Review of reviews: Art & Stage
Exhibit of the week
Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through July 30
Henryk Ross (1910-1991) refused to let his neighbors die unknown, said Clyde Haberman in NYTimes.com. A former sports photographer, Ross was imprisoned for five years in the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland, and he was allowed to carry a camera because he was given the task of creating ID pictures of the ghetto’s 160,000 residents and of producing propaganda images of factories. Surreptitiously, however, he was also recording “the devastating realities” of ghetto life: “public hangings, a boy collapsed in the street from hunger, corpses and body parts laid out in a morgue.” When the Nazis shipped all but 900 of the ghetto’s surviving inhabitants to death camps in 1944, Ross buried 6,000 negatives in a tar-sealed wooden box. He retrieved the box after Soviet troops liberated Lodz. Though water had destroyed many images, enough survived to provide an invaluable record of atrocity.
When viewing Ross’ earliest photos inside the ghetto, “it’s possible to believe that some semblance of normal life existed,” said Jody Feinberg in the Quincy, Mass., Patriot Ledger. If not for the yellow stars sewn on their clothes, you might think the subjects were free people enjoying a meal at home or a lovely day in the park. Ross also captured a chilling hierarchy in ghetto society, said Hilarie Sheets in Artsy.net. In one sequence of four images, a Jewish policeman and his wife cradle and kiss an infant—evidence of relative privilege amid so many neighbors who were starving. In other photographs, “fecal workers” can be seen carting human excrement to the ghetto’s cesspit, a task that doomed many of them to early deaths from typhus. After 1941, when the Nazis outlawed nonofficial photography, Ross frequently shot at oblique angles—through cracks in doors or from under his overcoat. When residents were being herded onto boxcars for the last major deportation, Ross hid in a nearby storeroom to photograph the loading process through a hole in the wall.
“To speak of art or artfulness in such a context seems insensitive,” said Mark Feeney in The Boston Globe. “Yet not to do so does Ross a disservice.” Even when he was unable to use a viewfinder, he made images of lasting visual power. In one photograph, a man wearing the yellow star trudges through knee-deep snow amid the ruins of a stone synagogue—and the juxtaposition “carries the weight of centuries.” Ross stopped taking photographs after Lodz was liberated, but he printed some to aid in the Nuremberg trials, and after emigrating to Israel, he eventually assembled a collage of his contact sheets. “What his pictures show make them a gift to posterity. Ross’ skill makes that gift even more precious.”