Henryk Ross: Documenting the Lodz Ghetto Under German Nazi Rule

All images by Henryk Ross. Access granted from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston’s Press Image Library.

Behind the work of photographer Henryk Ross is an interesting story that could have probably never been told. However, the significance of his work has earned him an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. The exhibit, “Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross” runs until July 30th 2017, and features hundreds of photos taken during WWII by the Polish Jewish photographer. His photos survived because of the great and careful intentions that he had.

Lodz wasn’t a happy place. According to the US Holocaust Memorial museum:

Ghetto police escorting residents for deportation
Henryk Ross (Polish, 1910–1991)
1942–1944
Contact print from original 35 mm negative
*Art Gallery of Ontario, Gift from Archive of Modern Conflict, 2007. 2007.160.21.
*© Art Gallery of Ontario
*Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“The city of Lodz is located about 75 miles southwest of Warsaw, Poland. The Jews of Lodz formed the second largest Jewish community in prewar Poland, after Warsaw. German troops occupied Lodz one week after Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Lodz was annexed to Germany as part of the Warthegau. The Germans renamed the city Litzmannstadt, after a German general, Karl Litzmann, who had captured the city during World War I.

In early February 1940, the Germans established a ghetto in the northeastern section of Lodz. About 160,000 Jews, more than a third of the city’s population, were forced into a small area.

The Germans isolated the ghetto from the rest of Lodz with barbed-wire fencing. Special police units guarded the ghetto perimeter. Internal order in the ghetto was the responsibility of Jewish ghetto police. The ghetto area was divided into three parts by the intersection of two major roads. The intersection itself lay outside the ghetto. Bridges constructed over the two thoroughfares connected the three segments of the ghetto. Streetcars for the non-Jewish population of Lodz traversed the ghetto but were not permitted to stop within it.”

The intentions of Henryk Ross were to tell the story of what happened at the ghetto. Fearing for his life, he buried the negatives in a box, and was able to dig them up after the war. Ross was one of the 877 (out of 160,000) recorded survivors of the Lodz Ghetto. According to Ross, “I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy.” It’s amazing to consider what might have happened if Ross hadn’t survived. How would we have found his negatives?

We briefly spoke with Kristen Gresh, Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Curator of Photographs at the MFA. She organized the MFA’s presentation of “Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross.”

Lodz ghetto: Man walking in winter in the ruins of the synagogue on Wolborska street (destroyed by Germans 1939)
Henryk Ross (Polish, born in 1910-1991)
1940
Gelatin silver print.
*Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift from the Archive of Modern Conflict, 2007.
*© Art Gallery of Ontario
*Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

What made you want to exhibit of the work in Memory Unearthed? I’m assuming it has to do with the crazy political times that we’re in, right?

The powerful exhibition “Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross” makes its US debut at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) this spring. It was organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), in association with the MFA.

The exhibition explores the role that photography plays in shaping public memory and makes connections that are relevant today. We want to take a moment to look at this specific time in history and take some of the themes from these photographs such as resistance, survival and bearing witness and think about them in a more universal way today. In showing this exhibition, we also want to be a safe place to encourage dialogue about things like persecution of freedom.

Lodz ghetto: Ghetto police with woman behind barbed wire
Henryk Ross (Polish, born in 1910-1991)
1942
Gelatin silver print.
*Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift from the Archive of Modern Conflict, 2007.
*© Art Gallery of Ontario
*Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
*Reproduced with permission

Tell us about Henryk Ross. Who was he and what was his career like as a photographer? What measures besides burying the negatives did he do to ensure that they were safe?

This exhibition presents a moving and intimate visual record of the Holocaust through the lens of Polish Jewish photojournalist Henryk Ross (1910–1991). Previously a photojournalist for the Polish press, Ross was confined to the ghetto in 1940 and put to work by the Nazi regime as a bureaucratic photographer; his tasks included taking photographs for Jewish identification cards, as well as images that were used as propaganda to promote efficiency of the ghetto’s labor force. Unofficially—and at great risk—Ross took it upon himself to document the complex realities of life in the Lodz Ghetto under Nazi rule, culminating in the deportation of thousands to death camps at Chelmno and Auschwitz.

Lodz ghetto: Children talking through fence of central prison on Czarnecki Street prior to deportation
Henryk Ross (Polish, born in 1910-1991)
1940-1942
Gelatin silver print.
*Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift from the Archive of Modern Conflict, 2007.
*© Art Gallery of Ontario
*Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

As the time that the mass deportation began, when the last remaining ghetto residents were being sent to their deaths at Auschwitz, Ross hid his negatives. “I buried my negatives in the ground,” he said in 1987, “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.” The same year, Ross also assembled hundreds of contact prints selected from his surviving negatives into a 17-page “folio” album. While he did number the frames, he did not restore the chronology of the collection. Instead, it serves as a summation of his memories, capturing a personal narrative of a harrowing moment in modern history.

Will the exhibition be the exact same as it was displayed at the AGO? (if no, then proceed to next question.)

We’ll feature the same photographs that were on view at the AGO. I’ve worked closely with Maia-Mari Sutnik, the AGO’s curator of special photography projects. She spent five years researching this body of work and closely examining thousands of Ross’s negatives. She thoughtfully organized the show into three segments that focus on Henryk Ross, the Lodz ghetto and deportation. She made a great selection of both official and un-official photographs that Ross took during his time in the ghetto. Her choices reveal Ross’s use of the camera as an act of resistance.

We’ve also developed extensive programming to accompany the exhibition, which will encourage dialogue about photography, memory and the contemporary world. This includes a four-session course, small-group “Looking Together” sessions, and The City Talks—a series of free public forums on issues related to the exhibition’s themes, moderated by Adam Strom, Director of Scholarship and Innovation at Facing History and Ourselves. There will also be a lecture that discusses how humankind responds in remarkable ways in the face of adversity, as well as a concert presenting works composed and performed in the Lodz, Vilna and Terezin ghettos.

Lodz ghetto: Men hauling cart for bread distribution
Henryk Ross (Polish, born in 1910-1991)
1942
Gelatin silver print.
*Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift from the Archive of Modern Conflict, 2007.
*© Art Gallery of Ontario
*Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

The exhibit, “Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross” runs until July 30th 2017