The images captured by the little Leica camera that Henryk Ross ported around the Lodz Ghetto from 1940 to 1944 may be black and white, but the stories they tell are vivid, beyond the iconic views of the Holocaust.
How these images came to light is stunning. When the Germans overtook Lodz – the largest industrial city in Poland – they renamed it Litzmannstadt – and divided it into two sections, cramming some 204,000 Jews into the 2.4-sq.km Lodz Ghetto.
Ross worked as an official photographer for the Statistics Department of the Judenrat (Jewish Council), under the auspices of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski – the Ghetto Elder who exploited Jews for labour with the motto “Unser Weg is Arbeit!” (“Our way is work!”) – to satisfy the Nazi administrator of the ghetto, Hans Biebow.
Ross was mandated to take identification photos, official portraits and propaganda photographs showing Jews being industrially productive.
On exhibition now at the AGO, Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross features over 200 images by Ross, the complete original folio along with a screen projection of the blown-up images, video clips of Ross testifying at the Eichmann trial, plus several contemporary images by Toronto photographer Yuri Dojc.
Judging by his personal photos with his beautiful wife and photographic muse Stefania, and images of gatherings with elegantly dressed guests, Ross arguably enjoyed privileged status as long as he satiated the Nazi penchant for shots of textile workers, mattress makers, shoe cobblers and women embroidering pieces of velvet.
When Ross grasped the menacing annihilation of his fellow Jews, his conscience shone through and he became obsessed with the forbidden act of documenting the realities of ghetto life.
Shooting images on the sly, Ross exposed his Leica lens between folds in his coat and peered through cracks in doors, risking being caught by the Gestapo. When the final liquidation of the ghetto started, Ross remained behind, delegated to search buildings for caches of valuables for Biebow.
This gave Ross opportunities to photograph mass deportations, as well as time to bury his life’s work of 6,000 negatives along with artifacts in the ground at 12 Jagielonska St.
After the Red Army liberated the ghetto in January 1945, Ross excavated the negatives. As, Matthew Teitelbaum, AGO director and CEO writes: “The images – and memories – were freed in parallel with the survivors in his community.”
The images numbered more than the 877 ghetto survivors. Half of the negatives were darkened by moisture, many had deteriorated. In 1956, Ross and his wife immigrated to Israel and in 1961, his brutal ghetto images accompanied his testimony at the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
In 1987, Ross created a folio of select contact prints, most measuring four-by-six centimetres. Shot with 35 mm cellulose nitrate film, some of the prints show light swirls of degraded emulsions. The folio and 3,000 surviving negatives are now preserved at the Art Gallery of Ontario, a gift in 2007 from London’s Archive of Modern Conflict.
Ross’s images are also compiled in a splendid publication edited by Maia-Mari Sutnik, AGO’s curator of photography, special projects, that features insightful essays by Holocaust scholars.
En masse, the folio reads like a photojournalist’s diary, a visual narrative of true moments captured spontaneously. Arranged as if without thought or sequential reasoning, the folio suggests that Ross aimed to project the extreme, incoherent juxtapositions of ghetto life.
While iconic Holocaust images typically focus only on the anguish, with heaps of bodies and emaciated concentration camp inmates, Ross portrayed the happy and sad elements of Lodz Ghetto life: the elite Jews reveling in ordinary lives, joyful celebrations and seemingly carefree garden strolls, as well people mired in misery, lining up at soup kitchens, digging their own graves, or huddled on a wagon en route to Chelmno extermination camp. Viewing Ross’s images, it lurks in your mind that – for all the elite’s perceived joy – by September 1944 their only road from the ghetto would lead to the camps.
Every image tells a story. One contrasts two boys, one standing seemingly nonchalant as another lies on the ground, wasting from hunger. A suite of four pictures evokes emotions of joy turning to despair: depicting a mother tenderly kissing her baby and the father tickling the precious child’s chin, it makes you wonder if they know their fate, or if they will lose the baby to Rumkowski’s controversial call for parents to give up their children under the age of 10 for “resettlement.”
As a child of parents who experienced the Lodz Ghetto, I found myself searching the folio for their faces. With these images, Ross validated stories that my parents had told of happy times and heinous, and authenticated the ghetto experiences for future generations.
Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross runs until June 14 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. For information: www.ago.net