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MFA’s photo exhibit breathes life into Lodz Ghetto

By Noah Harper

Section: Arts, Top Stories

March 31, 2017

Exhibiting a collection of rare photographs taken during the Nazi occupation of the Polish city Lodz, the Museum of Fine Arts’ “Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross” should not be missed.

Captured in 1939, the city of Lodz would remain under Nazi rule until January 15, 1945, when the Russian Red Army liberated it. Among the last residents of the ghetto, kept behind to clean it, were the photographer Henryk Ross and his wife Stefania.

A city known for its textile and manufacturing trade, Lodz possessed a large Jewish population. After the Germans invaded, over 200,000 Jews were concentrated in the Lodz Ghetto.

Having worked as a photojournalist before the war, Ross was hired by the Jewish Council to take photographs for ID cards during the occupation. As he worked, Ross devised an ingenious system for conserving film: by placing people in columns and rows, with wooden cut-outs separating them, he could squeeze more photos onto of a roll of film. With this secret surplus, he was able to surreptitiously document life in the ghetto.

On display is a large reproduction of the taking of an ID photo. Seven women, wearing easily-visible Stars of David, sit for their picture. Around them, other inhabitants of the ghetto are gathered, gazing straight into the camera. Some smile, some look worried and others exude a steely calm.

This is the first of many pictures in the exhibit that powerfully convey the routine horrors of life in the Lodz Ghetto. Extermination was a slow process; individuals were not immediately killed or deported. Instead, their rights and dignity were slowly and methodically impugned—the tragically painful pace allowed Ross plenty of time to document it. He was particularly good at capturing people as they attempted to maintain some facsimile of normalcy in their lives. As they were concentrated together and then systematically deported, Ross expertly photographed his community still trying to make do, even as cataclysm closed in.

In this way, Ross’ pictures are most revealing and powerful: They portray with rare candor the realities of living in the ghetto, an inside perspective of the Holocaust that we do not often see. At no small risk to his own well-being, Ross set out to document what was being done to his people. Miraculously, his record survives mostly intact.

The pictures, taken on dangerously flammable 35mm cellulose nitrate film, did not all withstand the war. Many bear distortion marks from groundwater seepage. In order to protect the photos, the Rosses rolled up the film negatives, put them in jars and sealed them inside a wooden box, which was then buried. After the Nazis were ousted from Lodz, the Rosses were able to return and extract the photos.

“I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom,” Ross said. “I did it knowing that if I were caught my family would be tortured and killed.”

One of the reasons the Lodz Ghetto survived for so long was because of its remarkable productivity. Ross intentionally tried to capture the Jewish community at work with his photographs, attempting to demonstrate his people’s necessity to Nazi administrators, to show that they were needed for the war effort. On display are photos of women working in a leather factory and workers repairing mattresses. “Due to its remarkable productivity, Lodz was the last Polish ghetto to be liquidated,” the exhibit says. While Ross’ photos didn’t ultimately save his people, he was able to help buy them a little more time.

An especially moving room in the exhibit displays quotes from two firsthand accounts of life in the Lodz Ghetto, taken from the respective diaries of an unidentified boy and girl.

The nameless boy, who wrote his journal in the margins of a book, asks, “Almighty God, how can you do this? How can you in the face of such unheard of horrors preserve such an unhesitating neutrality?” This entry is dated April 7, 1944, as deportations and food shortages were increasing dramatically. The last excerpt, undated, reads, “My God … why will you not punish, with all your wrath, those who are destroying us? Are we the sinners and they the righteous?”

The interior perspectives afforded by these diary entries do well to complement the vast chronicle of oppression and endurance that is Ross’ work. Their accounts add a solitary interiority, spectral voices that can be attributed to any one of the children in the exhibit’s photographs.

The final gallery of Ross’ photos focuses on the deportations, the Nazi’s attempts, late in the war, to liquidate the ghettos. There is picture after picture of people caught between misery and terror: mothers and their children, the overwhelmed elderly, long columns of residents being led out of the ghetto, all facing certain doom.

On the wall opposite, there is a collage of portraits that Ross shot of his neighbors, pictures of individuals, men, women and children, smiling and looking at the camera. For me, this was the most powerful part of the exhibit, a vast assemblage of photos collectively depicting the raw human resilience of the people of the Lodz Ghetto. This collage gives a glimpse of the enduring humanity of those who were suffering, living in constant terror, who were somehow able, even with the ever-present threat of death hanging over their heads, to pause and smile for a photograph.

One final gallery ends the exhibit, a coda to human suffering across history. Titled “Objects of Witness and Resistance,” the room collects pieces from acutely traumatic events: the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, the Middle Passage, all works asking the viewer to pause and reflect on the extensive suffering that human beings have inflicted on one another.

There are postcards depicting the ruins of Warsaw, showing stitched-up flesh on someone’s “Good Hope Road,” an abstract painting by Arshile Gorky, a piece about the artist’s experiences during the Armenian Genocide.

Finally, the last work in “Objects” is J. M. W. Turner’s “The Slave Ship.” A fiery sun sinks on the horizon, staining everything with fierce oranges and yellows. In the foreground, fish swim in the tumultuous ocean, converging upon the sinking leg of an African slave. Behind the thrashing bodies, the slave ship battles the churning waves. It is a depiction of suffering itself, a visible resilience. These artworks depict death, but also people posing for pictures, smiling even, able to find shreds of joy even in the worst of circumstances.

While these galleries effectively portray the vast amount of human suffering across history, there is, too, a visible resilience. Especially in the works of Henryk Ross, there is an ever-present deathly pallor—but also shreds of joy, people smiling and posing for their pictures to be taken.

Among the haunting images I witnessed, one still stands out in my mind. Titled “Scarecrow with Yellow Star of David,” it is a simple shot of ragged ghetto clothes on a wooden frame in a barren field. The sparseness of the scene, the emptiness of the costume, the threadbare jacket and haphazard way the hat hangs all make it profoundly moving, and the horrors perpetrated on the Jewish people of Lodz unforgettable.    

“Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross” is on view until July 30, and admission to the the Museum of Fine Arts is free with a Brandeis ID.

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