Never forget: The secret photos of the Lodz Ghetto at the Museum of Jewish Heritage

A man trudges through the snow amid the ruins of the synagogue on Wolborska Street in one of 3,000 photographs that Henryk Ross secretly took in the Lodz Ghetto to document Nazi atrocities and then buried until after the war. Hundreds of the images will be on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in an exhibition called “Memory Unearthed,” which opens Feb. 25.
Art Gallery of Ontario

BY COLIN MIXSON

See the pictures Hitler couldn’t burn.

Art Gallery of Ontario
Henryk Ross examines negatives.

Downtown’s Museum of Jewish Heritage is exhibiting a collection of photos taken clandestinely by a daring Jewish photographer in the notorious Lodz Ghetto to document the horrors of life in German-occupied Poland — and which he buried underground until after the war to evade Nazi efforts to whitewash the Holocaust.

“This extraordinary exhibition is a unique visual record of the barbarity of life in the Lodz Ghetto inflicted by the Nazis,” said museum president Michael Glickman.

The exhibit, which opens at the 36 Battery Pl. institution on Feb. 25, features 200 images curated from amongst nearly 3,000 that survived photographer Henryk Ross’s harrowing experience documenting life in the Lodz Ghetto.

Tasked by the Nazis with taking photos of the ghetto’s Jews for identification cards, Ross devised a clever technique — placing his subjects in rows, getting every person into a single frame, and then cropping the print into individual faces — allowing him to save film, which he then used to take his unauthorized photographs of the ghetto.
Art Gallery of Ontario

Nazi invaders confined Ross, along with 160,000 other Jews, in the notorious Polish ghetto in 1940, and employed him as a photographer for bureaucratic purposes, a cover he used to record the agony of their four years of internment.

His captors provided Ross with film to photograph his fellow ghetto residents for their identity papers, but he devided an ingenious way to save film.  He seated several subjects together in rows, snapped a picture of everyone in a single frame, and then cropped the print down to individual faces. Ross was then able to use the film he saved to covertly document life in the ghetto.

Through the frame of Ross’s lens, museum patrons will witness the suffering that occurred there, as family members were separated and shipped off to concentration camps, along with attempts to maintain a vague sense of normalcy within the confines of the prison-like ghettos, including wedding ceremonies and birthday parties set against the chilling backdrop of Hitler’s Final Solution.

As the war turned against them, the Nazis began mass deportations from Lodz and other Jewish ghettos to the death camps in a systematic attempt to cover up their atrocities. Ross thwarted this whitewashing by documenting the deportations and then burying his negatives.
Art Gallery of Ontario

As German death squads began emptying the ghetto and liquidating evidence of their atrocities in the waning years of the war, Ross buried some 6,000 negatives near his home, and after surviving the war, he returned to find that nearly half of his images had survived, forming one of the largest photographic collections documenting the Holocaust, according to a museum spokesperson.

The Museum of Jewish Heritage exhibit divides Ross’s photographs into three categories — those he took under German orders, the secret images he took of life in the ghetto, and other clandestine shots of men, women, and children being deported to concentration camps such as Chelmno and Auschwitz.

The exhibit will also feature artifacts and audio testimonies providing context for the unique images on display at the Downtown museum, which will host the exhibit through June 24.

In 1945, Ross returned to Lodz to the site where he buried 6,000 negatives documenting Nazi atrocities. The 3,000 that survived now form one of history’s most important records of Jewish life under the Nazis.

This Jewish boy and girl may not have survived the Lodz Ghetto, but their images did, thank to Ross.
Art Gallery of Ontario

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