BOSTON — In the spring of 1945, Henryk Ross, one of the few survivors of the Lodz ghetto, unearthed a box containing some 6,000 photo negatives. He’d snapped the photos while confined to the ghetto over the past four years. A few months prior to its final liquidation, he’d buried them.
“I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy… I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry. I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom,” he wrote four decades later, from his home in Jaffa, Israel.
Ross, who died in 1991, had been a professional photojournalist before the Nazi occupation of Poland. He was one of two Jews in the ghetto, along with Mendel Grossman, who took official photographs for the Statistics Department of the Judenrat, the Jewish Council, set up under Nazi rule.
Ross’s official duties required him to take identification photographs of ghetto residents as well as photographs of the factories. These images were used as propaganda to promote the productivity of the ghetto’s slave labor workforce.
But at great risk to his own life, Ross ventured beyond his official duties. Often accompanied by his wife, Stefania, he clandestinely took thousands of additional photographs.
He captured images of the full range of daily life in the ghetto: some, devastating and heartbreaking scenes of hunger, death, squalor and deportation lines; others, of children learning to knit and a touching portrait of a ghetto police officer’s wife and baby.
Now, an exhibit of Ross’s surviving photographs will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, in its first showing in the United States.
The exhibit, “Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross,” was organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario, where it was on view in 2015. It opens on March 25 and will run through July 30.
The MFA exhibit, curated by Kristen Gresh, includes about 200 photographs and other artifacts, including the photographer’s own identification card and footage from the 1961 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann where Ross’s photographs were submitted as evidence.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is an intricate, handmade portfolio album Ross created late in life using his contact sheets of photographs from the ghetto.
A stunning 240-page catalog, edited by Maia-Mari Sutnik, with full-page black and white reproductions of Ross’s photographs as well as several enlightening essays, accompanies the exhibit, published by the Art Gallery of Ontario (distributed by Yale University Press).
The MFA is offering an array of related programs, including a June 11 concert of music composed and performed in the Lodz, Vilna and Terezin ghettos, led by Mark Ludwig, director of the Terezin Music Foundation.
“This exhibition, featuring stories of the Lodz Ghetto through the lens of Polish Jewish photographer Henryk Ross, is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of photography and collective memories,” MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum said in a statement.
Teitelbaum was the director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Ontario when the Ross collection was given to the Toronto museum. He wrote the foreword to the exhibit catalog.
It’s revealing to have the combination of Ross’s official photographs along with his covert images that document the tragedies that Lodz residents were living through, according to Kristen Gresh, the Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh curator of photographs.
“It not only tells the story of the Lodz Ghetto but tells a universal story of resistance, survival and attempts at normalcy. It is also about bearing witness,” Gresh told The Times of Israel in a phone conversation before the opening.
While there are other collections of photographs from ghettos, Ross’s work stands out because he was a Jewish photographer, according to Antony Polonsky, Brandeis University professor emeritus of Holocaust Studies and chief historian of the Museum of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
“This is what makes this [exhibit] unusual,” he said. Polonsky is speaking at an MFA program about Lodz on March 28.
Acts of resistance
Ross and his wife were among some 160,000 Jews confined in the Lodz Ghetto. It was the second-largest, after Warsaw, established by the Nazis and was the longest-existing ghetto, from 1940 to 1944. Its Jewish Council was headed by Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, a controversial figure who enforced a strategy he called, “survival through work,” using Jewish ghetto residents as laborers in highly productive factories to produce goods for the Nazis.
In several of Ross’s photos, workers are seen stuffing wood shavings into mattresses and women sew mattress covers.
Another photo, taken in 1940, shows Ross behind his camera, photographing a group of Jewish residents for identification cards, with dividers placed between the individuals. Later, Ross would crop the separate images.
Gresh learned that in this way, Ross was able to save film and photographic paper so that he would have enough for his own secret photographs.
“Those little details are amazing. It was a calculated act and a kind of resistance,” she observed.
The exhibit includes surreptitious images that convey the prevalence of hunger and starvation, which killed one quarter of the ghetto’s residents over its four-year duration.
In 1942, Rumkowski was forced to begin the deportation of tens of thousands of children and the elderly to the camps at Chelmno and later Auschwitz, where Rumkowski was eventually deported and died.
In one somber, foreboding scene, a group of children fill the wooden cart of a horse-drawn wagon on a stone-paved road. One small boy at the back of the cart gazes out in the direction of the photographer.
Gresh pointed out that without the context, it’s impossible to know these children are being carted off to a death camp. As a curator, she wonders about the effect of viewing these photographs knowing that most of the ghetto residents perished.
The photographic legacy left by Ross
At the end of 1944, as the ghetto was being liquidated, Ross was among 900 people held back to clean the ghetto. He secretly buried his photographs at 12 Jagielonska Street.
He returned to the site in March 1945, months after the ghetto was liberated by the Red Army. Of the 6,000 negatives he buried, nearly 3,000 survived, though many sustained water and other damage. In 1956, Ross and his wife immigrated to Israel.
Four decades later, in 1987, Ross focused once again on his photographs. He cut strips from the contact sheets and rearranged the small images out of sequence, to create an artistic narrative.
“You get a sense of his own voice,” Gresh observed.
“It’s not necessarily coherent all the time, [but it is a] reflection of the tragedy and what he went through and was grappling with,” she said.
Polonsky believes that Ross never received the recognition he deserved. He and Gresh are among scholars who note that Ross’s pictures did not fit the more familiar frame of images associated with the Holocaust. Ross’s images present viewers today with a more complex perspective, said Gresh.
“It’s an important time to pause and reflect not only on this history, but how it is related to our contemporary lives and to what photography can do to help us think through these issues,” said Gresh.