard labor for propaganda posters. But Ross, 29, soon found another subject.
Over the next four years, the Nazis relocated more than 160,000 Polish Jews to the Lodz ghetto by August 1944, when they announced plans to liquidate the ghetto, over 45,000 Jews had died of disease and starvation. Some had been publicly hanged. Those unfit for work had been sent to nearby concentration camps. Ross secretly snapped photos of their suffering. “I did it knowing that if I were caught my family and I would be tortured and killed,” he said later.
Ross placed his negatives—over 6,000 of them—in a box and buried it at the ghetto. “I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry,” he said. “I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.” In 1945 after Soviet troops liberated the camp, Ross returned for the box. Many of the negatives were water damaged—the deportation scene, opposite, for example—but about half survived. The result is a haunting mix: the grace of everyday life coupled with the terror of unthinkable cruelty.
SS SHAKEDOWN: Members of the Gestapo (opposite, top) arrive to inspect Lodz’s factories. Jewish hard labor helped manufacture war supplies —including leather, textiles, and timber—that the Germans exploited to fill their coffers. Many Jewish workers endured abuse and torture at the hands of their oppressors.
A LIGHT EXTINGUISHED: When Germany invaded Lodz in September 1939, the Nazis reigned terror upon the town—beating, arresting, and torturing Jewish citizens and religious officials. They burned down the city’s four major synagogues and established a curfew. Here (opposite, bottom), a man walks by the snowy ruins of the town’s oldest synagogue.
CHILD’S PLAY: Jewish children (top, right) engage in a game with sinister undertones. In a scaled-down uniform of the ghetto’s Jewish police, one child pats down a mini-deportee. Actual Jewish police often were criminals the Germans recruited to maintain order in the ghetto.
SENSE OF NORMALCY: Ross’s photographs depict many aspects of Jewish life, capturing intimate moments of families and couples engaged in everyday activities—playing, dining at social events, and reading religious texts. Ghetto residents—such as the mother enjoying the kiss of her child (bottom, right)—struggled to make the best of their new life from behind a fence. But for nearly all in the ghetto, conditions would take a turn for the worse.
FINAL FAREWELL: A group of children about to be deported (above) interact with friends and family one last time. Sympathetic to their suffering, Ross took many photos of children, captioning one image as “the most tragic victims.” The Germans would later deem many children, particularly those under the age 10, as unfit for work and send them off to death camps.
LEFT FOR DEAD: Along with children, the elderly were frequently among those selected to be killed. Those who were especially sick, infirm, or disabled were left to their deaths without proper food, care, or medicine. Here (opposite, top), several elderly persons are hauled off on a cart—likely to never be seen or heard from again.
ABANDON ALL HOPE: SS men execute Jews near a mass grave Jewish workers had dug (opposite, bottom). During the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto, the Nazis conducted mass killings and deportations to death camps. Hiding his camera under his jacket, Ross snapped images. When ghetto residents learned of the deaths, Ross recalled, “it became known to them that they were going into the ‘frying pan.’”
Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross
When Henryk Ross (1910–1991) was confined to the Lodz Ghetto in Poland in 1940, he was put to work by the Nazi regime as a bureaucratic photographer for the Jewish Administration’s Statistics department. For nearly four years, Ross used his official position as cover, endangering his own life to covertly document the lives of others. More than 160,000 Jewish people were trapped in the Lodz Ghetto—comprising the second largest Jewish ghetto population in German-occupied Europe—and thousands would be deported and murdered at Chelmno and Auschwitz. Sometimes forced to conceal his camera in his overcoat, Ross took photographs to record the horrors and complexities of life in the Lodz Ghetto and to preserve evidence of Nazi crimes. As liquidation began, Ross buried an astonishing 6,000 negatives near his home—committing to the ground, and perhaps to future generations, “some record of our tragedy.”
Henryk Ross survived, and in March of 1945, he unearthed his work with his own hands. Almost 3,000 negatives had survived the Polish winter. Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross reveals more than 200 of Ross’s photographs, supplemented by artifacts and testimony and presented in the context of Lodz Ghetto history. The exhibition offers a rare learning experience that is also an opportunity to remember and honor the victims of Nazi atrocities.
Like the survivor testimonies and artifacts in the Museum’s own collection, Ross’s photographs represent personal experiences of global significance. They ask us to acknowledge the complexity of life in the Lodz Ghetto—the suffering, the birthday parties and wedding celebrations, the violence written onto bodies, the shrinking of life to fit a constricted zone, the pain of separation from family members, and the human insistence on building relationships and maintaining a sense of “normal” life. Henryk Ross fought the Nazis’ vision. He committed acts of resistance to create a photographic record of a range of human experiences—from the perspective of a Jewish person deciding where to point his camera.
Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross is made possible with lead support by R. David Sudarsky Charitable Trust. Major support has been provided by Charina Endowment Fund Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Foundation and The Knapp Family Foundation. Memory Unearthed is organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario.
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Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs Of Henryk Ross
Imprisoned in Europe’s second-largest ghetto in 1940, Ross was assigned to take official identification photographs for the Nazi-controlled Jewish Administration. The Nazis forbade him from taking any unofficial images, under penalty of death. Yet against the explicit directives, Ross put his life in jeopardy to document history, sneaking his camera through cracks in doors and underneath his overcoat.
As the final residents of the ghetto were deported en masse to concentration camps, Ross stayed behind to clean up and bury his precious negatives. When the ghetto was liberated in 1945, Ross was able to excavate and recover about half of the buried negatives – one of the largest visual records of its kind to survive the Holocaust.
As its centerpiece, Memory Unearthed presents an album of contact prints created by Ross a powerful summation of his memories that captures his personal narrative. Artifacts, including Ross’ identity card and ghetto notices, accompany the haunting images. There is also video footage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, where Ross’ images and testimony were used as evidence of Nazi war crimes.
Many of the surviving pictures that Ross surreptitiously took are currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He shot the images through holes and cracks in doors and walls. He would also quickly uncover a camera hidden in his overcoat, snap the picture and then hide the camera again.
In a short film introducing the exhibit, Ross recalled: “On one occasion I managed to get into the railway station in the guise of a cleaner. My friends shut me into a cement storeroom. I was there from 6 in the morning until 7 in the evening, until the Germans went away and the transport departed. I watched as the transport left. I heard shouts. I saw the beatings. I saw how [the Nazis] were shooting at them, how they were murdering them, those who refused. Through a hole in a board of the wall of the storeroom I took several pictures.”
Among them are pictures of starving ghetto residents, as well as Judenrat members—Jews who worked for the Nazi-imposed Jewish Council—wearing Stars of David and carrying out the work of incarcerating and deporting fellow Jews. In one photograph, blurry and taken from behind what appears to be concrete slabs, a Judenrat member wearing a Star of David armband ushers a woman into a boxcar. In another, children are separated from their parents behind a chain-link fence.
There are also pictures that startle for their depictions of life’s daily joys. Until 1997, only Ross’s pictures depicting the horrors of ghetto life were publicly viewed. His son then made Ross’s complete collection available—a collection that also includes hopeful, beautiful images of children playing, mothers with their children, young lovers kissing behind a bush, birthday celebrations and more.
The Lodz Ghetto was second in size and scope only to the Warsaw Ghetto. By the time the Nazis began to liquidate the ghetto in Lodz, more than 45,000 people—most of them Jews—had died there of starvation and disease. Tens of thousands more had been rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Some of them were murdered in gas vans—mobile gas chambers—in the nearby Chelmno extermination camp. By the time the Lodz Ghetto was liberated in January 1945, only 877 of 160,320 Jews initially in the ghetto had survived. Henryk Ross and his wife, Stefania, were among them.
After the war, Ross said he never took another picture. But he remained in Poland until he emigrated with his family to Israel in 1956. In 1961, he testified in Jerusalem at the war-crimes trial of Nazi perpetrator Adolf Eichmann. Ross’s photographs were among the evidence prosecutors submitted. Eichmann, convicted a year later of carrying out the Nazis’ Final Solution, was hanged.
Yet as Ross acknowledged, his attempt to preserve his negatives went beyond simply saving photographic proof of the Holocaust. “I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy,” he said. “…I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry. I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.”
Among the last pictures displayed in the MFA exhibit is a man standing atop the ruins of a destroyed synagogue in Lodz. He carries a Torah scroll that survived. In image after image, Ross not only chronicled the history of the Holocaust, he also imparted the desperation and the humanity of a people.
Find more information and tickets to “Memory Unearthed” here.
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The Jewish Photographer Henryk Ross
- Henryk Ross, cited in Martin Parr & Timothy Pruss, Eds., Lodz Ghetto Album: The Photographs (London: Chris Boot Ltd., 2004), p. 27.
- In 1944, the Germans started the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto and to deport the remaining Jews to Chelmno and Auschwitz. 800 Jews were left behind in order to clean it and 8 mass graves were prepared for them. However, the Nazis did not manage to murder them before the arrival of the Soviet army and the liberation of the ghetto in January 1945.
- Janina Struk, quoted in Rose George, The Ghetto, Less Gritty, at http://www.guiltandpleasure.com/index.php?site=rebootgp&page=gp_article&id=121 , accessed December 8, 2014.
- Roman Halter, quoted in: The Last Ghetto: Life and Death in Lodz, The Independent, 24 January 2005, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/the-last-ghetto-life-and-death-in-lodz-6154093.html, accessed December 7, 2014.
- George Eisen, Holocaust and Play in the Holocaust: Games among the Shadows (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), page 78.
- Henryk Ross, cited in Lodz Ghetto Album, p. 155.
- Robert Jan van Pelt, Foreword, Lodz Ghetto Album, p. 7.
- Rose George, The Ghetto, Less Gritty, at http://www.guiltandpleasure.com/index.php?site=rebootgp&page=gp_article&id=121 , accessed December 8, 2014.
Lodz, Poland, Henryk Ross, a photographer and a worker of the Judenrat statistics department in the ghetto
One of the most impressive picture collections that survived WWII was created clandestinely by the Jewish photographer Henryk Ross. Ross was born in 1910. Before the war he had been a sports photographer for a Warsaw newspaper.
When the Lodz Ghetto was sealed by the Germans in May 1940, Ross was forced to move into the ghetto. He managed to get a job as one of the official photographers in the ghetto. Along with his colleague Mendel Grossman, Ross was in charge of producing identity and propaganda photographs for the Department of Statistics in the Lodz Ghetto. Due to his task, Ross had access to film and processing facilities in the ghetto. He used these to secretly document the conditions in the ghetto, the suffering of the Jews there, and the brutality of the Germans. His work was an act of resistance against the prohibition of the Germans and the ghetto authorities to take pictures that were not officially approved. He hid his camera underneath his coat, opened it slightly, and snapped the photographs. Ross exposed himself to dangers and risked his life in order to take the pictures. In this fashion, he accumulated thousands of pictures that tell us what life was like in the Lodz Ghetto.
When the liquidation of the ghetto began in 1944, Ross buried his archive in the ground of the ghetto, so it could be dug up and could bear witness to the persecution of European Jewry after the war.
"Just before the closure of the ghetto (1944) I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy, namely the total elimination of the Jews from Lodz by the Nazi executioners. I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry. I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom."1
Henryk Ross stayed behind in the ghetto as part of the clean-up commando2. He survived the Holocaust, and located and dug up the documentary material after the war.
Henryk Ross with a box of negatives he photographed in the Lodz Ghetto, Poland, March 1945
Ross's collection is exceptional. It portrays Jewish life in the ghetto through the eyes of a professional and skillful Jewish photographer who clearly loved and appreciated the capturing of people and social interactions. Ross felt compelled to do what he could in order to document Jewish life and by that to defy the Nazis' goal to annihilate the Jewish people and culture. The collection contains about 3,000 negatives and other ghetto records. Ross's "records of the tragedy" were used as evidence in the Eichmann trial in 1961.
Commemoration of Jewish Life in the Ghetto
Like Mendel Grossman's images, Ross's photographs depict familiar scenes of hunger, despair and death some 20% of the inhabitants of the ghetto died of starvation. He photographed workers in the ghetto who had to go barefoot while pushing the carts that moved feces out of the ghetto &ndash a dangerous job that often led to death by typhus. He photographed scenes of misery near the ghetto prison, and public hangings. He caught on film the deportations of the Lodz Jews to their deaths at Chelmno. He photographed people writing their last notes to their families, and children waiting behind chain-link fences to be taken to an unknown destination during the "Sperre", the horrifying deportation in September, 1942 where almost all the children under ten years old were taken from the ghetto, and later murdered at Chelmno.
Lodz, Poland, 1943, People crowded together in a wagon
However, his collection also includes photographs that strike us as unfamiliar in the context of the Holocaust and challenge our visual memory of the ghettos. Henryk Ross managed to find beauty even among the suffering that the ghetto population faced every day. He captured those moments whenever he had a chance. He photographed scenes such as a couple kissing behind a bush,birthday parties, ghetto receptions, love between women and their children, the joy of children playing, and the happy moments of ghetto residents. The people in these pictures smile, they are handsome and dressed nicely, and they seem healthy and happy.
These photographs are beautiful images, but they are disturbing at the same time. They were taken in the midst of destruction, humiliation, starvation and murder. It is hard to believe that pictures like this were taken in the Lodz ghetto. They are deceptive. They make it seem as though the conditions in the ghetto could not have been so terrible if these well-fed, well-dressed, healthy and happy people were enjoying life and celebrating. If one doesn't know the context, the history and the deathly reality of the Lodz ghetto, one could be deceived into believing that these images represent the daily life of all inhabitants. Thus, it is important to emphasize that these photographs stand in stark contrast to the reality that the majority of the ghetto inmates faced.
Ross's images depict only a tiny minority of the ghetto inmates &ndash the more privileged people in the ghetto who managed to be employed as part of the ghetto administration, the Judenrat (Jewish council), or the ghetto police. The Nazis created a system in which the running and policing of the ghetto was in the hands of a Jewish minority. This ghetto elite lived under fairly better conditions than the majority of the Jews living in the ghetto. They lived a relatively easy life while others around them were starving to death every single day. Ross depicts private and intimate situations of the members of the ghetto elite that remind us of ordinary private photo albums.
What is disturbing is that these are the people that have been judged too easily for buying or bribing their way out of deportation or starvation. These are the people that have been dismissed by many as living the good life, while people died all around them. Pictures of these individuals are uncomfortable to look at because they are reminders of something that many don't want to acknowledge. Yet, the ghetto police uniforms, stars of David that all Jews were forced to wear, interrupt the idyllic scenes. They remind us that the people captured in the photographs were forced to live in the ghetto like everyone else, and that ultimately, most of them were deported and murdered during the Holocaust.
It is unclear why Ross took these private pictures and what kind of a relationship he had with the people depicted in them. It is possible that he was paid to take pictures for them it is possible that he was friends with them it is possible that he simply wanted to commemorate these beautiful scenes and social interactions.
For a long time the only pictures Ross took that were known to the public were his photographs depicting atrocities. The images showing the other side of the ghetto were unknown until 1997 &ndash six years after his death &ndash when his son made his collection accessible. This has probably much to do with the fact that the public didn't want to see these pictures. It is telling that Mendel Grossman's pictures of the Lodz ghetto are very well-known, even though Grossman did not survive to catalogue or explain them. Ross's pictures, however, remained unseen for almost sixty years, even though Ross survived and even gave testimony at the Eichmann Trial in 1961 based on his photos.
&ldquoHe tried to get his pictures published in the 1950s, but no one wanted to know. The iconic pictures of the Holocaust were of atrocities, horrors. The message of these pictures is not so straightforward.&rdquo3
Holocaust survivor Roman Halter, who was sent to Lodz in 1940, explains that Ross's archive has been judged harshly, and that many Holocaust institutions hesitated when Ross offered his pictures.
"They wanted to use some of Ross's photographs, but never these of Jewish police. That just wasn't acceptable&hellip." 4
One of the most shocking and disturbing images is that of two children playing the game "Jew and ghetto policeman". The child acting as the ghetto policeman is wearing a uniform and holding a stick as if hitting the boy in front of him. He is posing for the camera and smiling at the photographer. Both children look well-fed they wear clean clothes, they don't look intimidated or scared. This picture raises many questions: what were the boys thinking when playing this game? Where did they get the uniform? What did adults think when seeing the children play? Why did the photographer photograph a scene like this?
The game was apparently very popular and it was played by children in different ghettos throughout the German-occupied Eastern territories. It is a version of "cops and robbers", modified to "Nazis and Jews" or "ghetto policemen and Jews" in which some children dressed up as SS-men or ghetto policemen and sought to round up their playmates for deportation. An eight-year-old of the Vilna ghetto describes the game "Jews and Germans" as follows:
"Part of the children became 'policemen' and part 'German'. The third group was comprised of 'Jews' who were to hide in make-believe bunkers that is under chairs, tables, in barrels and garbage cans. The highest distinction went to the child who played Kommandant Kitel, the Head of the Gestapo. He was always the strongest boy or girl. If a dressed-up 'policeman' happened to find 'Jewish' children, he handed them over to the 'Germans'."5
Games in general help children to learn about their environments in a playful way. In that sense, the game "Jews and policemen" equally helped the children to reflect their new reality of living in a ghetto and to cope and adjust to the new conditions. According to the Ghettos Fighters House this picture was taken on October 22, 1943. That means it was taken more than a year after the majority of all children in the Lodz ghetto had already been deported. In September 1942, during the "Sperre", the Germans decreed that all children, the elderly and sick were to be deported as they had no "labor value". The rounding up and deportation of children was delegated maliciously by the Germans to the ghetto authority under the leadership of the Judenrat (Jewish council) of Chaim Rumkowski. He used his power to exempt certain children, such as children of policemen, the administration and anyone willing to participate in the rounding up of the ghetto's children. That means that the children who were still present in the ghetto after 1942 were not there by coincidence they were lucky because they had protekzia, or connections to the elite or to people collaborating with the elite. The children that still lived in the ghetto after the major deportations seemed to have dealt with the surrounding conditions and reality in a playful way by adopting the roles of power relationships they were confronted with on a daily basis.
Ultimately, about 95 per cent of all ghetto inhabitants were murdered during the Holocaust, regardless of their positions in the ghetto and whether or not they were temporarily reprieved.
Bearing Witness to German Atrocities
Among the many pictures that commemorate Jewish life in the ghetto are a few that display public executions and deportations. One of these pictures was taken in 1944 at the railway station of the Lodz ghetto.
Deportation by train of the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto, Poland, August 1944
The photograph displays a cattle car and a group of people standing in front of it, most of them facing the entrance of the cattle car. Among the people are many uniformed men who can by identified as the ghetto police. They are overseeing the boarding of the train. A few meters away from the group is an SS soldier carrying a gun on his shoulder. The inside of the cattle car remains in complete darkness, and is therefore invisible to the viewer. The entrance of the cattle car is illuminated enough to see a policeman pulling one person inside.
If we look at the framing of the photograph, we realize that the scene is not centered it is located on the right-hand side of the frame. One person is only partly in the picture on the right, suggesting that there was more going on at the time. There is a black area on the left-hand side and building material in the foreground that is blocking part of the view.
After the war, Henryk Ross described in his testimony at the Eichmann trial the circumstances under which he took the photograph.
"On one occasion, when people with whom I was acquainted worked at the railway station of Radegast, which was outside the ghetto but linked to it, and where trains destined for Auschwitz were standing &ndash on one occasion I managed to get into the railway station in the guise of a cleaner. My friends shut me into a cement storeroom. I was there from six in the morning until seven in the evening, until the Germans went away and the transport departed. I watched as the transport left. I heard shouts. I saw the beatings. I saw how they were shooting at them, how they were murdering them, those who refused. Through a hole in a board of the wall of the storeroom I took several pictures." 6
Jerusalem, Israel, a photograph of the witness Henryk Ross giving testimony at the Eichmann trial, 1961
The black area at the edge of the image holds significance when combining it with Ross's testimony. It provides the viewer with valuable information about the position of the photographer. It shows us that he had to hide in order to capture the photograph and that his view was limited by the conditions of his hiding place. Ross risked his life to bear witness to what the Nazis tried to conceal, including deportations to death camps.
However, his testimony also provides us with additional information about the captured scene that the photograph itself fails to display. If we connect the picture with his testimony at the Eichmann trial, we understand that those deportations were not peaceful and voluntary. Ross refers to shouting, beatings and even shootings. We don&rsquot see this in the picture, but his testimony adds these details in order for us to gain a more complete picture of the situation.
Further, we see people boarding the train, but we don&rsquot see what happens to them after they enter the train, where the train is destined to go and what happens to the people after they arrive at their destination. Ross's testimony adds that the picture was taken in 1944, and that the train was destined to go to Auschwitz. Thus, if we contextualize the picture and connect it with other documents, such as testimonies, historical accounts and maps, we can gain a better understanding of the situation surrounding the one moment that was captured.
Henryk Ross kept his exceptional collection and catalogued it for future generations in order for them to gain an insight into the suffering that the ghetto inhabitants faced. He clearly risked his life and exposed himself to great dangers when taking documentary material of deportations and hangings. In addition, Ross's collection reveals a different and unfamiliar visual perspective of ghetto life, and it contains important images that can help us gain a deeper historical insight of the complex reality of life in the Lodz ghetto.
For all this, posterity owes Henryk Ross a debt of gratitude.
Perhaps, seventy years after the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto, it is finally time to tell the more complicated story, and to internalize the fact that the ghetto represents a place where all the extremes of human behavior could be found: some of the ghetto inhabitants may have behaved in a way that angers or pains us, but they were human beings in difficult circumstances, struggling to survive like everyone else. In his Foreword to the book of Ross's photographs, published in 2004, Robert Jan van Pelt, an accomplished Holocaust historian, wrote that the pictures of the ghetto elite caused a feeling of apprehension and unexpected annoyance.
&ldquoFor me, and not only for me, these pictures testify to the uncomfortable fact that, amongst the pauperized and starving mass of ghetto inmates, in the wrenching situation imposed by the Germans, a small minority fared relatively well. [&hellip] Two generations after the Germans liquidated the ghetto we are ready for the whole picture, and therefore need every single photograph. [&hellip] The differences between the seemingly privileged and the obviously destitute fade in the knowledge that almost all the people caught by [Ross&rsquos] camera were murdered shortly thereafter." 7
Roman Halter, the survivor of the Lodz ghetto mentioned above, agrees. &ldquoIt&rsquos right to show these pictures,&rdquo he says. &ldquoSixty years after the war, we have to express the truth. History is finally being told as it should be.&rdquo8
However, analyzing Ross's photographs prove that they - as every historical account - have their limits. We must be critical when viewing photographs &ndash we must remember to put them into context.
© Art Gallery of Ontario/Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Because Henryk Ross had experience in photography, he was given the job of taking ID photos. He was also tasked with taking "happy" photos, meant as propaganda to show that life was just perfectly normal inside the ghetto.
Pictured: Henryk Ross photographing for identification cards, Jewish Administration, Department of Statistics. 1940. Gelatin silver print.
Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift from the Archive of Modern Conflict, 2007
How Henryk Ross’s Amazing Photos Unearthed The History Of Lodz — And Mine As Well
The story of the Lodz Ghetto has become folkloric. Chronicled in novels such as Leslie Epstein’s “King of the Jews” and Steve Sem-Sandberg’s “The Emperor of Lies,” this was the place that the dictatorial Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the so-called Elder of the Jews, transformed into a giant slave-labor factory for the Nazi war machine. Because of its productivity, Lodz, in German-occupied Poland, was the last Jewish ghetto to be liquidated, with the final deportations occurring in August 1944. But, in the end, even Rumkowski was sent to his death at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Rumkowski’s portrait is prominent in the surviving images of Henryk Ross, an official — and unofficial — ghetto photographer. Ross (1910-91) was tasked by Jewish authorities with creating identity cards and propaganda photographs of the Lodz workshops. But he also risked his life to show the hunger, shabbiness and misery of the ghetto, as well as families torn apart by deportations to Chelmno and Auschwitz. One of fewer than 900 Jews left behind in Lodz at war’s end, he was liberated by the Soviet Army in January 1945 and, in March, recovered his buried photos. He settled with his wife, Stefania, in Israel, where he testified at the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial.
“Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross,” an exhibition organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario in association with Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, is both a testament to his courage and a remembrance of the tens of thousands of Jews imprisoned in the ghetto during World War II. (It’s worth noting, as Ross does in documentary footage, that his wife was an indispensable partner in his photographic enterprise.)
A somber voyage through the ruins of Jewish communal life, the exhibition had special resonance for me. I saw it in the company of a long-lost cousin, Peter Coleman, whom I met for the first time last December – and who told me that our family had immigrated here from Lodz.
Peter’s father, Charlie, was the elder brother of my maternal grandmother, Betty. With two other sisters, Aida and Mae, and my great-grandmother Anna, they reached New York on July 8, 1907, on the SS Barbarossa. It is likely that my great-grandfather, Samuel Cohen, who did not travel with them, was already here. The family’s youngest child, my great-aunt Rae, was born in New York in June 1908.
As part of the great pre-World War I migration of Eastern European Jews, we fled poverty and pogroms. We may well have left cousins behind, in Lodz or elsewhere. I know little for sure. My maternal grandfather, who emigrated from present-day Belarus on his own at age 14, exchanged letters in the 1950s, in Yiddish and Russian, with a cousin in Dagestan, in the Soviet Union. The cousin writes that he and his sister Rebecca were the only close family members to have survived. An aunt told me that my father’s mother, Grandma Ida, had lost a brother in the Holocaust. But my knowledge of my extended family’s fate, like that of many American Jews, is frustratingly sketchy.
Until Peter and I connected, I had no idea that this branch of my family had once called Lodz home. That first generation never talked about the old country, at least not to us. In fact, my grandmother Betty, 5 years old when she emigrated, always claimed to have been born here. Unlike my other three grandparents, she spoke without a foreign accent and wrote beautiful English.
After my mother, who had been an only child, died in 2009, I reached out to her first cousins, all still alive at the time. But none of those I found had been in contact, for decades, with Charlie’s two children, Peter and Janet, whose family had changed their name to Coleman (from Cohen) and seemingly disappeared.
There were tantalizing clues about family rifts: My grandmother, in her letters from 1950, expressed anger at her brother over a loan she had made to him, and my mother, in a deathbed interview, said that Charlie’s mother, Anna, and his wife, Dorothy, had never gotten along.
An engraved invitation to Peter’s wedding to his first wife, at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Beth Sholom synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, turned up in my grandmother’s correspondence. The marriage had been brief, Peter’s ex-brother-in-law, Joel, told me and he was no longer in touch with my cousin. But he remembered that Peter was a biochemist or physicist who’d met Joel’s sister at Columbia University and had taught at Harvard. But inquiries to both universities turned up nothing.
Last summer, to my delight, Peter, now 79, found me. I owe our reunion to Peter’s current wife, Jane, who had told him she wanted just one thing for her birthday: to know some of his father’s family. Peter managed to track down another cousin, Paul, to whom he’d last spoken in 1992, when Aunt Mae died. Paul put us in touch.
During our emotional first meeting in New York, Peter, a retired professor of biochemistry at New York University filled in missing details of our family history.
The name change to Coleman, in 1944 or ’45, was a response, he said, to anti-Semitism that his father believed had kept him from finding work as an electrician. And his father’s quarrel with my grandmother had “everything to do with money” – specifically, a loan she had made to help his family buy a house in Teaneck, N.J. At some point, for reasons unknown, my grandmother called in the loan, and the Colemans were obliged to sell their suburban home and move back to the Bronx, disrupting their lives. But Peter, a talented musician and artist before he became a scientist, had nonetheless flourished, as had his younger sister, Janet, a historian of political theory who had settled in England.
After we saw the Lodz show, I asked Peter and Jane for their reactions. “I keep thinking,” he said, “that if the family didn’t get here, of course, I’d be smoke. None of us would be talking.” He expressed surprise, too, “that there were so many smiling faces, so many photographs of what seemed to be normalcy in the most abnormal, grotesque situations imaginable.
“These people were ghettoized: they knew that they were being herded like animals…Yet you see people smiling into the cameras. You say to yourself, ‘What are you so happy about?’ Of course, they’re looking at things through a very colored lens – they have a life they have to live.”
I said I was particularly struck by Ross’s daring. By surreptitiously photographing the deportations — the children crammed into horse-drawn carts, the adults being herded into a rail car — he put himself in grave danger of joining them. And he did all this knowing that his photographs, which he buried for safekeeping, might never see the light of day.
“I think, psychologically, there’s a comfort,” Peter’s wife, Jane told me. “Like putting a message in a time capsule. It at least keeps hope alive.” It was supremely lucky, it seemed to me, that Ross had lived to retrieve his photos, that roughly half his 6,000 negatives had survived — and that the Colemans and I had managed, so many decades later, to examine Ross’s time capsule together.
Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross at the MFA Boston
When you suppress a memory, it returns as trauma. This Freudian chestnut takes on shockingly literal form in the exhibition Memory Unearthed. Henryk Ross, the official photographer of the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland, took hundreds of photographs of his fellow countrymen and women as they suffered under the Nazi regime. When the Lodz ghetto was shut down in 1944, and 70,000 of the Lodz Jews were sent to Auschwitz, Ross, along with his wife and 875 other residents, was held back to “clean up.” Ross buried his negatives in the ground in order to preserve them, and dug them up when he knew he would live after the ghetto was liberated in 1945.
One can only imagine the horror of living through the Holocaust. Ross willingly relived it over and over: he testified in the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann and then decided to release his archive so that others could witness the devastation of his home and community. The images, on view at the MFA Boston through July 30, are not going to surprise anyone with even a passing understanding of Nazi history, but they are heartbreaking nonetheless: skeletal men begging on the street children digging in the dirt for discarded food, families being separated during deportation. In some ways, the propagandistic images that Ross was forced to take in his role as the official photographer are even more disturbing: hardworking Jews cheerfully stuffing mattresses or ironing textiles.
The unique power of this show is that it not only captures the events of the time, but their reframing some years later, once the true extent of Nazi barbarity had been more or less comprehended. In 1962, Ross published a book of his photographs he obsessed over an image of a family trudging through the snow to deportation and almost-certain death, focusing on a young boy stooped under a heavy sack. Ross took pains to develop the image just right, reversing it, or superimposing it onto a picture of a temple in ruins, the Jewish star prominent in the background. The fixation is understandable. The solitary boy marching without hope encapsulates all of the despair, the disbelief, and the overwhelming sense of loss that Ross himself must surely have felt.List of site sources >>>