When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, their tyranny reigned down on Jewish people, who were imprisoned in ghettos and murdered in their millions.
The Nazis had hoped Adolf Hitler’s systemic concentration, dehumanisation and routine killing would stay hidden from the rest of the right-thinking world, lost to the history books and the few remaining survivors.
Not on Henryk Ross’ watch.
The photographs of Henryk Ross illegally documented the genocide in the Jewish ghettos – against the odds, in defiance of a racist regime, and at risk of the wrath of the Nazis.
Thousands of negatives were buried by their Polish creator, who returned later to dig up the painful truth; that thousands of Jews imprisoned by the German Nazi regime lived – and often died – under deplorable conditions.
Ross’ photo series, which is now on display in the Art Gallery of Ontario, shows the harsh reality of Lodz ghetto, where Ross and his family were imprisoned for four years with over 160,000 Polish Jews.
Amid the 4000 photographs, there’s a disturbing dichotomy: bodies piled high and emaciated children scrabbling for food in the dirt hang on the walls alongside images of the unwavering resilience of those who suffered at the hands of a racist Nazi regime.
Warsaw-born Ross, a sports photographer in peacetime, was enlisted by the ghetto’s Department of Statistics to shoot identification photos and propaganda images of the factories of this formerly great textiles city.
But propaganda was a clever cover for Ross’ candid photography, and the brave artist captured the realities of life in the ghetto; years of brutality beyond the imagination.
Before he died in 1991, Ross recalled his motivations:
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. I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.
When he wasn’t working at the behest of the Nazi regime, the artist peeked his camera lens through holes in ruined walls, from behind the folds of his coat and around corners at the destruction the SS wrecked across the city of Lodz and its ghetto.
Ross risked his life, and torture of his family, to take these photographs, determined that one day, generations to come would bear witness to the horror his children grew up experiencing.
Having an official camera, I was able to capture all the tragic period in the Lodz Ghetto.
I did it knowing that if I were caught my family and I would be tortured and killed.
The ghettos of Nazi Germany, of which there were almost 1,000, were ‘sites of death, yet also of Jewish life’, according to historians Doris L. Bergen and Sylwia Szymańska-Smolkin.
Ghettos made it easier to control Jews, take their property and exploit their labour.
Ghettos provided a place to dump people deemed unwanted: German Jews were sent to ghettos in occupied Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, and Roma arrested in Austria were dispatched to ghettos in the east.
The historians continued:
Through deprivation – hunger, disease and hard labour – ghettos destroyed Jewish lives and eroded family and communal bonds.
Still, people found ways to continue Jewish life: to educate children, observe religious traditions and organize social services. Large ghettos had hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages and theatres, and all ghettos were sites of individual creativity.
Following the liberation of the Lodz ghetto, Ross excavated the box of negatives and recovered this extraordinary archive.
Now, grainy black and white, but beautifully composed images of corpses and body parts piled up high hang on white-washed walls and serve as a stark reminder.
Of the harrowing photograph above, Henryk said:
There was a burial society. To begin with, they were taking for burial two or three victims of starvation.
But afterward, when the number reached 120, it became necessary to construct special carts to transport bodies. I saw entire families, skeletons of people, who were dying with their children.
But moreover, the archive has a message of great human strength and hope.
Alognside the devastation, photographs of families celebrating births, marriages and small represent happy acts of revolt in the face of evil.
According to AGO:
The Henryk Ross Lodz Ghetto Collection is a unique compilation of approximately 3,000 35 mm cellulose nitrate negatives, vintage prints, graphic art, posters, and personal ephemera.
They are testimony of the potential for art to be both an act of resistance and remembrance.
During the final liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto, the second largest after Warsaw, Ross buried his collection of negatives with other artefacts in the ground to preserve the photographic record he had created.
Toward the end of World War II, Ross placed his negatives and prints in jars, which he buried in an iron-rimmed box in the ghetto.
When he dug up the collection in March 1945, Ross discovered that many of the negatives had been severely damaged by groundwater.
The swirls and trails you see in some of these images show where the gelatin layer of the film has dissolved.
In January, 1945 as the Red Army approached Lodz to free its captives, only hundreds of the thousands of residents had survived, having avoided deportation or the death camps.
The Germans ordered the remaining few, who had survived starvation, no sanitation, hard labour, overcrowding and violence, to dig mass graves.
Instead, they went into hiding.
There were just 877 still hiding in the camp when the Red Army liberated Lodz on January 19, 1945.
Henryk Ross, and his wife Stefania, were among them.
Ross and Stefania were married in the ghetto, like many young and in love couples.
These brave people refused to be crushed by a racist regime.
Instead much of the Jewish community Ross photographed took small moments of joy in the humanity they shared among their fellow captives.
AGO now hope the exhibition will foster sympathy, awareness, and even critical commentary, thanks to Ross’ act of defiance.
His incomparable collection was given to the AGO by the Archive of Modern Conflict in 2007.
It was first shown at the AGO in the exhibition Memory Unearthed, which ran from January 31 to- June 14, 2015 to great critical acclaim.
These images force us to confront issues of social class, leadership, gender, poverty, forced labour, destruction of religious institutions, starvation and death.
Maia-Mari Sutnik, in her essay Cruel Tragedies, Consoling Pleasures, wrote:
Among the handful of prints and 3,000 surviving negatives produced by the attentive eye and determined mind of Henryk Rozencwaijg-Ross in the Lodz Ghetto from 1940 to 1945, there are images that are hard to blot out once seen.
In their expressiveness, heightened by blights and swirls on the surfaces of the degrading film emulsions, these once-buried images evoke a palpable sense of reality.
Each is more than an isolated frame: even if marked with trace damages, it is a moment in history — and all of these images belong somewhere in our collective consciousness.
Lodz has a particularly remarkable history, isolated as it was from the rest of the world, and positioned nearby the first killing centre for gassing Jews, Chelmno.
More than 200,000 Jewish people lived there at some point after the ghetto was established in 1940. At least 70,000 Lodz residents were taken to Chelmno.
Only about 10,000 of the people who entered Lodz survived the war.
Before the war, Lodz was known for its textile industry, and Jewish leaders in the ghetto built on that capacity in their strategy of ‘survival through work’.
This was the very same productivity Ross was forced to photograph for propaganda, and the same resilience he chose to photograph in the privacy of his friends’ and family’s homes for posterity.
Although significant material was damaged, almost 3,000 negatives survived.
Today, they represent the most comprehensive known collection of Holocaust ghetto photographs by a single Jewish photographer.
In hindsight, the collective work of Ross is hauntingly beautiful in its horrific juxtaposition.
The Nazis didn’t want us to see what they did.
They didn’t want us to see the raw, joyous humanity their genocidal regime stamped out with hate.
The collection, ripped from the depths of despair by Ross (pictured above, far left) is a vital documentation of a contemporary history that must not be repeated.
Moreover it’s a tribute to the strength of the human condition under untold strain.
All images copyright of Henryk Ross, the Archive of Modern Conflict, 2007 and the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario.