When the Nazis began clearing out a Jewish ghetto in a German-occupied city in Poland, one Jewish photographer, fearing for his life, buried a box containing thousands of photographic negatives. Decades later, they offer a haunting and intimate glimpse into a tragic episode in Europe’s history.
The photographer’s name was Henryk Ross. Before the war, he had worked as a journalist and sports photographer. However, the German invasion of Poland brought that career to an early end, and instead, throughout the Nazi occupation of his home city of Lodz, Ross found employment in the Jewish Council’s Department of Statistics.
Jewish Councils, however, were not traditional Jewish organizations. They were, in fact, power structures established by the Germans to manage the internal affairs of the Jewish ghettos. Fortunately, Ross was able to engage in quiet acts of disobedience – and the photos that he took would certainly have cost him his life had the Germans discovered them.
Ross’ work for the Jewish Council of Lodz included taking photographs for a range of mundane functions. In this image, he can be seen photographing nearly a dozen people for their identification cards. And although Ross did not receive direct orders from the Germans, some of his photos may have ended up being used in Nazi propaganda.
In any case, it was his unofficial snaps that comprised his most important body of photographic work. Demonstrating incredible nerve, Ross secretly documented day-to-day life in the Lodz ghetto. Another Jewish photographer, Mendel Grossman, who was also employed by the council, took clandestine photos too. Sadly, however, he did not make it through the war alive.
“Henryk Ross’s images challenge viewers to reflect on the role of photographs and photographers in documenting the Holocaust and shaping public memory,” states an essay by Doris Bergen and Sylwia Szymanska-Smolkin on the Art Gallery of Ontario’s website. “They also remind us of the importance of thinking about the sources and uses of Holocaust images… Every picture was taken by someone for a reason…”
There’s no doubt that every one of Ross’ images conveys a specific message and intent. But what were his overarching motivations? It could be that Ross was trying to collect evidence of Nazi crimes. Or he may simply have been exercising his natural instincts as a photographer to capture the world around him.
Whatever his reasons, though, the Lodz ghetto proved to be an utterly compelling photographic subject. Established in 1940, it was the second largest such area in Poland, smaller only than the ghetto in the capital, Warsaw. In fact, at one stage it was home to around 200,000 Jews. It was also the longest surviving ghetto, lasting as it did for four years.
The ghetto’s longevity may have been due to its robust work ethic – a strategy called “survival through work.” Before the war, the city was a hub of textile manufacturing, and it continued producing goods throughout the Nazi occupation, mainly for the military and German industrialists. Indeed, many of Ross’ photos, such as this one, capture scenes from the ghetto’s factories.
The ghetto was situated in a dilapidated part of the city and lacked many amenities that we take for granted. For example, there was limited heating and running water and no sewage system. What’s more, the dreadful, overcrowded housing offered fertile ground for infectious diseases. And many of the ghetto’s inhabitants failed to find any adequate shelter at all.
But despite the appalling conditions, life in the ghetto retained a spirit of hope and community. Many of Ross’ images capture cheerful occasions and social gatherings such as weddings and feasts. Some of these photos were taken spontaneously. Others were commissioned by high-ranking members of the ghetto such as Jewish policemen.
However, in 1941 the Nazis began rounding up the ghetto’s inhabitants for “deportation.” In fact, the Jews selected for this fate were transported to the holocaust’s first killing center at Chelmno, some 30 miles away. There were no gas chambers in Chelmno; instead, the executions were carried out in specially adapted gas vans.
Throughout 1942, some 70,000 Jews were taken from the Lodz ghetto and killed by the Nazis at Chelmno. The worst atrocity occurred in September of that year when the Germans ordered the Jewish Council to relinquish 20,000 inhabitants, including children. The episode tore families apart and turned the council’s leader, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, into a figure of hatred.
Indeed, Rumkowski was so deeply loathed that he is said to have been beaten to death by Jews from Lodz when he arrived at Auschwitz. Nonetheless, history may have been kinder to him had Allied troops liberated Poland sooner. After all, the main reason that the ghetto survived as long as it did was due to his policy of “survival through work.”
As it happened, ultimately only a tiny fraction of the ghetto’s original population survived. In August 1944 the Nazis began the process of closing the ghetto and liquidating its remaining inhabitants. They sent the majority to Auschwitz or Chelmno. And at that stage, the Red Army was less than one hundred miles away.
Had the Allies managed to liberate Lodz before the Nazis could enact their plan, Rumkowski might even have been regarded as a hero today. Sadly, however, by the time Soviet tanks rolled into the city in January 1945, there were just 800 Jews remaining – and miraculously, Henryk Ross was among them.
When Ross dug up the tar-sealed box that he had used to stash his life’s work, he found that water had damaged some of the negatives. Nonetheless, many had survived, and these were put forward as evidence in the trial of Nazi officer Otto Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1961. Found guilty of war crimes, Eichmann was hanged in 1962.
In 2015 the Art Gallery of Ontario displayed Ross’ photos in an exhibition titled “Memory Unearthed.” Furthermore, the gallery has now completely digitized his work and made it available to the public on its website. So whatever the physical condition of Ross’ negatives, his images have now been safely preserved for future generations.
“Henryk Ross’s photographs have their own complex perspective,” Bergen and Szymanska-Smolkin wrote. “But it is not the line of vision of the masters and killers. Instead of the overexposed, stock view of ‘the Jew,’ they offer an underexposed, bewildering glimpse of Jewish lives in the ghetto, as seen from the inside.”
Indeed, while so many Holocaust photos were taken by Nazis – and thus tend to emphasize the power and triumph of the Germans – Ross’ images reflect the quiet hope and tragedy of day-to-day life in the Lodz ghetto. They will continue to haunt audiences long after the war has faded from living memory.