An exhibit of rare photographs from the doomed Lodz Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland is now on display at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School library.
The mostly black-and-white photographs, commissioned by the German-controlled Jewish Council, were taken between 1940 and 1944 and document everyday life in the ghetto, the last one in Poland to be liquidated.
The exhibit, The Face of the Ghetto: Pictures by Jewish Photographers from the Lodz Ghetto 1940-1944, is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office and runs until March 17.
A roll call of the members of the fire brigade in the Lodz ghetto.
Curated by the Topography of Terror Foundation in Berlin in co-operation with the Polish State Archive in Lodz, it has been brought here by York University’s Mark and Gail Appel Program in Holocaust and Anti-Racism Education, the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University, the Azrieli Foundation and the consulates general of Germany and Poland in Toronto.
First exhibited in Germany three years ago, the photographs were previously displayed in the visitors lobby of the United Nations and Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
When the exhibit opened at UN headquarters in New York City last year, Germany’s ambassador to the United Nations, Peter Wittig, said the photographs conveyed “the pretense of a normal, functioning life.”
As he put it, “While we see some pictures with children still smiling and ghetto inhabitants leading a seemingly regular working life, we know that already at that point of time, when these pictures were taken, the killing of exactly these persons was already being planned.”
Lodz, an industrial centre with a population of 672,000, of whom 230,000 were Jewish, was occupied by the German army in September 1939. It was renamed Litzmannstadt, after a World War I German general, in April of the following year.
The ghetto, measuring 4.1 square miles, was established in Baluty, the poorest district in the city, and 160,000 Jews were crammed into it.
From the autumn of 1941 onward, an additional 25,000 Jews from western European cities, including Frankfurt, Vienna and Prague, were deported to the ghetto. At least 5,000 Sinti and Roma from Austria were also transported there.
After Warsaw, the ghetto in Lodz, administered by Chaim Rumkowski, was the biggest one in Poland.
Ghetto workers produced goods for Germany and particularly the German army. Rumkowski believed that “honest and useful work” would ensure the ghetto’s survival. “Work is our only chance,” he declared.
But the Nazis, acting on a plan approved in 1942 to exterminate the Jews of Europe on a systematic basis, never intended to let its inhabitants survive.
From December 1941 to September 1942, 70,000 Jews were murdered in Kulmhof, an extermination camp 60 kilometres northwest of Lodz. Seven thousand more Jews were killed in Kulmhof between June and July 1944.
Amid appalling conditions, thousands more died of infectious diseases and malnutrition.
The last remaining 68,000 Jews, including Rumkowski and his family, were dispatched to Auschwitz-Birkenau from Aug. 9 to 29, 1944.
Only five per cent of the Jews of Lodz survived the Holocaust.
Incredibly enough, a substantial number of photographs from the ghetto exist, thanks in large part to a Jewish Council decision in August 1940 to create a photographic office within the ghetto’s statistics department.
Ghetto residents, however, were not permitted to own cameras.
Photographs of the ghetto were also snapped by Walter Genewein, head of the finance department of the Nazi ghetto administration, and by an ethnic German policeman named Steiner. Their portrayals of ghetto Jews were generally tinged with antisemitism.
The more than 50 photographs at York University are but a tiny fraction of the 12,000 small-format prints commissioned by the Jewish Council and held today in the Lodz State Archives.
The stark photographs, as one inscription reads, portray “short-lived moments of harmony and joy, even happiness, and “a remarkable will to preserve humanity despite the inhuman reality.”
Diverse and eclectic in terms of topics, they reveal a city-within-a-city fighting off unspeakable misery and cruelty and teetering on the precipice of disaster.
They show people from all walks of life and in all situations: a nurse inspecting girls’ hair for lice; a schoolboy pointing to a map of Palestine, his teacher next to him; girls in a classroom looking straight ahead; boys saluting a fireman standing next to a fire truck; policemen on duty; people lined up in a pharmacy; infants in cribs staring brightly ahead; girls, arms linked, dancing in a children’s colony; three women posing behind the spokes of a bicycle wheel and toddlers in an orphanage holding crusts of bread.
There are also photographs of Rumkowski in repose, delivering a speech, watching a parade and attending a wedding.
And tragically, one photograph shows Jews walking to the Radegast loading station, where a cattle train would presumably take them to Auschwitz.
The photographs leave you spent and empty. You know that almost all of the people in them died needlessly in Lodz, Kulmhof or Auschwitz.
“Images are stronger than words,” Wittig said last year in inaugurating this exhibit at the UN. “Keeping the memory alive through photographs also means telling young people about the indescribable horrors of the Shoah so that this break with civilization can never be repeated.”