Henryk Ross testified at the Eichmann trial. His qualification for that dubious honor was to have been one of the few thousand souls to survive the Lodz ghetto, where more than 200,000 Polish Jews died of starvation and disease or were dispatched to the Nazi extermination camps. Ross survived, in part, because he was useful to the ghetto’s Nazi-controlled Jewish Council Statistics Department, which employed his skills as a photojournalist to chronicle the productivity and efficiency of Jewish labor. His photographs were intended to illustrate Judenrat elder Mordechai Chaim Rumkowkski’s ill-fated strategy of “survival through work.”
Between 1940 to 1944, Ross also had the ingenuity required to work the black market for film and developer, and to smuggle himself into storerooms and other forbidden places to capture images of terrible things—things that many people, then and now, would not believe. As the situation in the ghetto grew increasingly dire, he had the foresight to hide his negatives in glass jars, which he placed inside a tar-lined trunk and buried under house ruins at 12 Jagielonska St. in the middle of winter. His survival up until that point was near-miraculous, considering that only 9,000 people remained in the ghetto. Somehow, he survived to dig up the 3,000 of those images following the ghetto’s liberation in 1945. He never took another picture, though he did show some of his photographs at Eichmann’s trial in Israel.
Memory Unearthed, a show of some of Ross’s photographs which opens this weekend at MFA Boston after a stint at its originating Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), unfolds in three gray-clad rooms in the museum’s contemporary-art wing, starting with a wall-size depiction of the unearthing of the negatives. This origin story is central to the narrative of rediscovery, but it also serves as a psychological metaphor: What’s taboo or dark or shameful must be dug up and examined. With a map of wartime Lodz, the first room traces and illustrates Ross’s forced duties as propagandist to the Nazis.
The images here are bizarre, unnerving composed documents of forced-happy laborers who wear stars sewn onto their tattered overcoats. They are stitching and stuffing mattresses, tanning hides, and posing for identity cards. They reek of fear. The idea presented here is that these images are not really Henryk Ross’s, but something corrupted. AGO curator Maia-Mari Sutnik tells the story of Ross pursuing a man salvaging a Torah from the ruins of the synagogue on Wolborska Street to shoot him, and the subject running in fear thinking he really wanted to shoot him, but then being swayed by Ross’s gentle explanation of the purpose of his documentation, such that the man said, “Well, make it a good picture, then.” The resulting image shows a downcast ragged figure standing atop a pile of rubble with a sheathed pair of scrolls on his shoulder, framed by the black parallelograms of blown-out windows. Maybe he is proud. We don’t know.
The main room of the exhibit displays Ross’s attempts to document the forbidding realities of life in the Jewish ghetto, a task he undertook in secret. This allowed him to pursue in relative private some portrait studies, some of which are capably charming. Together with his wife, Stefania, he also ventured out on the cobblestoned streets, where he had an eye for the poignant and troubling: a boy collapsed from hunger on the sidewalk, a woman selling her last worldly possessions, children digging for rotten potato scraps in the frozen earth to stave off starvation, soiled Jews pushing cartloads of shit to typhus-laden cesspools, untended bodies at a makeshift morgue, a gallows in use, and other horrifying indignities. These frames are not composed, and no one is smiling. Even in our image-saturated times a special callousness, cynicism, or ignorance is required to discount the weight of the evidence they contain. They are proof of a great crime.
Ross’s late-in-life stab at making sense of his tragic experience is represented in pages from a folio he worked on in Israel, which is presented as a centerpiece of the exhibition room. (Ross died in Canada in 1991.) Sometime after the 1961 Eichmann trial, Ross set to organizing material from contact sheets into some kind of cut-and-paste narrative—an effort that never overcomes the traumatic inhibition, guilt, and confusion he must have harbored. The curators offer this folio as an illustration of a man’s struggle with an unfathomable past.
The last room carries the story to its gruesome conclusion, with striking shots of the deportations out of the ghetto, mostly to Chelmno and Auschwitz. Police usher crowds to the boxcars, horse-carts haul away the aged and sick, a fence divides two children from their mother, barbed wire separates a doomed woman from her jailor. These final images are incredible to see, if one has any sense of history and even a smidge of moral conscience and the requisite imagination to understand the unimpeachable nerve and valor of the photographer—let alone the inconceivable horror that was about to befall any soul unlucky enough to reflect light onto Ross’s photosensitive chemicals.
But in this art museum, above the gift shop and the light-filled atrium café, I had to ask: What are we supposed to be looking at? Are we supposed to admire the nimble touch of Ross’s portraiture? His mastery of light and dark, and the sun-spackling of Polish cherry-orchard shadows on doomed young lovers? The Caspar David Friedrichian romanticism of his Lone Jew in the Snow by the Ruins of Lodz Synagogue? The near Becher-like compositional formality of his repeated study of fecal workers? Or are we supposed to mourn the murdered Polish Jews, and, as the curators seem to wish, “bear witness,” whatever that means, 70 years after the fact? As a concluding idea, 100 modern prints of Ross’s portraits of ghetto victims hang on a “memory wall”—which, of course, brings back no memories at all.
Did Ross have much of an artistic vision? Is it even fair to ask that, given the circumstances in which these images were taken? What about the circumstances in which they are currently being presented? (The catalog, ably put together by Sutnik, explores some of the theoretical underpinnings of moral documents as art.) Of his compositional approach, we have the occasional use of a ladder to shoot from above (as his Nazi overseers often wanted him to do for his forced propaganda work). For his ideas about what images mean or show, the curators helpfully tell us, in the absence of Ross’s own words, that they “create meaning” and “chronicle history.” For his technique—beyond noting he occasionally made collages, which happen to be some of his best work because they most clearly demonstrate intent—we know that he buried his negatives, then dug them up. You could say he was unable to make art, or his art, as he would have wanted it, or defend it or theorize about it, because he was too busy trying not to die. Or maybe that’s not what he was about?
In an excerpt from David Perlov’s chilling documentary recorded in Israel in 1979, Memories of the Eichmann Trial, Ross and Stefania (another hero of this tragic story) are asked how he snatched photos without getting caught. “You want I should show you?” he replies in his Polish-accented Hebrew (while Stefania brandishes a cigarette on the couch), and then returns from another room wearing a hat and a long trench coat, looking cagey, like a flasher. He then demonstrates how, chancing upon a scene worth documenting, he would quickly open his coat, pull out the camera hanging from his neck, shoot, and stuff it back under his coat in one fluid motion. And again, faster, like a cartoon version of a spy. Was what he captured this way a precursor to the shoot-from-the-hip aesthetic of the modern street photographer that dominated the postwar period? Hell, no. It was pure survivalist utilitarianism—and I feel confident saying that even without knowing what was in Henryk Ross’s heart. I know that he was a brave man, a witness—and an OK photographer. But can I separate this valiant, underappreciated man—a craftsman at best, a workaday photojournalist of the prewar period, who happened to capture historically important images, a Holocaust survivor—from the artist, who effectively perished in the Holocaust?
Perhaps Ross wasn’t a photographer at all. Perhaps he was a performance artist, a danger artist, a daredevil, a great actor, able to play the part of “Nazi propaganda photographer in the Lodz ghetto” well enough to also play the part of “witness to history and human suffering and crime.” A survival artist who, in the terms dictated by the Holocaust’s absolutism, lost on both counts.
How dare you! But the Holocaust is a trap. It spares no one, even the survivors. Images of the Shoah as it happened are rare and very important to look at, and any attempt to make people see them is worthwhile. But if Henryk Ross’s photographic work in the Lodz ghetto is art, it’s an art that gets its undeniable power through the suffering and ultimate demise of its subjects—a claim that I believe a generous, moral, and lionhearted soul like Ross would have recoiled from in horror.
“I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy,” Ross said. A realist, a pragmatist, he never expected to survive, or necessarily imagined that anyone would survive. Someday, he thought, perhaps a historian, a prosecutor, an archivist, or a documentarian, but definitely not an art-museum curator, would show his pictures to the living world, and the crime would be exposed. It is horrifying to imagine that Ross might have intended for his evidence of a great crime and its victims to be gazed at as art, for even a moment. Memory Unearthed, as an art-museum exhibit, might have been better left underground.
Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross is on view at the MFA Boston through July 30, 2017.
Matthew Fishbane is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine.
Matthew Fishbane is Creative Director at Tablet magazine.