Episode 20: Memory Unearthed: Henryk Ross’s Photos of the Lodz Ghetto
VOICE 1: Since I was young, I followed the story about the Nazi concentration and, you know, how they exterminated the Jews? I… amongst all the photos that I’ve seen here, these are the actual ones that, you know, capture their life before that.
VOICE 2: I mean, these people are actually doing things and engaged in activities of, like, every day living. So I think there’s a more human, more personal touch here.
VOICE 3: I guess I’m still… fascinated and repelled at the same time, of the fact of these, of the people trying to make it in these horrible conditions. You could still see the dignity on the faces of many of these people. There was one wall that was especially revealing, of all of the children and the adults, uh, and you had glimpses of what might have been. And you saw that dignity, and you saw the caring and the emotion and the tenderness. It’s just overwhelming.
VOICE 4: It’s like there’s a risk to objectivity. Because we lose the face of humanity. And, what’s that expression, those who are not versed in history are doomed to repeat it?
VOICE 5: It needs to be told, over and over and over again, because people will never learn. [chokes up] I get very emotional. This needs to be told.
There is a photograph hanging on the wall, three galleries into the archive of Henryk Ross’s images of the Lodz Ghetto. It’s in a room titled Deportation, and this photo is one of many that tell the story, one moment at a time, of the increasing emptiness of a ghetto being liquidated. The photograph is of a boy in the back of a truck, about to be taken away. And he’s smiling. Because a camera is on him, and even amidst the chaos of the liquidation and the anxiety of the unknown, what do you do when a camera is on you? You smile.
To us, this is horrifying. We know that this boy is about to be taken to Chelmno extermination camp. We know, or at least can guess, how close this boy’s life is to being over, and we know exactly how it is going to end. And this is painful information to have. We didn't ask to know what he doesn't. We sit here, in the present, with all the benefit of historical reconstruction, and look at someone who seems, to us, almost naïve. And yet, this is still his moment, not ours. This is not a story about the Holocaust, or the six million, and we’re not looking at a textbook. It’s a snapshot. It’s a story. It’s a boy, whose future is yet unwritten, smiling for the camera.
We tend not to think about the fact that when we walk into an exhibition devoted to photographs taken in the Lodz Ghetto from 1940-1944, we have certain expectations of what we’re going to see, of what a Holocaust photograph is. But of course we do. It’s the Holocaust, and it’s ubiquitous, and we live in a world with the History Channel. And we know it’s going to be disturbing. The iconic, grainy black and white photos of concentration camp liberations imprint themselves on your brain.
They are photos of volume and facelessness, of grotesque piles of skeletal bodies without any sense of individuality, and therefore elicit the same reaction to us as they must have to the liberators – not who are these people, but who could do such a thing, how could this have happened. We anticipate revulsion and horror and shielding young eyes until they’re deemed old enough to process it, as if we ever really get to that place. And we also expect that photography, the most powerful and immediate storytelling device that we have, to be objective. Documentary photographs document, which implies a certain amount of accuracy, of truth. It implies that the story being told is the story, not the story as told by a storyteller. But you can see where I’m going here. All storytelling is of course subjective. Every storyteller, and every photographer, has made choices. They all give you a point of entry, a guiding path. Every narrative is, in some form or another, constructed.
And consenting to this fact means complicating many of the stories of the Holocaust that we’ve accepted into our culture as gospel, without considering the role that our need for a good story has played. There is a reason, for example, that you’re probably not all that familiar with the Lodz ghetto, but have heard of the Warsaw ghetto. It’s not just a question of the size of the ghettos, although Warsaw was larger, in fact the largest ghetto in German-occupied territory. But Lodz was the second-largest – at its peak it housed more than 160,000 people – and, like Warsaw, it was its own city within a city. It housed industry and hospitals and schools and a police force, albeit in increasingly deplorable conditions. It was overseen by a Judenrat, a Jewish Council of ghetto inhabitants that acted like local government, enforcing Nazi policies while running things as best it could under the circumstances.
But the overarching reason the Warsaw ghetto is more famous is because it’s synonymous, in the eyes of the history, with a heroic story of resistance. The Lodz ghetto, on the other hand, is a story of heart-rending compliance.
And the fact that the Warsaw ghetto is by far the better known of the two hammers home how much we need stories of resistance. The Warsaw ghetto uprising, no matter how unsuccessful it ultimately proved to be at the time, plays a deeply important role within the narrative of the Holocaust. We need cracks of light into the darkness. We need to know that people fought back, and that millions of people didn't walk blindly into their own destruction, and that millions of observers didn’t just stand by and watch.
Stories like the Warsaw uprising, the fishermen of Denmark, Oskar Schindler, allow us to keep going, otherwise it would be too dark to see, and we couldn't continue forward. But when these stories are the ones that get the most attention, we run the opposite risk, believing that resistance was normal, or expected, when the truth is that, in the grand scheme of things, these resistance stories are painfully few. Most people were understandably unwilling to risk their own lives or their family’s lives for an abstraction, or a neighbor they didn’t know very well, who suddenly no longer lived next door. Most victims were unaware of what awaited them, and saw compliance as the safest option. And moving away from these hopeful cracks of light leaves us in, what the Italian writer Primo Levi described, as the gray zone.
Levi had survived Auschwitz and went on to write some of the most poignant and honest stories from his experience of the Holocaust before committing suicide in 1987. The gray zone was, to him, the unnerving place where no one is completely a hero and no one is completely a villain, but one where threats are issued, orders are followed, and human beings realize how vulnerable they are to barbarism, both on the giving and receiving end, when their survival is threatened. Man evades our judgment in the gray zone, Levi argues, “just as a compass goes wild at the magnetic pole.” And you can imagine, the stories in the gray zone aren’t redemptive. The lack of heroism and a defined enemy leaves them feeling inert, and hopeless. They don’t give us the light we need to keep going. But they are, as Levi writes, the most authentic. And the most relatable. They are the ones that cut through the abstract statistic of six million and open us back up to the humanity that was lost.
So now let’s dive more deeply into the story of the Lodz ghetto. The story of Lodz is unique – despite its central location in the town of Lodz, it was tightly sealed off, meaning that there was little opportunity to smuggle, either goods or information. It was one of almost a thousand ghettos in Nazi-occupied territory, established only a few short months after the Germans had occupied Poland in September of 1939. But what made the Lodz ghetto particularly exceptional was its productivity. The town of Lodz had been a thriving textile producer before the war, which was seized and capitalized upon by the installed head of the Jewish Council, and one of the most polarizing figures in the Holocaust, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski. Under Rumkowski’s leadership, the ghetto established more than 120 factories, and produced handsomely for the German war effort as a strategy that would, he believed, secure their survival. The phrase, “work is the way!” is attributed to Rumkowski, with the belief that if they could just keep the ghetto alive, productive, and indispensable, that he could prevent deportations and keep as many people alive as possible.
It calls to mind the phrase that is now so indelibly linked to the Holocaust, written in iron over the entrances to the concentration camps: arbeit macht frei, or work will set you free. We know now how disturbing that phrase is, how delusional and complicit, and we want to call out a warning not to fall for it. At the time, of course, there was no reason not to believe it. The ghetto had to stay functional for as long as possible. Which meant that when the first orders came for a deportation of 55,000 people, Rumkowski complied, because even as people were sacrificed, the ghetto remained alive.
This is why the narrative, the story, of Chaim Rumkowski proves so tricky. An acquiescent sucker who thinks he’s a savior is too pitiful and unredemptive to make for a good story. Instead, it just makes us uncomfortable. History has spent a lot of energy condemning Rumkowski, and by all accounts, it’s true that he was not a good man. He had been a businessman before the war, as well as the head of a Jewish orphanage, which was described at the time as more self-serving than charitable. Most disturbingly, he was said to have had an “unhealthy” interest in children, which was confirmed by stories of survivors after the war. Within the walls of the ghetto, he was a megalomaniac, a dictator, the “King of the Jews,” whose image was printed on ghetto currency and stamps, who rode through the streets in a horse-drawn carriage, who quashed dissent with Nazi help, and who routinely cooperated with the Nazis, seeing himself - wrongly - in the words of Primo Levi, “not as a servant but as a lord.”
The defining moment of his narrative came in 1942, the second wave of deportations, when Rumkowski, determined as ever to keep the ghetto alive and producing, made the decision to fill the requested quota of 20,000 with children.
The speech that he delivered to the mothers of Lodz, now infamously referred to as the “give me your children” speech, hung as heavy with noxious self-pity as sat his crown. He was the victim here, don’t you see? It was his anguish that needed to be acknowledged, burdened as he was to comply, burdened with an impossible ask that would, in his mind, ensure the continuation of the ghetto’s industry.
History has used this speech to solidify Rumkowski’s monstrosity. More specifically, it’s used as a point of contrast with the head of the Warsaw Jewish Council, Adam Czerniaków, and Rumkowski comes off much the poorer for it. Because when Czerniaków was faced with a similar dilemma to sacrifice children, and chose instead to commit suicide. And that’s how narratives work: Czerniaków is hailed as an honorable martyr, while Rumkowski is vilified. But Rumkowski also inhabits this gray zone; Levi cites him as a prime example of it. He was a flawed man in a plainly impossible situation, forced to carry out the will of the perpetrators even as they toyed with him, and even as he thought he could control the outcome. And despite the reprehensible decisions he made regarding the deportations, or perhaps because of them, the Lodz ghetto did stay alive longer than all the others – a full two years longer. And during this time, a respite from deportations only strengthened the belief that work was the way to survive. And he almost pulled it off. Had the remaining 70,000 ghetto occupants survived only a few months longer, Rumkowski might have been remembered as a hero. But we know that is not the case. The ghetto was liquidated in 1944, Rumkowski was murdered by Lodz Jews as soon as he arrived in Auschwitz, and the Lodz ghetto is now, again, in the eyes of history, an unredemptive and unsung story of compliance.
In the end, only 877 of the original ghetto inhabitants survived, and only because they were ordered to stay behind as a clean-up crew in the aftermath of the liquidation. One of them was Henryk Ross.
So who was Henryk Ross? Who was he as a man, and who was he in light of the narrative that he inhabits, and that he constructed? As a man, he was a citizen of Lodz, a Jewish photojournalist who had been hired by the ghetto bureau of statistics, and was therefore exceptionally fortunate to have been issued a camera. Ross was crucial to creating both the narrative that the Nazis, and Rumkowski, wanted to be told, albeit for very different reasons: the Nazis wanted propaganda of healthy, robust people thriving in the ghetto to eclipse the deplorable and continually deteriorating conditions in reality. Rumkowski, meanwhile, wanted these same healthy, robust people to exemplify the work ethic of Lodz industry. To that end, beyond the ID photos that Ross was hired to take, we see photos of textile production, mattresses-stuffers, bread haulers, seamstresses, and, in the final gallery, a tremendous wall of lovely, unnervingly normal portraits. Men cutting fine professional figures, women with gorgeous 1940s hairdos, newlyweds, mothers holding up their pudgy babies, all identifiable as “Holocaust” photographs only because of the six-pointed star sewn onto their jackets.
We also see the non-industrial work of the ghetto: sanitation workers who ultimately fell victim to typhus, pushing massive drums of feces with bare, blackened feet; or children digging up potatoes with their bare hands to augment the meager food rations. And incredibly, they’re all smiling too. Because terrible circumstances tend to bring out the humor and acknowledgement of the absurdity of it all, which is reinforced by the fact that there’s a camera on them. And what do you do when a camera is on you? You mug. You smile.
There is also a series of candid photographs by Ross taken, at great personal risk, from hip level, from beneath his coat. These photos are brazen acts of resistance, the ones that that overtly heroic, that could have easily gotten him killed. These are the photos that give him an opportunity to shape the Lodz narrative for the history books. And we recognize these kinds of photos; they’re the ones that we were expecting. Images of slow starvation, images of deportation, of tight quarters, of emptying out, all taken from surreptitious vantage points. But as important as it was to have this tremendous archive that bore witness to Nazi atrocities – and Ross was in fact called upon to testify at the Nuremberg trials in 1946 – his gift as a storyteller wasn’t the moments for the history books. It’s the boy smiling on the back of a truck. It’s the reminder that these are human beings, and that this is actual human history, not people posing for Holocaust photos.
And that’s when I think back to that lovely wall of those normal portraits. In the course of the exhibition, it’s presented at the end, but out of sequence, chronologically – 1940 and 1941, when the ghetto inhabitants were still healthy, still alive. These portraits are an act of resistance too. Quieter, perhaps, and just as meaningful. Because they resist our expectations of those expected Holocaust photos, those photos of death, of volume, of facelessness, and replace them with photos of life, individuality, specificity, the future that is yet unwritten. A future unburdened by the knowledge that we have. I’ll be honest, I have a really, really hard time looking at those camp liberation photos, at those bodies, not just because it feels voyeuristic and exploitative, but because they freak me out. They quicken my pulse. I see them behind my eyelids when I try to go to sleep. But these portraits on this wall calm me – the warmth, the soft light, the shy smiles, the eye contact with the camera. I could stare at them all day. And I feel privileged to, to be able to return their gaze so many years after their deaths.
As far as the hero narrative goes, Henryk Ross was exceptionally brave. Knowing the incredible value of these images, as artistry, legacy, and as evidence, he buried the negatives in the ghetto in an iron canister in 1944, and then, after surviving the liquidation, returned to unearth them after the war. Miraculously, more than half of the 6,000 images survived. An act like this alone makes him a hero for the books. But there’s something else, too. That quieter something, that brings his heroics down to a more human level. Because Ross was a beautiful, gifted photographer. He captured the essence of these people. He didn’t save a single life, he didn’t rescue a single person, but with these photos, he restores their dignity. He saves them from the narrative of being born to die in the Holocaust, and instead, allows them to just be people. To just be normal. And they are. Look at them. They gaze at their spouses, they hold up their babies, they look into their unwritten futures, and they smile for the camera, in perpetuity.
The exhibition, Memory Unearthed, is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston until July 30, 2017.
Special thanks to Ben Avishai, and the intrepid museum-goers at the museum of Fine Arts, Boston, who were so generous with their time as I interrupted them in the galleries. For more information, past episodes, and all of the images, go to the Lonely Palette.com, or you can follow us on Twitter, @Lonelypalette, or on Instagram @thelonelypalette, or like us on facebook, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.