BOSTON – In a remarkable story of resilience and a commitment to preserve historical memory, a group of nearly 50 rare photographs taken by Henryk Ross, a Holocaust survivor who documented daily life in the Lodz Ghetto, are now part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
They are the first Ross photographs in the MFA’s collection and among the few owned by a U.S. museum.
The donation was made last month by Howard Greenberg, a collector and Manhattan gallery owner who acquired them from Paul Sutton, who first discovered the photographs 14 years ago, after the death of his father, Leon Sutton, a Holocaust survivor who lived in New York City.
Ross gave the silver-gelatin prints to Sutton in Lodz, after both survived the Holocaust.
“Together, these 48 photographs serve as both memory and documentary evidence of the extremes of war. They are powerful and memorable,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, the MFA’s director.
Among the cache is one of a man standing on the street, his belongings bundled up in rolls hanging around his neck and shoulder. He’s been identified as Dr. Klementynowski, according to Kristen Gresh, the MFA’s senior curator of photography.
Another is a haunting image of hundreds of Jews along railroad tracks at a Nazi deportation site.
The photographs’ intriguing and poignant cross-continent journey goes back 76 years.
Like Ross, Sutton, whose name then was Lova Szmuszkowicz, was confined to the Lodz Ghetto, the second largest and longest existing Nazi ghetto where 230,000 Jews were forced to live. Sutton was among the tens of thousands who were deported to Auschwitz.
When Sutton returned to Lodz in early 1945, to see if there were other survivors, he crossed paths with Ross, who before the war had worked as a professional photographer.
In the ghetto, Ross was pressed into service for the Nazi-appointed Jewish Council’s Department of Statistics to take official identification card photographs of Jewish residents and propaganda photos of the ghetto’s factories that produced goods for the Nazi war effort.
At tremendous risk for his life, Ross, at times accompanied by his wife, Stefania, secretly shot thousands of other photos of daily life in the ghetto.
His images captured the hunger and squalor of the ghetto, foreboding scenes of deportation lines as well as some that revealed unexpected, lighter personal moments such as birthdays or children playing.
Before the ghetto was liquidated, in 1944, Ross buried thousands of his negatives and photos, as a way to preserve them as evidence. He was among some 900 Jews held back to clear out the ghetto before it was liquidated.
“I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy,” Ross said 40 years later from his home in Jaffa, where he resettled in 1956. “I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry.” Ross died in 1991.
After the ghetto was liberated, Ross returned to the site and unearthed the canisters; about half of his approximate 6,000 images survived in some fashion.
While the exact details remain unknown, Ross gave Sutton the group of photographs, which Sutton took with him when he immigrated to the U.S. in 1947. He carefully stored these cherished prints in an envelope for safekeeping, annotated with a note that said “Pictures taken by Henryk Ross and given to me personally by Henryk after the war in Lodz in 1945.”
Sutton never brought them out to show his family, and his children knew nothing about them until after his death in 2007. That’s when his son Paul discovered them among his father’s possessions.
At the time, the younger Sutton, himself an accomplished professional photographer, knew they were important, but he was unaware of Ross’s body of work. He put them aside, he told the Journal in a phone conversation from his home in upstate New York.
A decade later, in 2017, he traveled to Boston to see “Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross,” an exhibit presented at the MFA. The show originated at the Art Gallery of Ontario, which houses Henryk Ross’s collection.
Seeing the exhibit was a touchpoint for Sutton.
It was “incredibly powerful. I recognized some of the prints I had copies of.”
It was ever more emotional knowing that both his parents had been confined in the ghetto.
“I realized it [his father’s collection of photographs] was more significant in the context of what Ross had done,” he said.
“That is what really ignited the whole thing. I realized I can’t just let [the photographs] sit there.”
He contacted Greenberg, who he knew had experience with historical photographs. Greenberg arranged to purchase the photographs and donate them to the MFA.
It’s a significant gift for the museum, as a measure of continuity from its earlier exhibit. Some of Ross’s prints now in the MFA’s collection had only been seen as modern-day reproductions, according to MFA curator Gresh.
Among them is a print that captures a pensive-looking woman carrying satchels around her shoulders in a street-scene crowded with other Jews. It appears as if it was taken on the same roll of film as another Ross photograph of a Jewish guard escorting a group of Jews for deportation, that was on view in the 2017 exhibit, Gresh said.
“Seeing the print of this otherwise lost moment in time is a truly moving experience. It brings back the importance of preserving history and the visual moments,” she said.
Growing up, Sutton said his parents didn’t often speak about their wartime experience. “They looked forward.”
While Sutton does not know the details of how Ross gave the photos to his father, it is clear to him that his father recognized their importance.
“His handwritten note meant that he knew that they had value.”
Having the photos at the MFA is an honor to the legacy of his father, Sutton said.
“I think my father would be extremely proud, as I am.”