The Jewish Photographer of Ghetto Life
In 3,000 images, Henryk Ross surreptitiously photographed daily life in the ghetto.
By Shirley Moskow
Henryk Ross was 29 years old and working as a photojournalist in 1939 when Germany invaded his country. Within the year, he was incarcerated with more than 200,000 Polish Jews in the 1.5 square mile Lodz Ghetto. After the Warsaw Ghetto, it was the second largest ghetto in German occupied Europe.
The occupiers chose Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski, a Jewish businessman and community elder, to head the Judenstaat, the Jewish council charged with carrying out German orders. As the top administrator, he is now notorious for the zeal with which he performed his job. Later in the war, when Germany had difficulty supplying troops, Rumkowski organized four ghetto factories with slave labor to make war materials. The workers subsisted on 800 calories a day, but he rationalized that being useful saved their lives. He assigned Henryk Ross to take photographs of the efficient factories, which he hoped would impress the Germans.
From 1940 to 1945, Ross was the official ghetto photographer, tasked with providing a picture of every prisoner. He was enterprising. He devised a technique and plan for photographing four people on one negative so that he could then crop the print to produce four individual portraits. In this way, he managed to secretly squirrel away film for his personal use and to document the German occupation. About 3,000 of his images survive. It is the most complete collection of images of ghetto life. Now, “Memory Unearthed,” the exclusive United States exhibition of about 200 selected Ross photographs, will be on view at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts from March 28 through July 30.
On his own and at great risk, Ross surreptitiously photographed daily life in the ghetto, scenes of birthdays and other celebrations as well as the cruelties and violence of war, hangings and elderly people scrambling for scraps of food. What is one to make of two very young Jewish boys at play? One is wearing a Nazi-style arm band as he is arresting his friend.
Ross married Stephania Schoenberg in the ghetto, and she often accompanied him as lookout, standing nearby to warn him of dangers. If the Nazis even suspected their extracurricular activities, there was no doubt they would both be killed. “I did it knowing that if I were caught my family and I would be tortured and killed,” he wrote. Nevertheless, it was a risk he was willing to take. Almost daily, he witnessed the murder of Jews. He saw crowded vans and trains transporting Jews, and soon Roma, to Chelm and other concentration camps.
One day he sneaked out of the ghetto and hid in a dilapidated shack by the railroad tracks. Through a knot hole in the wall, he shot pictures of a mass deportation of Jews as they waited on the station platform for the trains that would take them to death camps. “I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry,” he wrote. “I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.”
When the Germans realized that the war was coming to an end and that they were losing, they panicked. Fearful that the arriving Allies would find evidence of war crimes, they rounded up the Jews who were still left in the ghetto and shipped them off to “extermination” camps. They left a few people behind, including Ross and his wife, to clean up their mess. Ross used the opportunity to store his negatives in a can, which he buried under his home. He and Schoenberg returned after the war to retrieve the can. There’s a picture of them with a small group of survivors at the site.
The couple eventually immigrated to Israel. Ross testified at the trial of Adolph Eichmann, and his images of the Lodz Ghetto were entered into evidence. Ross also wrote a book about the Lodz Ghetto. It was always his intention to catalog his images and to write captions. He tried, but the effort was overwhelming.
The collection remained in his private possession until after his death. The Archive of Modern Conflict acquired it and gave it to the Art Gallery of Ontario for “conservation and publication.” Many of the negatives, which had been produced on cellulose nitrate stock, required restoration. The curator of photography at the AGO, Maia-Mari Sutnik, managed the demanding project and prepared the first exhibition of Ross’s pictures, which premiered in 2015 at the museum.
The MFA is preserving and digitizing the negatives and working to provide a public record of all the images. “We should acknowledge: To make them widely available is to insist on remembering,” a museum spokesman said. And that was Henryk Ross’s hope.