Lodz Ghetto Album brings together an extraordinary series of images for the first time, in a book made possible by the Archive of Modern Conflict, of which they form a part. Incarcerated in Lodz Ghetto, Poland, by the Nazis during the Second World War, Henryk Ross, a newspaper photographer before 1939, was employed by the Department of Statistics to produce identity shots and propaganda images. At the same time he risked his life to create this album, secretly documenting the deportations, starvations and other atrocities that took place there. When the Nazis began the liquidation of the ghetto in 1944 Ross buried his negatives, subsequently digging them up after the war. His photographs are reportage at its most raw and make gruelling and at times surprising viewing.
Selected by Timothy Prus, curator of the Archive of Modern Conflict, and Magnum photographer Martin Parr, these photographs are reproduced in their original state. Retaining the damage from their time in the ground, the unrepaired state of some of the photographs is a reminder of their role as historical documents; the simple, unshowy design of the book also allows these images to speak for themselves.
Cultural historian Robert Jan van Pelt provides an eloquent foreword and author Thomas Weber’s introduction explains the significance of Ross’s little-known collection, which comprises more than 3,000 negatives and other items, such as identity cards, posters and maps, reproduced with Weber’s text. Most interestingly, Weber revises the traditional history of this ghetto in the light of Ross’s photographs and suggests a reappraisal of his work. The collection is further supplemented by a chronology of the Lodz Ghetto, Chaim Rumkowski, Leader of the Jewish Council of Lodz’s gut-wrenching speech to its inhabitants in 1942 “Give me your Children” and Henryk Ross’s testimony at the trial of Adolf Eichmann after the war.
Lodz ghetto held up to a quarter of a million Jews during the years 1940-1944. This population was made up of Jews from Lodz and the surrounding countryside, along with deportees from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Luxembourg – people representing every spectrum of life. Put to work in such jobs as the manufacture of uniforms and shoes for the German army, food rations were inadequate to say the least and many starved to death. The population was further depleted by the deportations to what came to be known within the ghetto as the “frying pan” – the concentration camps such as Auschwitz. In 1944 what was left of the population was almost entirely liquidated by the Nazis.
Ross’s images are divided into two sections: public and private. The public pictures are the more familiar scenes recording the hardship and horror of ghetto life – released or from the same frames of those released by Ross in his lifetime. Inhabitants wrap up from the cold to take part in makeshift street trading. Children, their clothes muddy and torn, search for food in the ground. Hungry and anxious, a crowd waits in front of the soup kitchen.
A child falls down in the street from hunger grasping weakly at the frame of a window. In a blurred image, water damaged and pitted, a body hangs from the gallows in a snow covered square. Most shocking of all, illuminated by pale light, a pile of contorted bodies are heaped in a bath, their separated heads stored in a smaller box. This nightmarish scene almost takes your breath away. The reader then flicks back into pictures recording people at work, in the tailoring department in a factory, in the hospital kitchens and the ghetto police and those images of deportation, of people entering the ghetto and those leaving it for the camps.
The mood of the images changes radically with those included in the private section. Equally shocking in their own way they depict ghetto inhabitants joking around, laughing, loving – getting on with their lives under horrendous conditions. At times it is difficult to remember you are looking at a ghetto at all. In a private moment hidden among the leaves a couple kiss passionately, Ross’s wife Stefania basks on her back in the sun, a girl stands proudly amongst sunflower stalks and cabbages in a vegetable garden. Ghetto policeman – until recently, always depicted as collaborators and partners in Nazi barbarity – goof around, party and proudly display their families or pets. There are children playing and sitting smiling at table, one year after the majority of those in the ghettos had been deported. All these sitters seem smartly dressed – these are the privileged among the ghetto inhabitants, those with more money or holding official positions.
In subsequent years, Ross has been left out of the history of the Lodz ghetto – Weber suggests that survivors may have seen him as colluding with the Nazis by associating too closely with those more privileged members of the community. There is certainly a familiarity and ease in the sitters of the private images that suggests he was an accepted member of their group. This may be one reason for why he so carefully controlled the release of these photographs during his lifetime.
But Thomas Weber argues persuasively that to get a proper understanding of the experience of the ghetto all the information available needs to be addressed and it must not be forgotten that Henryk Ross, whatever his role, did risk his life to record some of his images. As Robert Jan van Pelt reminds us when seeing this hierarchy of the privileged surviving in the midst of the ghetto, it is a sobering thought to think that most were to perish, whatever their position, during the Holocaust. These images by Ross are probably best read as a testimony to human resilience and offer an important addition to our understanding of these inhumane times.