An Insider's View of the Lodz Ghetto: the Photos of Henryk Ross

Lodz Ghetto, photo: Henryk Ross

Henryk Ross (1910-1991), a photographer appointed by the Jewish Council in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, took thousands of photographs documenting life in the ghetto. Kate Barrette has more on an exhibition displaying a selection of the Lodz photos, which are being shown for only the second time.

"Well, my name is Slesinger. I went to Lodz in 1941, together with other Jewish people from Prague. There were five transports, and we were in the second transport. I was 17 then, and I am 80 now. I was with my father and mother, and only I survived."

Vera Slesinger was one of 5,000 Czech Jews sent to the Lodz Ghetto in Poland during the Second World War. Only 227 Czech Jews survived the experience and returned to Bohemia.

She and three other Czech Holocaust survivors were speaking about their experiences at Langhans Galerie Praha which is holding a special exhibit of photos on the Lodz Ghetto.

Dagmar Cujanova works at the gallery. She talked about the importance of showing the Lodz images in Prague:

"It's a good opportunity to commemorate Czech Jews' suffering there. It's also very important because Czech people don't know much about Lodz. Almost nobody knows that so many Czech Jews went there."

The exhibit's black and white photos depicting life in the ghetto were taken by Henryk Ross. Ross was a Polish Jew born in 1910 in Warsaw. He was forced, like thousands of others, to move to the ghetto. But his experience was unusual. The ghetto's Jewish Council appointed him as an official photographer for the statistics department between 1940 and 1945.

In 1987, four years before his death, Ross wrote:

"Having an official camera, I was secretly able to photograph the life of the Jews in the ghetto. Just before the closure of the ghetto in 1944 I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy, namely the total elimination of the Jews from Lodz by the Nazi executioners. I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry. I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom."

After the war, Ross returned to the same spot and dug up the 6,000 negatives.

The Langhans Galerie exhibit displays 50 of the 3,000 images that survived. Many of the photos are painfully sad and familiar - Holocaust scenes depicting executions, deportations, and mass starvation. Ms. Cujanova talks about one particularly disturbing photo of a truck, entitled 'Gas 1.'

"So this is Gas 1, which is a car in which people went to Chelmno. It was a town near to Lodz. And during the way they were killed by the gas, which went not out of the car but inside."

Many of the photos depict the horror and tragedy of life in Lodz. They are images we have seen in history books and documentaries on the Holocaust.

The other half of the photos are strikingly unfamiliar within this context. There are pictures of well-dressed children playing, of a grandmother joyfully hugging her grandson, of a wedding reception. They look like pictures from any family photo album, showing human love, laughter and intimacy. But if you look closely, you see that all of these family members wear yellow stars on their clothes.

These photos show the small minority of Jews in the ghetto who occupied positions in the Jewish Council or its administration. They were the elite of the ghetto - and as a result, fared relatively well when compared to the mass of starving inmates.

Timothy Prus is the curator for the Archive of Modern Conflict in London, which now holds the Ross photo collection. He has been working closely with the photos over the last ten years, and has just edited a book on Ross' work called Lodz Ghetto Album.

"Well, I was immediately struck by how much of the material didn't conform to the images that we were used to, the images that had been published in other books about the Holocaust up until that point. I realized they were obviously something very interesting, but it took me a long time to make sense of them and to contextualize them properly, and that process is still going on, as time unfolds, the meanings in some ways become clearer."

Mrs. Slesinger said these photos were difficult for her to accept. She never saw these people or these kinds of scenes when she was in the ghetto.

"It was very difficult for me to accept it. On the one hand I was happy about this exhibition, because here most people went to Terezinstadt, so people didn't know anything about the Lodz Ghetto, so I was glad this exhibition is here. But then I saw the photographs, so I was so shocked, that it really took me a long time to cope with it, I would say."

Mrs. Slesinger talked about one of the photos in the exhibit, that of a young Jewish boy dressed in a police uniform. He is holding a stick in his hand and is playing with another boy.

"I was so shocked. First of all, I never saw people, never saw children so well fed, so well dressed. And I thought my God, what could the parents in the photograph, what thoughts could they have, to arrange such a scene, and to let the boys play like that? It's one thing that I simply can't get over, although I always say that it's not their fault - they were the victims even so."

Chris Boot is the publisher of Lodz Ghetto Album, from which the selection of photos for the exhibition was made.

"He used his camera to go out and document atrocities, risked his life to record things he thought the world should know about, while also getting on and photographing probably for people's private albums at the time, weddings and gatherings and the social life of mainly the administration staff, and they end up being some of the most poignant photographs of all. Of course we know that nearly everybody recorded in these photographs, died in Auschwitz or one of the other death camps of the Holocaust, so they become these incredibly rare and precious things that you can't help responding to."

The photos at the exhibit are moving from many different perspectives. Both the historical content and the artistic quality of the photos are striking. Mr. Boot discusses these two elements.

"Well, if you work in photography, you're always interested in single bodies of work that function at a variety of levels and I think this is an extraordinary and extremely important collection, because of what it shows. It is arguably the most extensive single collection by any single photographer on any aspect of the Holocaust. It's the work of a really good photographer, the guy had a photographic vision, and there's a quality to the work which makes the images incredibly fresh to experience today."

While the negatives lay buried in the ground of the Lodz Ghetto, they had to fight to survive. Water crept in and damaged many of the photos. But observers, like Ms. Cujanova and others, agree that the water damage you see when looking at the photographs, in the form of black rings and splotches around faces and families, adds to the overall meaning of the pictures.

"It makes the pictures even stronger when the damage to the photos is not repaired, because this feeling of damage, in connection with portraits of people who were shortly afterwards killed, is really a strong combination."

You can see Ross' photos at Langhans Galerie Praha and attend the accompanying programme until February 19. After this, the photos will travel to Amsterdam, Milan and Lodz. See for more information.