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MFA photo exhibit reveals Lodz ghetto

Journal Correspondent

Lodz ghetto: Children being transported to Chelmno nad Nerem (renamed Kulmhof) death camp
Henryk Ross (Polish, born in 1910-1991)
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

MAY 18, 2017 — A quarter of a century after the death of Polish-born photographer Henryk Ross, the world is being exposed to the unforgettable images captured by the Holocaust survivor of the Lodz Ghetto, where he lived under Nazi rule for four years.

An exhibit of Ross’s photographs is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through July 30. “Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross,” is the first showing of the photos in the United States.

Ross was born in Warsaw in 1910 and died in Israel in 1991. After the German invasion, he was put to work for the Nazi-appointed Department of Statistics for the Jewish Council in the Lodz Ghetto. Ross’s official duties required him to take identification photographs of ghetto residents as well as propaganda photographs of the factories that produced goods for the Nazi war effort.

At great risk to his life and his family, Ross ventured beyond his official duties, often accompanied by his wife, Stefania, and clandestinely took thousands of photographs depicting the full range of daily life in the ghetto, where some 230,000 Jews were confined.

Some of the photographs are devastating scenes of hunger, death, squalor, and deportation lines. Others show children learning to knit or playing in a garden.

The ghetto was liquidated in the summer of 1944, with 74,000 Jews sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Ross was one of less than 900 who were left behind. In one more courageous act of defiance that fall, he buried some 6,000 photographs and negatives in a canister, hoping to preserve the images for history. Remarkably, following the liberation of Poland by the Russians in the spring of 1945, Ross returned to 12 Jagielonska St. and unearthed the photos he had buried.

About half of the negatives, photographs, and other documents survived.

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)
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

“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,” he wrote four decades later from his home in Jaffa, where he and his wife resettled in 1956. “I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.”

The exhibit, organized by curator Kristen Gresh, includes more than 300 photographs and other objects, including footage from the 1961 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Ross testified and his photographs were submitted as evidence. Eichmann was found guilty and executed in 1962.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is an intricate, handmade portfolio Ross created late in life using his contact sheets of photographs from the ghetto.

“While there are other collections of photographs from ghettos, Ross’s work stands out because he was a Jewish photographer who was also willing to record all aspects of ghetto life, including the portrayal of the ghetto elite,” according to Antony Polonsky, Brandeis University professor emeritus of Holocaust Studies and chief historian of The Museum of Polish Jews in Warsaw.

“This isn’t just an exhibition about the Jewish experience, which it deeply is,” said MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum. “It’s about human relations, about cultural conflict. It’s about negotiation between people.”

Among the striking photographs is a somber, foreboding scene of a group of children in 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. It was taken in 1942, at around the start of deportations of children and the elderly to concentration camps at Chelmno and later Auschwitz.

Gresh anticipated the public’s response to the exhibit.

“It’s an important time to pause and reflect not only on this history, but how it is related to our contemporary lives and what photography can do to help us think through these issues,” she said.

For more information about the exhibit, visit mfa.org.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • AGO May 24, 2017, 3:41 pm

    Thank you for your wonderful overview. “Memory Unearthed: The Photographs of Henryk Ross” was organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Toronto. It was curated by Maia-Mari Sutnik, AGO’s Curator of Photography and Special Projects. A book with the corresponding title is distributed by Yale University Press, and available on Amazon. Contributing essay on Lodz Ghetto by Robert Jan Van Pelt, and others by Bernice Eisenstein, Michael Mitchell, and Erik Beck Rubin. The complete Ross holding is available on: http://www.ago.net

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