In March 1945, Henryk Ross—a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto—dug into the frozen ground near his home in Lodz and recovered canisters he had buried months before. Inside those canisters, which were placed in a wooden container sealed with tar, were 6,000 negatives of photographs he had taken over the course of almost five years in the Lodz Ghetto. About half of them were ruined and many of the others were in various states of deterioration.
Ross was one of two Jewish photographers in the Lodz Ghetto who worked for the Nazis in their Bureau of Statistics. Before the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939 and incarcerated him in the ghetto, Ross was a sports photographer. In the ghetto, Ross was authorized to take propaganda pictures of Jews working in textile and leather factories. But then at great personal risk, he captured an array of images—most of them heartbreaking—when he was not officially on assignment.
Many of the surviving pictures that Ross surreptitiously took are currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He shot the images through holes and cracks in doors and walls. He would also quickly uncover a camera hidden in his overcoat, snap the picture and then hide the camera again.
In a short film introducing the exhibit, Ross recalled: “On one occasion I managed to get into the railway station in the guise of a cleaner. My friends shut me into a cement storeroom. I was there from 6 in the morning until 7 in the evening, until the Germans went away and the transport departed. I watched as the transport left. I heard shouts. I saw the beatings. I saw how [the Nazis] were shooting at them, how they were murdering them, those who refused. Through a hole in a board of the wall of the storeroom I took several pictures.”
Among them are pictures of starving ghetto residents, as well as Judenrat members—Jews who worked for the Nazi-imposed Jewish Council—wearing Stars of David and carrying out the work of incarcerating and deporting fellow Jews. In one photograph, blurry and taken from behind what appears to be concrete slabs, a Judenrat member wearing a Star of David armband ushers a woman into a boxcar. In another, children are separated from their parents behind a chain-link fence.
There are also pictures that startle for their depictions of life’s daily joys. Until 1997, only Ross’s pictures depicting the horrors of ghetto life were publicly viewed. His son then made Ross’s complete collection available—a collection that also includes hopeful, beautiful images of children playing, mothers with their children, young lovers kissing behind a bush, birthday celebrations and more.
The Lodz Ghetto was second in size and scope only to the Warsaw Ghetto. By the time the Nazis began to liquidate the ghetto in Lodz, more than 45,000 people—most of them Jews—had died there of starvation and disease. Tens of thousands more had been rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Some of them were murdered in gas vans—mobile gas chambers—in the nearby Chelmno extermination camp. By the time the Lodz Ghetto was liberated in January 1945, only 877 of 160,320 Jews initially in the ghetto had survived. Henryk Ross and his wife, Stefania, were among them.
After the war, Ross said he never took another picture. But he remained in Poland until he emigrated with his family to Israel in 1956. In 1961, he testified in Jerusalem at the war-crimes trial of Nazi perpetrator Adolf Eichmann. Ross’s photographs were among the evidence prosecutors submitted. Eichmann, convicted a year later of carrying out the Nazis’ Final Solution, was hanged.
Yet as Ross acknowledged, his attempt to preserve his negatives went beyond simply saving photographic proof of the Holocaust. “I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy,” he said. “…I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry. I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.”
Among the last pictures displayed in the MFA exhibit is a man standing atop the ruins of a destroyed synagogue in Lodz. He carries a Torah scroll that survived. In image after image, Ross not only chronicled the history of the Holocaust, he also imparted the desperation and the humanity of a people.
Find more information and tickets to “Memory Unearthed” here.