Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

One of the greatest tests of the power of pictures and words to explain reality must be the Jewish holocaust. We’ve seen images of emaciated bodies and heard survivors describe their ordeals. The pain we feel, we know, is only a faint replica of theirs. This is what we can know: the concept – the systematic elimination of an entire race; the terrifying detail – babies thrown against walls, people digging their own mass graves; and statistics – the extermination of 6 million Jews. But these lead us only to mute incomprehension. The philosopher, Theodore Adorno, may have alluded to this impenetrable silence when he wrote that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz.

Though denied this deeper comprehension, the more limited knowledge can be found in the holocaust archive, and to this Henryk Ross has made significant contribution. Presented in three subdued rooms at the Art Gallery of Ontario, his photographic collection reveals a heartbreaking, but also redemptive, story of the five years Ross shared with 204,000 others in Poland’s second largest Jewish ghetto, in Lodz.

The story begins in WWII with the Nazi Lebensraum plan: Poland would become “living space” for resettled ethnic Germans, after Poles were relocated and Jews corralled into ghettos. Initially designed to stigmatise Jews, the ghettos evolved, in correspondence to the fortunes of the German war machine, into a factory for producing goods for Germans, and later a holding site for Jews before deportation to gas-vans in Chełmno nad Nerem and, finally, Auschwitz.

Ross survived his own incarceration by applying his pre-war photographic skills in the service of the Jewish Administrations Statistics department. He made ID photographs for workers and the unidentified victims of starvation and disease. His propaganda pictures show orderly factory production and orphanages with smiling children. Seamlessly intermixed with these on his contact sheets are the unofficial records that Ross risked his life to produce. We see the happier moments – festive gatherings, romantic couples, children held lovingly by their parents – to the most miserable – a boy collapsed on the street from hunger, the deportation of the nearly 16,000 “non-productive” elderly, ill, and youth under 10, crowds gathered for food distribution (only the 800 calories required to continue working). Some of the most disturbing images were taken surreptitiously: disguised as a worker during the final mass deportation Ross made several frames of residents being loaded into train cars; others were taken from the hip, through a quick flick of his overcoat.

After that final liquidation of 65,000 people in 1944, Ross remained, along with 877 others, to clean up the ghetto for incoming Germans. Aware that his usefulness for the Nazis, and so his life, was coming to an end, he packed his roughly 6,000 negatives into 174 iron jars, and these inside a tar-lined wooden box, and buried them in the ground. Perhaps they would be found one day, he thought, and the memory of European Jewry would be preserved. The story approaches miracle when, before his own final deportation, the Soviet Red Army liberated Lodz, and so Ross himself was able to retrieve his time capsule.

In 1961, after Ross’s move to Israel, his photographs helped indict Adolf Eichmann for war crimes. The collection was later acquired by the London-based Archive of Modern Conflict and in 2007 was given to the Art Gallery of Ontario for their conservation, publication and current display as Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross. The exhibition’s varied components – negatives, contact sheets, about 200 small to medium-sized photographic prints, both original and new, all of Ross’s contact sheets, printed materials, such as deportation notices and newspapers, and a filmed interview with Ross and his wife Stefania – together illustrate the context of Ross’s collection.

Only half of the negatives that Ross entrusted to the earth, roughly 3,000, survived the corrosive moisture and many, only imperfectly.
To maintain the material truth of these artifacts, curator, Maia Maria Sutnik, presented the images with internment scars intact. The blots and swirls of the ruined cellulose nitrate emulsions, etched by water damage, disrupt the ghosts embedded in them, indexing their damaged referents.

In 1987 Ross revisited his contact sheet collection: he cut up the frames and rearranged them into albums. All of the pages are displayed here. Each frame, too tiny to examine comfortably, has been digitally duplicated and is here projected. Scanning across the wall, they make a sad parade of lost lives. Images of children are the hardest: digging in the ground for discarded food, pushing fecal wagons barefooted, touching their agonised mothers through chain link fences before their “resettlement”, loaded into horse-drawn deportation wagons.

Another section presents the troubled topic of the ghetto’s Jewish Council. Headed by Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, an industrialist before the war, these Jewish authorities managed the ghetto’s internal affairs as intermediaries to the Germans. They oversaw factory production, food distribution, and policing (including forcibly removing hospital residents for deportation). Their slogan, “Our Way is Work“, promoted the development of the ghetto into a productive factory; perceived by the Germans as useful, they would be spared. Ross as member of the Council’s Statistics Department was himself protected from the slave labour, hunger and death that almost all others endured.

Many of the Jewish elite lived in the ghetto’s Marysin district. Their relative comfort is apparent in the large cluster of prints, tightly arranged on the final gallery wall. Ross’s relaxed, even joyful, portraits of individuals and families posing amidst greenery and gardens are very different from the ragged and starving seen in other pictures. But, along with the smiles on their faces, they also wore on their backs the mandatory yellow stars. This fragile respite seems even more poignant when it’s learned that, in the end, they too were brought under the equalising brutality of Auschwitz.

Precarious both in production and preservation, Ross’s archive has finally found a safe and welcoming home, where its testament can be respected and mourned. What emerges from this unearthing of unearthly suffering might just resemble poetry.

Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, curated by Maia-Maria Sutnik, until 14 June, 317 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5T 1G4.

Jill Glessing

1. Henryk Ross Lodz ghetto sign for Jewish residential area (“ Jews. Entry Forbidden”) 1940-44 Gelatin silver print Art Gallery of Ontario Gift from Archive of Modern Conflict, 2007 © Art Gallery of Ontario.