Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Children of the Ghetto: Henryk Ross

by Thaddeus Sholto

A party in the Łódź Ghetto, Photography by Henryk Ross

Long after the Second World War had finished, Henryk Ross returned to his native Poland and dug up the photographic negatives he had buried for safekeeping.

Many had suffered water-damage since they were concealed, but they had survived well enough for Ross to revisit the life he had led between 1940 and 1944. As he examined his work, he would have seen happy images of children’s parties; comedy shots, such as the one that depicts a policeman with a watering can hovering over his head; and a delightful photo of a pretty young woman posing by some saplings.

At first glance, you would mistake these as the snapshots of a very talented photographer. But look closer and you see a recurrent and unexpected detail: the yellow star worn on every breast.

Were it not for that, it would be hard to believe that these happy, well-fed people were interned at Łódź, in the Holocaust’s second-largest ghetto. Overseen by the controversial Chaim Rumkowski, whose name is now inextricably linked with the notorious “Give me Your Children” speech, the ghetto was effectively a sweatshop for the German war effort, as well as a holding centre for Jews being deported to the death camps at Auschwitz and Chełmno.

So why are these photographs so radically different to the now-familiar Holocaust images of starving and brutalised men, women and children? And how did Ross manage to get hold of the camera and film under such conditions?

The answer to both of these questions lies in the fact that Nazis allowed the Jews to administer and police the ghetto themselves. Subsequently a Łódź “elite” evolved: a minority who held coveted jobs and lived comparatively privileged lives. Henryk Ross was employed by the ghetto’s Department of Statistics to capture images of ghetto inhabitants producing goods for the Nazis.

Ross performed his duties correctly, but was also in demand by members of the elite families, whose children he photographed at play and at parties. However, he also risked his life by taking clandestine shots of the ghetto’s horrors: hungry people searching for food; Jews being herded into cattle trucks on their way to the death camps; individual deportations; a corpse hanging from a noose; people trying to escape Nazi round-ups of the old, sick and very young.

It was dangerous and horrifying work, but Ross later recalled the strength of his motivation:
“I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry. I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.”
He succeeded. Some of the photographs Ross later unearthed were used as evidence at Adolf Eichmann’s trial in 1961. However, although Ross himself did not die until 1991, the more ‘homely’ pictures of life amongst the Łódź elite were not publicly displayed until 2005.

It is not hard to see why. The images of a well-fed, seemingly content class of people amongst the ghetto’s inhabitants force us to ask some very difficult questions about human nature. How, against a backdrop of hunger, forced labour, deportation and murder can we interpret photographs of plump children playing at policemen and arresting their friends?

As one survivor remarked when seeing the photographs for the first time, “Hunger does not bring out noble feelings”. Nor is it easy to pass judgement when, looking into the eyes of those Ross photographed, one remembers that almost every single person was dead by 1945: of the 204,000 Jews who passed through the ghetto, just 10,000 survived.

Ross himself.

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