Ghetto Photographer

Chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner (standing, right) questions witness Henryk Ross (seated, at microphone) during the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem. Below: Gabriel Bach; Jacob Breuer. By Courtesy of Israel Government Press Office – United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Two men poked their heads out from behind a building to look for police while their companion looked down the street behind them. It was still very early in the morning, not yet six in the morning, but there was no time to lose. Seeing the coast was clear, Henryk Ross and his friend ran across the street. Their yellow Star of David patches evident even at the first rays of daylight. Ross was dressed in the clothes of a ghetto janitor – even though that wasn’t his job – and they rushed to the Radogoszcz Railway Station in Lodz, Poland. Ross’ friends worked at the station as their assignment in the Jewish ghetto.

They put Ross in a cement store room, adjacent to the loading area of the station. Ross pulled out his camera. He had been a photographer for a newspaper before the war. After the Nazis invaded Poland, Ross had his camera taken away. When the German’s learned of his profession, they gave him his camera back with a charge to take official photos for the statistics department of the ghetto.

It wasn’t freedom to resume his work as before. The Germans asked Ross to take identification pictures for Jewish ID cards, factory pictures to show production, and other official pictures of the Lodz Ghetto. Ross did this, but he also took many other photos. He took photos of life in the ghetto, starvation, weddings, burials, kids playing, beatings, and much more. Like everyone else in the ghetto, Ross knew he was going to die soon. He wanted to leave a record so future generations would know what they went through.

Now that Ross was hidden in the cement storage room, he took pictures through a small opening in the boards of thousands of his fellow Jews as they were packed onto boxcars bound for Auschwitz. Their fate was sealed, but Ross was getting the evidence he hoped someone outside the ghetto would someday see. Ross sat there for thirteen hours, until seven in the evening when he felt he could leave in relative safety.

The Lodz ghetto became the holding place for 160,320 Jews in June 1940. Deportations were happening frequently and by the end of 1942 nearly half the ghetto had been deported. Most of the remaining people were forced to work in hard labor camps. When they became too sick or weak to work, they were sent away. In August 1944, nearly 70,000 Jews were sent to their deaths.

The Germans ordered the final elimination of the ghetto at the end of 1944. Ross was part of only 900 people left to “clean up.” They searched for valuables, got rid of evidence and buried bodies. They would be destroyed when the work was done.

Knowing the end was close, Ross took his 6,000 negatives, prints he had made, and his camera and put them in a box. He gathered some close friends as he buried the box so that if any of them should survive, they would be able to come to the place and unearth the photos. They covered it up and prayed it wouldn’t be lost forever.

Lucky for them, the Russians came into Ludz before they were destroyed. Ross was able to recover his box. There was water damage to nearly half of the negatives, but the photos still showed an incredible view inside the second largest ghetto of World War II and helped to convicted Adolf Eichmann of his part in organizing the Holocaust. Ross personally testified at that trial.

For you:

Ross knew that if he were caught, he and his family would be tortured and killed and the photos destroyed. It was a personal sacrifice, but he believed it would help preserve their lives for the future. I have thought about his life as he was taking these pictures and have wondered, “With no guarantee his work would ever be seen by the outside world, why did he do it?”

Some of his pictures were of happy times. He took pictures of weddings and mothers holding babies and kids playing. He tried to capture the human spirit, and I imagine he wanted to lift their spirits. They knew they would die, but he knew the power of photography in preserving a moment. By printing the photos, and probably sharing them with others, he was helping to brighten their seemingly hopeless existence. This while he was most assuredly to follow the same fate.

As you go about your life, and as you pursue your dreams and goals, look for opportunities to lift the people around you. Even if you are in a similarly dismal circumstance, help to brighten the outlook and serve others. It will lift your spirits as well. You may not be able to save a life, but you can make him/her happier.

Ross’ pictures are on display in Boston right now in the Museum of Fine Arts. Here is one webpage where you can read and see more of Ross’ story. http://www.wbur.org/artery/2017/03/29/henryk-ross-nazi-ghetto

About

I started writing short stories in elementary school, starting with a short story about twin track athletes. In college, I wrote for the college newspaper and studied communications. My first job out of college was with a magazine as an assistant editor, where I started a comic strip called City Boy.

My first published work, was a short essay entitled, Dream with Me, published in “The Art of Service” booklet put out by the Thayne Center for Service and Learning. I also published a three part series for families called “Family Parables – Wise Man Foolish Man.” This set is designed to be used by families to create discussion and learning as a family. I soon will publish my first novel, Love Like Alzheimer’s, a story of a family that is learning to love deeper as their beloved grandmother struggles with Alzheimer’s disease.

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