Cruel Tragedies, Consoling Pleasures
Among the handful of prints and 3,000 surviving negatives produced by the attentive eye and determined mind of Henryk Rozencwaijg-Ross in the Lodz Ghetto from 1940 to 1945, there are images that are hard to blot out once seen. In their expressiveness, heightened by blights and swirls on the surfaces of the degrading film emulsions, these once-buried images evoke a palpable sense of reality. Each is more than an isolated frame: even if marked with trace damages, it is a moment in history—and all of these images belong somewhere in our collective consciousness. In Ross’s images, which transcribe a chain of events in the ghetto, one sees grace and anguish, hope and suffering, productivity and devastation. Looking at these photographs leads to a subjective “reading,” not simply because we are familiar with other photographic documentation of grievous world events, but because the indelible scenes Ross captured evoke visual and emotional responses. Their immediacy—a connecting experience—urges us to respond, inciting an outcry over the cruel tragedy inflicted on the Jewish community, with so few consoling moments.
A photograph’s affiliation to the real world is demanding: it asks the viewer to locate its full meaning in reality. Its key connection is its reflection of the world—a vital point of view, whether objective or subjective. A photograph forms traces of the world, delineating and pausing that reality. Critics have questioned the integrity of social documentary photographs, condemning them as unreliable objects that espouse social and political values and despairing the lack of aesthetic originality that stems from photography’s “mechanization.” But this is a polemical debate rather than an illuminating or progressive perspective.1 Such critiques overlook the value of the photographer’s inspiration—the careful effort taken to capture a well-defined moment—and one can only attribute this antipathy to the extraordinary power photographs actually possess. Of the many ways to read a photograph—to catalogue, to identify, to interpret—it is perhaps subjectivity that is its most potent quality. And its most oddly feared: photographs are “biased” and therefore considered unreliable witnesses.
A photograph is a point of view. The distinct freedom of the medium suggests that photography’s role may be not to reproduce unbiased, unvarnished reality, but rather to provide viewpoints that form layers in our consciousness, imaginations and memories. For some, a photograph is the only thing—a surrogate—left over from a once-felt reality. In that light, it cannot be anything but subjective. Photographs are very fragile objects, in both their analytical capacity and material source—a certain fact of Ross’s negatives. His images, we discover, are as complex as they are persuasive. Their survival foregrounds Ross’s original intent: to reveal a remarkable narrative, and to ensure that the tragic reality of the Jews in Lodz is never forgotten. This was his endeavour.
Looking at two scenes from Ross’s photography, we see how unyielding images can be in specifics, and yet how their focus propels us to probe. A photograph of a group of shabbily clothed children, twenty or more, crammed into the kind of dilapidated wooden wagon used by poor farmers in hayfields (p. 126), is pervaded by an unsettling atmosphere. The sun casts a strong light on the huddled children, most of whom have their backs turned or are peering over the sides of the wagon. Only one young boy, wearing a threadbare sweater marked with a tattered Star of David, fully faces Ross’s camera: his squint and apprehensive smile do not fail to connect with the viewer. He may be seeking acknowledgement from Ross, he may be bewildered and afraid, he may have been told to be courageous, but clearly he is without parents and very much on his own. Pulling this heavy load through an empty stone street, the horse appears bedraggled—too many loads already? Ahead, a similar wagon is disappearing in the late-afternoon shadow. To the right, a neatly dressed figure, perhaps a strapping youth, appears to have just stepped into the picture, wearing the mandatory Star of David on his right shoulder: he is a Jew who, like the children, must wonder about the wagon’s destination. Where is it going?
The photograph never tells, but its thought-provoking substance leads to discovery and consideration. Ross was engaged in capturing the consequences of the Gehsperre (deportation) announced by the German administration officials. On September 4, 1942, Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski, Elder of the Jewish Council in the Lodz Ghetto, called on ghetto parents to give up their children under the age of ten for “resettlement.”2 Nearly 17,000 young, sick and elderly Lodz residents were removed from the ghetto and murdered in the gas vans of Chełmno nad Nerem (which had been renamed Kulmhof). Ross’s photograph does not show their deaths, but it communicates the ordeal experienced by innocent Jewish children at the hands of the Nazi perpetrators. Years later, Ross included this image in a series of “The most tragic victims...”3 but said no more about it, implicitly connecting the photograph to an abhorrent reality: the Nazi regime’s agenda of extermination.
Ross was open-eyed to life and events in the ghetto. At about the same time he witnessed the evacuation of the children, he photographed a “family portrait” series that elicits a starkly different awareness (pp. 58–59). These images reveal Ross’s photographic versatility: the sequence of husband, wife and infant is emphatically composed to reveal tenderness and loving interaction. Taken outdoors, presumably in a back garden, all four images centre on a cherished, well-bundled child, but this emotional series also conveys a haunting aura. Photographs remind us to ask questions. What is revealed by this family union? Or, alternatively, how can one extrapolate from existing knowledge to cast this moment in a different moral light? Does the fact that thousands of children were torn from their homes call into question the conscience of this family, still united within the context of these harrowing events?
On the other hand, the scene may hold another revelation: the family could be struck by fearful anticipation. As few parents volunteered their offspring to the Jewish police, the German Gestapo stepped in to fulfil the quota for children. Ross may have captured this family in a moment of consolation, not adoration. The husband seems to be a member of the Judenrat (Jewish Council)’s empowered police force, yet we are not certain he is protected. The man lovingly touches his infant’s chin; his policeman’s hat obscures his face and expression, and also hides his wife, who may be whispering into his ear. This is an affectionate emotional moment, but the series also shows the mother clutching the child—fiercely—and placing an adoring kiss on the infant, who seems singularly still. Ultimately, this scene may be a drama of loss—or impending loss. The ghetto’s Nazi administration was determined to implement their quotas for “resettlement” to the fullest. In the face of their relentless numbers, deportation to the death camp was a threat for everyone, regardless of social strata.
Photographs are ambiguous; these 1942 images depict experiences that only Ross can claim. They may not tell the viewer a full story, but they are nevertheless potent documents that convey extraordinary pathos, and, significantly, emotional veracity: the anxieties are palpable. Social documentary photography is often an expression of both the intellectual and the sensory. It rarely strays far from the real world, tugging at one’s conscience where social and political struggles persist. Less than two years after Ross took these photographs, on August 2, 1944, a new order to all Lodz residents announced the final liquidation of the ghetto. Tens of thousands of people boarded trains to Auschwitz-Birkenau. If any “protected“ families survived to experience tender moments like the ones Ross captured in 1942, these were merciful exceptions.
In his introduction to The Art of Social Conscience, Peter Selz discusses the value of art as an expression of morality, stating that humanity must essentially be learned and fought for, and that it is “often the artist [who] becomes the individual in whom the struggle manifests itself, the man in revolt against accepted values, and the guardian of nonconformity.”4 Selz suggests that works of art can help alleviate humankind’s alienation, and act as instruments to achieve greater freedom and dignity. Historically, we are aware, many artists have expressed empathy by depicting expressions of inhumanity in imagery critical of social and political affairs; long before Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes’s etchings of The Disasters of War, the biting social satire and graphics of Honoré Daumier and George Grosz, and John Heartfield’s satirical anti-fascist collages, pictorial responses condemned adverse social injustices perpetrated on the disadvantaged. This too was Ross’s mission.
Photography, more than any other form of visual expression, has facilitated candid points of view on ideological and cultural values, which allow the probing of social ideals. Photographs inform meaningful perspectives, often revealing a magnitude of evidence and critically accounting for the extraordinary by way of prolonged observation and participation. Images of wars, disasters and other horrors have the capacity to bring to our attention content that could only be experienced via these startling surrogates. A photograph is never the ultimate experienced reality, but rather a temporal transcription in which to place some trust—“a pause in the clock,” as expressed by Michel Lambeth, a photographer whose social conscience had equal empathy with Ross’s depictions of daily struggles in the ghetto.5
And as much as Ross, who referred to himself humorously as “sometimes hiding from the Germans and, if necessary, at the top of a ladder” (fig. 1),6 witnessed with his camera, he also responded creatively to his situation as a professional photographer and a graphic artist. Though his surviving images were transformed by the ground, they are still laudable touchstones of inspiration, complexity and authenticity. Ross intuitively reveals the spectrum of life in the ghetto, documenting the complex contingencies of daily existence and using his direct experience to increase our understanding. Goya, on one of his war depictions, adds the caption “Yo lo vi”—“I saw this”—to evoke a sense of reality. Just as earnestly, Ross’s photographs provide us with visual observations that reveal the reality of his experience.
Henryk Ross’s photography clearly represents his “I saw this” point of view of incarceration in Lodz. The work is a testament to what Paul von Blum, in an essay on concentration camp art, refers to as “the resiliency of the human spirit.” Von Blum sees this work as both complex and bewildering, in that the most adverse conditions somehow provoke extraordinary intellectual artistic responses.7 Forty-two years after his precarious existence in the ghetto, Ross said he felt the need to preserve “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 did it knowing that if I were caught my family and I would be tortured and killed.”8 The images Ross captured with his camera delineate the grim conditions in the ghetto: we see stricken faces awaiting “resettlement,” unknowing or perhaps fully aware of their fate. We see blurred people, like walking shadows on the street—ill, hungry, falling, hopeless. We see the catastrophe of the everyday everywhere. These images are often at odds with Ross’s professional standard, but responding spontaneously to moments was more meaningful to him than camera control.
Of course, Ross saw much more than tragedy; having worked for picture agencies, he sought out other stories, “happier moments” for his camera to capture. He found such moments in the outlying area of Marysin, where one might not feel the heavy weight of daily ordeals, assaults and devastation. Here, he photographed children, women, men and families. It is evident Ross worked closely with his subjects, developing playful sequences, employing stylistic innovations and posing subjects among greenery, not only to make these photographic moments pleasurable, but also to imbue them with grace, dignity and a sense of self-worth. Ross’s subjects must have consented to this exercise of his auteur skills, as some of these compositions would have required great patience. Ross’s wife, Stefania, clearly his constant muse, is seen in more than forty studies.
In this process of aspiring to create a comprehensive visual account, Ross captured the fuller arc of survival in the ghetto. Working against extraordinary odds, he photographed what he knew and the places he could access. Simultaneously, he performed the tasks required of an official photographer; along with Mendel Grossman and Lejb Maliniak,9 Ross worked for the Jewish administration’s Statistics Department, which was officially controlled by the ghetto’s German authority, Hans Biebow. Ross’s earliest task was to take identification photographs for work permits (fig. 2). Anticipating the need to stockpile film, he devised a clever technique: he would record several subjects in the same image, then crop to individual faces. He also systematically documented the industrial productivity of the Jewish labour force: the successful textile workshops, the production of shoes from raw leather, and the process of assembling mattresses by filling them with wood shaved as fine as wool. Rumkowski had essentially transformed the ghetto into a slave labour camp, exploiting Jewish workers to carry out his “survival of the fittest” plan in an abysmally crumbling ghetto, yet he wanted to portray the labouring populace with a gloss of “normalcy” to please the ruling Nazi management officials. For these “official” documentary assignments, Ross used his training as a photojournalist to tell compelling stories: he carefully composed frames featuring engaged workers in various stages of production to support Rumkowski’s peremptory motto, “Unser Weg ist Arbeit” (“Our way is work”).10
Even under the siege of strict regulations and posted demands (fig. 3), Ross and his colleagues managed to document the ghetto’s daily unfolding. Ross photographed relentlessly on rolls of 35mm film, mixing his range of subjects: alongside the official documentation, he also recorded overcrowding, dismal living conditions, disease, empty soup kitchens, starvation and death. Remarkably, Ross and his fellow photographers, along with scholars, artists, writers and poets living in the ghetto, managed to produce the Lodz Ghetto Chronicle, which now serves as a historical record of official data, correspondences, news, graphics and photographs.11 Postal worker Nachman Zonabend played a significant role in preserving many of these documents and images after the ghetto’s liberation in 1945.12
On December 8, 1941, anticipating that photographs would no longer show the ghetto in an ideal light, Rumkowski curtailed photography, except to document “official” occasions. The distinction between official, private and personal was malleable, however, and both Ross and Grossman kept taking satisfying “show” pictures for Rumkowski. One series shows Grossman posing with a portrait of a German officer (fig. 4)—a perfect foil to veil the photographers’ prohibited recording of ghetto-life miseries. Grossman photographed until the 1944 mass deportations, often using his camera in the open, without any interference from the Jewish Police. Ross similarly documented many deportations, even taking photographs at the Radogoszcz (renamed Radegast) station—Lodz residents’ gateway to the Chełmno death factory—which was off-limits.13 Ross and Grossman both risked their lives many times by using their cameras when the Gestapo or German guards were patrolling.
To ensure the visual memory of the Lodz was retained, both photographers gave prints to Zonabend for archiving and preservation. Grossman hid his negatives in his house; they later made their way to a kibbutz in Israel but were lost during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and Grossman himself died on way to the Königs Wusterhausen concentration camp in 1944.14 When the final liquidation of the ghetto was announced, Ross was selected to be part of the “clean-up crew” that emptied buildings and brought valuables to Biebow. (Ross later photographed Biebow’s trial, at which the former ghetto authority was found guilty and sentenced to death, fig. 5.) To preserve his photographic legacy, Ross packed his film rolls in a canister and buried the box in the ground at 12 Jagielonska Street.
In March 1945, following the ghetto’s liberation by the Red Army, Ross excavated his collection. Nearly half of the 6,000 negatives were blackened by moisture, and those with emulsions still intact were in various states of deterioration. This must have been a devastating moment for Ross, but, miraculously, many negatives were saved, and these are now preserved at the AGO. It is a challenge to reconstruct the surviving images, as Ross eliminated many degraded negatives and did not date rolls or provide descriptions of events or the names of his subjects; seeing himself as an employee, he was not diligent in attributing authorship to his prints.15 The lack of identification on Ross’s prints meant that when he provided them to the Chronicle and to Zonabend, his work and Grossman’s was often confused, and incorrectly attributed in subsequent reproductions.
When Ross immigrated with Stefania to Israel in 1956, he focused on rebuilding their lives and building a family. In 1961, he testified at the trial of Adolf Eichmann’s.16 This spurred him to disseminate his Lodz Ghetto documentation more widely; following the trial, he printed up some of his negatives, took hold of his copyright, and worked to produce the book The Last Journey of the Jews of Lodz (fig. 6).17 In 1987, more than four decades after the war, he organized contact prints selected from the surviving negatives into a remarkable “folio” (pp. 186–203). One would hope this assemblage would provide a lucid timeline of events, but Ross tells his narrative by renumbering frames and repositioning images, so the document is not particularly yielding. His “catalogue list,” also assembled at this time, features only a few specific captions, which often conflict with earlier comments appearing in The Last Journey of the Jews of Lodz. Ultimately, Ross did not restore the chronology of his collection. The creation of a purposeful archive would have required a great deal of time and energy, and it seems Ross believed his recollection of ghetto life was complete.
Negatives have material authority, and recent examination of Ross’s collection has revealed further information about his photographic practice. Had the whole body of negatives survived, it would have been easier to reconstruct the chronology of events based on film frame numbers, film brands, emulsion matches and the tell-tale marks of film processing, but of course much of Ross’s work was lost to the elements. Lindsay Bolanos has undertaken an in-depth study of the surviving Ross negatives, considering each negative as a primary document with “untapped capacity as a historical object.”18 She discovered that Ross used eleven different 35mm film stocks (ten cellulose nitrate film bases and one safety film), indicating that it was a challenge for him to acquire film consistently. By examining similar emulsion bases, Bolanos was able to unify certain sequences of subjects and their subsequent uses by Ross. This study has revealed significant information about Ross’s methodology, and made it possible to match negatives to unfolding events in the ghetto. Based on this evidence, one begins to discern that most of Ross’s documentation of the ghetto’s various services and administrative departments took place from 1940 to December of 1941. This period was no doubt traumatic for the Jews, who had to abandon their homes and occupy a zone hermetically sealed from the wider world, but there are also images of optimism and social celebration, as residents gather together for group portraits, willingly strike dignified poses and partake in Ross’s stylistic pictorial modes. Ross’s image content changes radically after 1941, when the deportations to Chełmno were accelerated.
A question about Ross’s work remains: why has this extensive collection received so little attention for so many years? Of the many images of the Holocaust released immediately after the war, the majority show the magnitude of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis. Liberation images taken at camps such as Auschwitz by allied military observers and established photojournalists (including Margaret Bourke-White and Lee Miller) show heaps of bodies, starved and sick prisoners, and the stark brutality perpetrated by the concentration camp authorities. These unsettling photographs served the news media effectively and took official status as memorable markers, becoming the “iconic” images of the Holocaust. There is something definite about pictures of death—a concluding statement. Horror is so evident in such images that they appear to speak for all the crimes of the Holocaust. At the time, there seemed to be no need to level further verdicts of guilt by also depicting the suffering in the ghettos; for the Allies rebuilding postwar Germany, it was politically problematic to mix national guilt with atonement, as many Germans were still in shock about the extent of the devastation.
Sadly, therefore, the prolonged suffering in the ghettos—and the images of it—did not garner immediate attention. The ghettos were places of despair and humiliation, and their story was depressing. The media was not eager to take up issues of poverty, hunger and disease, which had been played out in the Depression-era photographs of the 1930s and seemed oddly familiar. Atrocity was more flagrant. For the general public, photographs of ghetto life held little sway (with the exception of the Warsaw uprising), while testimonials and personal narratives more empathically reflected the shared emotional torment and memories of survivors. Having once worked for the ghetto’s Statistics Department, Ross would have been sensitive to the many emerging issues surrounding survival. His background would have made it difficult for some members of the survivor community to embrace his role as a documentarian, regardless of the significant risks he took to act as a conscientious photographer. Only when his photographs of the victims of Lodz Ghetto helped in the prosecution of Eichmann—the Nazi instigator of the worst evil perpetrated on Jews and their communities—did Ross gain the confidence to assemble his memories, reconstructing those that were the most meaningful to him.
At first glance, many of Ross’s images have the look of a settled existence, an air of normalcy. Looking closely, however, one notices the veiled theatrics of hope. For ghetto residents, the act of being photographed was a consoling experience amid the many degrading uncertainties: one could present a spirit—whatever one wanted to reveal—and there would be a record of one’s dignified existence. This relationship with the camera is evident even in the many workplace images, in which different individuals sit behind the same sparse work desk or in the same office with looks of self-importance. Surrounded by the bleakness of reality, ghetto residents desired to believe they had meaning and value; this turmoil is instilled in the photographic moments that Ross so successfully captured.
Photographs have the freedom of selectivity, but the fact that they are often mediated does not mean they fail to reveal a truth—and there is often more than one to discern in every moment. The Ross negatives authenticate many deep revelations, which seem to have been challenging for the photographer himself, who must have been searching among his memories for the heart of his story: one of resilience and commitment to remembering the Lodz Ghetto and its people. His courageous endeavour now offers future generations the chance to research a vital historical record and to locate valuable truths—the many truths that Ross’s negatives will unearth.
1 As photography in the 1970s was garnering unprecedented success in the art world, a number of influential critics contended that photographs—and specifically practices of documentary photojournalism—were deceptive. This discourse encompassed many critical positions, most a postmodern criticism of formalism that took issue with the medium’s reproducibility, lack of objectivity and originality, and ties to capitalist ideology. Roland Barthes, John Berger, Victor Burgin, Allan Sekula and Susan Sontag, among others, offered critical weight and fostered intellectual discourse on the theory and practice of documentary photography.
2 “Resettlement” was the word authorities used when moving Jews out of the ghetto—in theory, sending them to German labour camps, but in practice condemning them to extermination.
3 Henryk Ross, The Last Journey of the Jews of Lodz. (Tel Aviv: S. Kibel Publishingm 1962), 47–53.
4 Peter Selz, The Art of Social Conscience, (New York: Universe Books, 1976), Ix.
5 Michael Lambeth in Michel Lambeth, Photographer (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1998), 16; “The Pause in the Clock,” Exile, (Toronto: York University, 1974), vol. 1, no. 4.
6 From a statement by Henryk Ross, written as part of his “catalogue list” in Jaffa, Israel, dated 1987 (now at the Art Gallery of Ontario).
7 Paul von Blum, The Art of Social Conscience (New York: Universe Book, 1976), 165–184.
8 From a statement by Henryk Ross, written in Jaffa, Israel, dated 1987 (now at the Art Gallery of Ontario); translated in Łódź Ghetto Album: Photographs by Henryk Ross (London: Archive of Modern Conflict, 2004), 27.
9 Ross and Grossman are usually noted as the two official photographers of the Lodz Ghetto. Maliniak was brought to attention in research by Ingo Loose in The Face of the Ghetto: Pictures Taken by Jewish Photographers in the Litzmannstadt Ghetto, 1940–1944 (Berlin: Stiftung Topographie des Terrors, 2010), 28–30. Nachman Zonabend also notes the names of Borkowski and Rubiczek as colleagues in the Nachman Zonabend Collection, 1939–1944, RG 241, New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
10 Rumkowski instilled conflicting structures of favouritism in the Lodz Ghetto, and ultimately gambled on the worth of Jewish labour to the Germans authorities, believing he had the persuasive power to save Jews from deportation and certain death. He remains one of the most controversial figures to emerge in the history of the Holocaust.
11 The Lodz Ghetto Chronicle is preserved in the Lodz State Archive.
12 Along with Ross, Zonabend was chosen to be part of the ghetto “clean-up crew” that stayed behind after the final liquidation. His collection is now housed at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City.
13 In Łódź Ghetto Album, Ross recounts taking photographs at the Radogoszcz station, situated outside the ghetto boundaries, from which the Lodz Ghetto Jews were transported to Chełmno. Only workers for the station were allowed to enter; with their help, Ross locked himself in a store. From there, he was able to photograph deportation loadings through a hole, at great risk of being discovered. Łódź Ghetto Album, 87.
14 For a fuller discussion of Grossman, see Janina Struk, Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence (London: I.B. Tauris, European Jewish Publication Society, 2004).
15 During the halcyon days of photojournalism, in the interwar years in Europe, few photographers took matters of attribution seriously. As photojournalists were seen primarily as suppliers to press agencies, individual credits were not always recognized.
16 Memories of the Eichmann Trial, directed by David Perlov (Jerusalem: The Israeli Broadcasting Authority, 1979). The transcript is published in Łódź Ghetto Album, 150–156.
17 At this time, Ross stamped his prints with “Copyright/Foto Henryk ross/Tel-Aviv-Jaffo, 40276/Copyright Reserved...” and began to make designs for publications, many based on a deportation image of a young boy in a cap with a satchel.
18 Ross’s negatives, their dissemination and his practice are discussed in greater detail in Lindsay M. Bolanos, The Photographic Negative as a Historical Record: An analysis of the Henryk Ross Lodz Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto: Ryerson University and Art Gallery of Ontario, 2010).