Jewish photographer’s view of life in ghetto on exhibit at Illinois Holocaust Museum

Photography by Ian Lefebvre

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

The Nazis pulled at opposite ends in their own documenting of the Holocaust.

On one hand, they tried to bury the history of some of the worst of their crimes. Thus little film exists of Auschwitz’s daily operations, and other barbaric narratives in the concentration camps.

On the other hand, the Germans of the era were careful record-keepers, so good they booked dates with their own hangmen. Thus American Jew Ben Ferenz, at 27 the youngest of the Nuremberg War Crimes prosecutors, simply needed the SS’s own written chronicles of the Jews they killed — and not any eyewitness testimony — to convict the perpetrators of genocide.

Still another factor was at work. In the Lodz ghetto in Poland, the Germans themselves permitted one savvy Jewish photographer the tool he needed to record the Holocaust for posterity. They allowed Henryk Ross a camera, ostensibly on official assignment to document ghetto life and later identify the dead.

But neither the Germans nor the local Jewish administration assigned a minder or guard to Ross as he went about his rounds, clicking the shutter.  That allowed Ross an opening to accurately document his fellow Jews’ descent into a living hell.

Making matters worse for the guilty, Ross had the foresight to bury his film for possible recovery just as the Jews were being deported from the ghetto.

His good fortune in preserving history continued as he and new wife Stefania were chosen in a kind of mini-Schindler’s List in the late summer of 1944 to help clean up the ghetto and look for remaining valuables after all other Jews had departed.

Before they had completed their task, and thus themselves be deported and/or murdered, the advancing Soviets neared Lodz, prompting the German administrator and troops to flee. Ross and his wife survived, he retrieved the film and testified with photographic evidence at Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Israel in 1961.

Ross died in 1991 at 81. But his handiwork lives on in the traveling exhibit, “Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photograph of Henyrk Ross.” Nearly 300 of the images, including part of Ross’ own personal folio of his collection, will be on display from Sept. 22 to Jan. 12 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.

Under threat of execution if caught snapping unauthorized photos, Ross assembled more than 6,000 negatives of ghetto life – and death – that he eventually stashed away underground.  Some 3,000 negatives survived when he dug up his stash under Soviet control in March 1945.  He had not expected to survive, but was determined his photography would outlive him in the worst-case scenario.

“I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy,” Ross once said. “I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry. I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.”

His photos passed from Ross’ estate to the Museum of Modern Conflict in London, and finally into the hands of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.  Maia-Mari Sutnik, formerly head of collections now on emeritus status at the gallery, curated the original exhibit.  Sutnik and Judith Cohen, chief acquisitions curator of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, will lead a discussion at the opening ceremonies for “Memory Unearthed” from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22, at the Illinois museum.

Ross’ photographs have only been seen in general distribution in Chicago via fleeting TV images back in 1961. Six years before Israel launched its own TV service, top officials imported a videotape mobile unit to record the Eichmann trial for weekly programs in countries where TV was well-developed, such as the U.S. A half-hour Sunday afternoon show was aired on what is now WLS-TV (Channel 7).

Sutnik said half the images were damaged beyond repair by water – those on the outside of Ross’ film rolls.  The negatives on the inside of the rolls survived.  They are now digitized at the Toronto gallery.

The sketchy state of the Ross collection particularly appealed to Sutnik’s creative instincts.

“I’ve been a curator over 40 years,” she said.  “In terms of collections, I concentrated on material that was not necessarily maintained. Other museums go after (quality and award-winning) collections. I took an interest in material not deemed to be significant. I want to know what society was like, and how photography represented it.”

Sutnik and assistants put in a “good two-to-three years analyzing negatives. It was a pretty difficult process. It works on you in such a way, you have to put it aside for a week or two, and then go back to it. It took a while to think about how to construct it.”

Before the go-ahead for the “Final Solution” early in 1942, the Germans “liked to show Lodz as working community, to show the (supposed) prosperity of textile and leather-goods workers,” Sutnik said.

Several smiling images of Jewish families, including those of ghetto residents exiled from Germany and Luxembourg, are included in the exhibit. However, as Sutnik and crew examined the negatives, they realized these photos were from the ghetto’s early days, before the Germans decided to strip the Jews of possessions and cut food rations.

Eventually, as life in the ghetto dramatically deteriorated, one of Ross’ official duties was to photograph dead bodies. “People were dying in the streets and the Germans wanted to know who they were,” Sutnik said of his jailers’ craving for record-keeping.  Amid these crime-scene/morgue assignments, Ross was able to surreptitiously document many other depravations, such as actual deportations and workers hauling human waste out of the center of the ghetto.

When the ghetto eventually was liquated, some 800 Jews – including Henryk and Stefania — were kept behind by administrator Hans Biebow for cleanup duty, which included removing dead bodies from basements.

“Biebow wanted a spic-and-span operation,”” said Sutnik.  “Biebow, who was greedy, also thought Jews has been hiding goods, keeping them behind walls and other places.”

But when the Soviet advance grew closer, Biebow “just ran off,” said Sutnik, leaving his Jewish salvage crew behind, alive but not well.

Ross had the presence of mind to dig up his photo archive. This time, he kept it away from the Soviets, who certainly had a mixed record on documenting and prosecuting the Holocaust.

Attempts to pick up his photography work after the war ended were not too successful for Ross. However, he got the last word in via visual images. He documented the trial of Biebow, who was executed in 1947.

Moving to Israel, Ross designed the folio book “The Last Journey of the Jews of Lodz” after testifying at the Eichmann trial.

Ross’ exhibit is a groundbreaker in a way at the Illinois museum. “This is our first exhibition of a Jewish photographer who was under the Nazis’ control,” said Arielle Weininger, the museum’s chief curator of exhibitions and collections. Previously, photo displays have included the work of an American Jewish photographer documenting the travails of survivors in post-war Europe.  

“The amazing thing was Ross went back to his contact sheets and made for himself a folio over a number of years,” Weininger said.  “It was 17 pages, and 10 pages will be at museum. He cut out contact sheets and stuck them on the pages of a booklet.  That was Ross moving through his own thoughts and memories about what ghetto experiences were like.”

Other artifacts, including Ross’ identity card and ghetto notices,accompany the haunting images. Video footage of the Eichmann trial, where Ross testified with his photos, also will be shown.

The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, at 9603 Woods Drive in Skokie, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday nights until 8  p.m. For more information, visit www.ilholocaustmuseum.org or call 847/967-4800.

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