"Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross" at MFA Boston

Unearthed Collection of Photographs Depicting Life Inside a World War II Jewish Ghetto to Go on View at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

BOSTON (December 1, 2016)—In March 2017, the powerful exhibition Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross makes its US debut at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), presenting a moving and intimate visual record of the Holocaust through the lens of Henryk Ross (1910–1991). The Polish Jewish photographer was one of just 877 recorded survivors of the Lodz Ghetto’s original population of more than 160,000 people, rounded up by the Nazi Germans and sealed off from the outside world. Previously a photojournalist for the Polish press, Ross was confined to the ghetto in 1940 and put to work by the Nazi regime as a bureaucratic photographer; his tasks included taking photographs for Jewish identification cards, as well as images that were used as propaganda to promote the efficiency of the ghetto’s labor force. Unofficially—and at great risk—Ross took it upon himself to document the complex realities of life in the Lodz Ghetto under Nazi rule, culminating in the deportation of thousands to death camps at Chelmno and Auschwitz. Fearing that he could be discovered, he hid his negatives in 1944 and returned for them following the ghetto’s liberation, discovering that more than half of the original 6,000 had survived. “I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy,” Ross later said. "I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry. I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.” Memory Unearthed, on view at the MFA from March 25 to July 30, 2017, presents approximately 300 objects, including hundreds of photographs, artifacts such as ghetto notices and the photographer’s own identification card, as well as footage from the 1961 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, where Ross’s photographs were submitted as evidence. An album of contact prints, handcrafted by Ross and shown in its entirety as the centerpiece of the exhibition, serves as a summation of his memories, capturing a personal narrative of a harrowing moment in modern history. Organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario, in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Lead support from Lisbeth Tarlow and Stephen Kay. With generous support from Marc S. Plonskier and Heni Koenigsberg, and Roberta and Stephen R. Weiner. Additional support provided by The David Berg Foundation; Dr. John and Bette Cohen; the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation, Inc.; Mary Levin Koch and William Koch; Ronald and Julia Druker; the Highland Street Foundation; Joy and Douglas Kant; Marjie and Robert Kargman; Brian J. Knez; Myra Musicant and Howard Cohen; James and Melinda Rabb; Cameron R. Rahbar and Dori H. Rahbar; the Schlebovitz Family; Candice and Howard Wolk; Xiaohua Zhang and Quan Zhou; and the Andrew and Marina Lewin Family Foundation. Educational and public programming is generously supported by the Beker Foundation. Additional support provided by the Phillip and Edith Leonian Foundation. With thanks to our partners Facing History and Ourselves, and the Jewish Arts Collaborative (JArts).

“This exhibition, featuring stories of the Lodz Ghetto through the lens of Polish Jewish photographer Henryk Ross, is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of photography and collective memories,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA.

The Lodz Ghetto was the longest-existing and second-largest, after Warsaw, of at least 1,000 ghettos established by the Nazis to isolate Jews within the Eastern European cities Germany occupied between 1939 and 1945. Ross and his wife Stefania were among more than 160,000 people consolidated into a poor, industrial section of Lodz (pronounced Wudz in Polish; Lodzh in Yiddish; Ludz in English), a city located in the heart of Poland. Three months after the Lodz Ghetto was liberated by the Russian Red Army in January 1945, Ross excavated a box containing canisters of film, which he and Stefania had buried at 12 Jagielonska Street. In 2007, his collection was given to the AGO, where Memory Unearthed, which features both original prints made by Ross and digital prints made from his negatives, debuted in January 2015.

“Ross’s images make up a deeply moving record of human life and suffering,” said Maia-Mari Sutnik, the AGO’s curator of special photography projects. “He had an ability to make many singular moments into poignant narratives, allowing us to reflect on our difficult history and remember.”

The MFA’s presentation of Memory Unearthed is organized by Kristen Gresh, Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Curator of Photographs.

“This exhibition tells the story of one man’s act of resistance through photography, and is a testimony to perseverance and survival,” said Gresh.

The German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 marked the beginning of World War II. The German Army occupied Lodz a week later and many members of the Jewish population fled to other European countries as the Nazi regime terrorized the city and destroyed Polish monuments and synagogues. The Germans created the Judenrat—the Jewish Council—to enforce their policies within the Jewish community and appointed 62-year-old Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski as Judenälteste, or Elder of the Jews. In early 1940, the Nazis rounded up the city’s remaining Jews and forced them into the Lodz Ghetto, sealed off from the outside world with barbed-wire fencing.

Inside the ghetto, Rumkowski employed a strategy of “survival through work.” Taking advantage of Lodz’s prewar reputation as a successful textile center, he transformed the Jewish population into a labor force for factories and workshops that produced goods for the German market. As a photographer employed by the Jewish Council’s Statistics Department, Ross was assigned to illustrate the productivity and efficiency of the Lodz Ghetto and make identification cards for registered workers. With his prior experience as a photojournalist for the Polish press, Ross carefully composed images showing workers engaged in various stages of production—including a series from 1942 that demonstrates the process of assembling mattresses and another from 1943 highlighting work inside a leather factory.

At the same time, Ross secretly documented the grim realities of life in the Lodz Ghetto, where living conditions were deplorable from the start and steadily deteriorated. In the four-year period of the ghetto’s existence, a quarter of its inhabitants died from starvation. Ross’s photographs show the administration overseeing distribution of food rations (the amount of food given to each person depended on his or her work status), children digging in the ground in search of discarded potatoes, and people collapsing in the streets from hunger. Ross also photographed the ghetto’s fecal workers—charged with pulling carts carrying barrels of human excrement—who frequently contracted typhus and other fatal diseases.

In 1942, the Nazis ordered Lodz Ghetto’s Jewish Administration to deport nearly 20,000 residents, targeting the elderly, the sick and children under the age of 10, who were seen to have little value as workers. Thousands were rounded up from hospitals, nursing homes and orphanages, torn from their families, dragged from hiding places and sent to Chelmno, an extermination camp located about 30 miles north of Lodz. The deportations continued until 1944, when the Germans ordered the final liquidation of Lodz Ghetto and about 70,000 residents, including Rumkowski, were taken to Auschwitz. Ross photographed police escorting large crowds of people, some carrying suitcases and other belongings, as well as horse-drawn carts transporting children and the elderly. One image, depicting residents boarding freight wagons at Radogoszcz station, located outside the boundaries of the Lodz Ghetto, was captured from a station storeroom, where Ross hid and took photographs through a hole in the wood.

When the liquidation was announced, Ross was among a group of about 900 residents held back to clean up the ghetto and gather property from empty buildings. It was then that he buried a box of his negatives in the ground. Following Lodz Ghetto’s liberation in 1945 and the subsequent recovery of his collection, Ross and his wife immigrated to Israel in 1956. Five years later, he testified at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who played a pivotal role in the deportation of more than 1.5 million Jews from all over Europe to killing centers in occupied Poland and parts of the occupied Soviet Union. The exhibition includes video footage from the trial, in which Ross and Stefania recount their years in the Lodz Ghetto under the Nazi administration.

In 1987, more than four decades after the war, Ross assembled hundreds of contact prints selected from his surviving negatives into a 17-page “folio” album, roughly arranged in rows. While he numbered the frames, he did not restore the chronology of the collection. Instead, the folio forms Ross’s own reflection of life and death in the Lodz Ghetto, juxtaposing scenes of starvation and deportation with images of everyday activities, family dinners and wedding celebrations. Enlarged versions of the folio photographs are projected on a wall, following Ross’s sequence.

The exhibition also features a “Memory Wall,” composed of 100 modern prints of Ross’s portraits of Lodz Ghetto residents—most taken before non-official photography was forbidden in December 1941. In joyful snapshots and solemn introspections, Ross captured the men, women and children of the ghetto with assurance and insight. For the photographer and his subjects, these were calm moments, in which they could briefly forget the everyday misery of life in the ghetto. Through Ross’s photographs, each person left behind a lasting record of his or her dignified existence, and the portrait wall serves as a reminder of photography’s ability to create meaning and chronicle history.


The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive catalogue, Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross, produced by the Art Gallery of Ontario and distributed by Yale University Press. It features essays by curators, critics, filmmakers and scholars, including Maia-Mari Sutnik, Eric Beck Rubin, Bernice Eisenstein, Michael Mitchell and Robert Jan van Pelt.

Related Programming

This spring, the MFA offers an array of programming related to Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross. In addition to small-group “Looking Together” sessions, a four-session course explores the details of how Ross’s rare record was created and survived, as well as how contemporary artists have responded to photographs from major social movements. On April 26, May 17 and June 14, Boston-area thinkers, entrepreneurs, activists, city officials and artists gather at the Museum for The City Talks—a series of free public forums on issues related to the exhibition’s themes, moderated by Adam Strom, Director of Scholarship and Innovation at Facing History and Ourselves. A lecture on May 7 titled “Lest We Forget…” discusses how humankind responds in remarkable ways in the face of adversity, and a concert on June 11 presents works composed and performed in the Lodz, Vilna and Terezin ghettos, narrated by Mark Ludwig, Executive Director of the Terezin Music Foundation. For more on events and programming, visit mfa.org/programs.

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