Henryk Ross was a photojournalist working for the Polish press when Germany invaded Poland and his hometown of Lodz in 1939. In the year that followed, Nazis violently rounded up Jews who didn't flee to neighboring European countries and forced them into the Lodz Ghetto — a one-square-mile section of the city, sealed off from the world by walls and barbed wire.
Henryk Ross photographing for identification cards, Jewish Administration, Department of Statistics. | (Henryk Ross/Art Gallery of Ontario)
Lodz ghetto sign for residential area ("Jews. Entry Forbidden"). | (Henryk Ross/Art Gallery of Ontario)
Ross and his family lived in the Lodz Ghetto, along with 160,000 other Jews (a population that would swell to 200,000 before plummeting to about 900 during the liquidation), until it was liberated in 1945. As the Lodz Ghetto was transformed into an industrial center for the Nazi war effort, Ross was put to work as a bureaucratic photographer.
His official tasks included taking photographs for Jewish identification cards, as well as propaganda images meant to promote the efficiency of the ghetto's labor force.
Soup for lunch. | (Henryk Ross/Art Gallery of Ontario)
Young girl. | (Henryk Ross/Art Gallery of Ontario)
Men hauling cart for bread distribution. | (Henryk Ross/Art Gallery of Ontario)
But at great risk to himself, Ross decided to also record the atrocities and grim realities of ghetto life. Hiding in buildings or snapping photos from under his coat, Ross surreptitiously captured children digging in the ground for discarded food or fainting from hunger, families separated by deportation, public killings, and many more daily horrors.
"I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry," Ross later said. "I did it knowing that if I were caught my family and I would be tortured and killed… I wanted to leave an historical record of our martyrdom."
In 1944, following regular deportations, the Nazis ordered the final liquidation of Lodz. About 70,000 residents were taken to Auschwitz. The photographer was among a lucky 900 left behind as the clean-up crew, but Ross hid so that he could capture the mass deportation. Later, fearing his photo collection would be found, Ross and his wife buried thousands of his negatives in the ground. After the ghetto was liberated in 1945, Ross recovered his collection to find only 3,000 images survived.
Children talking through fence of central prison on Czarneck Street prior to deportation. | (Henryk Ross/Art Gallery of Ontario)
Children being transported to the death camp of Chelmo nad Nerem (renamed Kulmhof). | (Henryk Ross/Art Gallery of Ontario)
An exhibit of Ross' moving images, Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross, is now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. By taking viewers through the early joviality of the Jewish police force to packed trains bound for Auschwitz, the show bears witness to the methodical erosion of humanity and the slow obliteration of life. The effect is profound.
But it's not without hope. The very existence of Ross' photos — the fact that he took them in the face of certain death, and that they survived — is the very picture of the human spirit.
"This exhibition tells the story of one man's act of resistance through photography," said the exhibit's curator Kristen Gresh. "[It] is a testimony to perseverance and survival."
Ross and his wife immigrated to Israel in 1956. In 1961, the photographer testified at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the organizers of the Holocaust. Ross died in 1991.
Ghetto police escorting residents for deportation. | (Henryk Ross/Art Gallery of Ontario)
Man walking in winter in the ruins of the synagogue on Wolborska street. | (Henryk Ross/Art Gallery of Ontario)
**Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross is now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston until July 30, 2017. For more information about Henryk Ross or to view his entire archive, comprising about 3,000 images, visit the Art Gallery of Ontario's website.**