Photograph of Ghetto Police with Woman Behind Barbed Wire by Henryk Ross taken in 1942, documents life in the Lodz Ghetto set up by the Nazis to isolate the Jewish community before they were sent to death camps at Chelmno and Auschwitz.
BOSTON—In the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is Memory Unearthed, an exhibition of photographs by Polish Jewish photojournalist Henryk Ross (1910–1991). These images are reminders of a dark period in world history: A period when the Nazis did everything to eradicate the Jews. The photographs provide an extraordinarily rare glimpse of life inside the Lodz Ghetto during its existence from 1940 to 1944.
After the occupation of the city of Lodz by German forces in 1939, the Nazis consolidated the area’s Jewish population by sending them to the Lodz Ghetto located in the heart of Poland. In addition to pushing 160,000 Jews into this poor industrial section of the city, the ghetto was also sealed-off from the outside world. Lodz Ghetto was one of the biggest Jewish slums established by the Nazis, second only to the Warsaw Ghetto. In Warsaw, more than 400,000 Jews were crowded into an area of 1.3 square miles.
Lodz Ghetto like many of the other ghettos set up by the Germans was a way of isolating the Jewish community from the non-Jewish community. Jews in the ghetto were mandated to wear identifying badges or armbands. Life in the Lodz Ghetto was atrocious. In this closed ghetto, there was starvation, diseases, and death. Jews did forced labor and those that did not follow the rules were shot and killed. Even the Jewish police officials who served at the mercy of the German authorities were killed for insubordination. In just four years, more than 40,000 died of starvation.
Henryk Ross was among those confined to the ghetto in 1940. A skilled photographer, Ross was put to work by the Nazi regime as a bureaucratic photographer for the Jewish Administration’s Statistics department. His job was to take official photographs for Jewish identification cards, as well as images used as propaganda that promoted the ghetto’s efficiency.
However, even as Ross performed his forced labor, he used the opportunity to secretly document the harrowing experiences of people in the ghetto. At great risk to his life, he recorded the atrocities of the Nazi rule. To escape the prying eyes of German soldiers, he hid his camera under his shirt and captured brutal realities at the camp when he thought it was safe to do so. Mayhem at the ghetto culminated in the deportation of thousands of Jews to the death camps at Chelmno and Auschwitz.
By 1944, Henryk Ross had accumulated more than 6000 negatives. As the war wound down, he knew that he had to do everything to protect his negatives. To prevent them from falling into the hands of the Nazi soldiers as well as preserve evidence of the tragic historical record, Ross buried the negatives. ‘I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy,’ he recalls. Ross returned to unearth them after the war was over. To his astonishment, more than half of the original 6,000 were still intact. Even those that were destroyed by water tell their own stories.
More than 200 of those photographs are part of Memory Unearthed at The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. These previously unknown images document life in one of the many ghettos built by the Nazis to emphasize their hegemony. The centerpiece of the show is an album of contact prints, handcrafted by Ross himself. Shown in its entirety, the contact prints serve as Ross’s summation of his memories, capturing his personal narrative.
To bring context to the photographs, artifacts, including Ross’s own identity card, and ghetto notices are installed as part of the exhibition. A talented Polish Jewish photojournalist and a rare Lodz Ghetto survivor, Ross’s powerful photographs are moving, providing an intimate visual record of the Holocaust. One of the images shows a scrawny woman behind a barbed wire. As she walked by, a Nazi police intently watched her through the barbed wire.
In another image, several children are captured talking through a fence of central prison on Czarnecki prior to deportation. In continuation of that story, another photograph shows children been transported to the Chelmno Nad Nerem (renamed Kulmhof Death Camp) from Lodz Ghetto. What happened to children after they were deported to death camps are well documented in the history books. In 1924, nearly 20,000 Jews were deported to the death camp of Chelmno, and 70,000 more were sent to Auschwitz in 1944. Ross was one of the 877 lucky people that survived the Lodz Ghetto.
Ross died in 1991 in Canada where he lived the remainder of his life. He was 81 years old. In 2007, the Archive of Modern Conflict donated all of his negatives and contact prints to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto that organized this exhibition.