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 Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is currently home to a harrowing and courageous body of work by photojournalist Henryk Ross, a Polish Jew who took it upon himself to document the horrific conditions inside a ghetto during the Holocaust. The exhibition features Ross’ photographs as well as a collection of materials—posters, diaries, identification cards—from the Lodz Ghetto, the second-largest ghetto (after Warsaw) in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II.
Picked as a staff photographer by the Nazis, Ross was tasked with documenting the ghetto’s remarkable productivity; the community in Lodz survived for as long as it did (well into 1944) in part because its inhabitants were transformed into a profitable labor force. In between shooting portraits for identity cards and series on the ghetto’s output, however, Ross carefully and diligently captured the grim and horrific conditions in Lodz. This included the ghetto’s fecal workers—people tasked with moving human excrement, many of whom fell ill as a result of this awful labor—alongside shots of residents collapsing in the streets from hunger. These photographs are presented alongside scenes of daily life: images of children playing or couples caressing one another, each momentarily sweet, yet ultimately tragic as the brutal inevitability of their death hangs over the tableau.
The exhibition opens with a video of Ross and his wife, Stefania, testifying against Adolf Eichmann (one of the primary engineers behind the Holocaust) in 1961. In the video, the couple talk in detail about how they worked together to document life inside Lodz. “There was a curfew during selection [for deportation to the concentration camps],” Ross says. In order to capture photographs of this process, Ross would set himself up inside the house with his camera at the ready. At his wife’s signal, he swiftly opened the door and captured images of the selected people walking away. Listening to the couple talk, their fear—but also their resoluteness, even years later—is palpable.
We have the couple’s determination to thank for the existence of this important record; the story behind the survival of Ross’ negatives is almost beyond belief. When Ross received word that the Lodz ghetto was going to be liquidated and most of its inhabitants sent to concentration camps, he carefully packed his negatives in boxes and buried them in the ground. Remarkably, he was one of the 900 residents of Lodz who were kept behind to scour the ghetto after most of its inhabitants had been removed.
The ghetto was then liberated by the Russian Red Army in January 1945. Ross and his wife returned to Lodz that year to unearth the negatives, and they found that more than half of the original 6,000 had survived. “I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy,” Ross said after the war. “I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry. I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.”
The final image in the exhibition (as well as the cover of this article) is a print of two similar negatives that have been warped and partially obscured by their years in the ground. In it, a crowd of people selected for the concentration camp walk to their death. The image is bisected by a violent black distortion that cuts down the middle of the print. It’s hard to convey how brutal, almost savage, this feels in person, or the depth of the inky black film.
At a glance, it brings to mind fire and smoke—but also a dark chasm, a yawning void that threatens to eat away at the image that remains. It’s a powerful ending to an equally remarkable exhibition.
If you’re interested in seeing more of Henryk Ross’s photographs from the Lodz Ghetto, you can visit the photographic archive here. For more information on the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, see the exhibition’s website.