Two months ago I went to Poland for the first time and was staggered by the erasure of Jewish life, so when a friend told me I must see the exhibit of photographs from the Lodz Ghetto at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, I made it a point to get into the city. The exhibit is overpowering, and I urge New Yorkers to try and check it out in the 10 days it is still up.
Henryk Ross was an official photographer for the Jewish Council of Lodz– the Judenrat– during the Holocaust, doing such things as producing identity photos of Jews, but he made a heroic effort to document Nazi atrocities surreptitiously and to bury his negatives in 1944 as the German occupation began to fall apart. Ross and his wife Stefania survived the ghetto and moved to Israel, where he testified against Eichmann in 1961 by producing several damning images. Though the photographer, who died in Canada in 1991 in his early 80s, said that he did not take another picture after the Holocaust.
That’s understandable. The most disturbing photographs he made were of Jews being transported out of the ghetto, bound for the extermination camp in Chelmno. Jews move in a great orderly mass in one photograph, they are horse-carted in another, herded by policemen in another, forced at gunpoint on to train carriages in another. Surely the most upsetting photograph in the entire exhibit is of a mother speaking to her two sons from the central prison in the ghetto, prior to her deportation. What a nightmare world is conveyed in this half-seen face.
The photographs are accompanied by oral histories curated by the Museum, of three Jewish women describing their efforts to escape the transports. As someone who has come to this historical material late (the pressure from my community to immerse myself in the record of suffering when I was young sent me running the other way), I find it paralyzing and exalted.
This exhibit is so simple on the one hand, and so loaded on another, that in the day since I’ve seen it a lot of unintended thoughts have crept into my mind. The show is simple because it treats Ross as heroic full stop, and loaded because so many of Ross’s actions document the lives of the Judenrat. We see a lot of happy Jewish policemen in these photographs, like the image now famous below of a policeman and his wife and child. These policemen were of course serving the Nazis. These policemen conducted the terrifying roundups of Jews that led to the Nazi “selections,” documented by the photograph of the mother at the prison fence.
There are several pictures of Chaim Rumkowski, a businessman and the head of the Judenrat, who famously called on the Jews of the ghetto to “give us your children,” so they could be transported. Not long before he was himself transported to Auschwitz in August 1944, where inmates beat him to death.
The museum helpfully includes copies of hateful orders from Rumkowski that were posted in the ghetto, but underplays how terrible a man he was.
The unintended thoughts I’ve had are of how much acceptance any people can have of terrible injustice. I believe it’s in our DNA, as highly socialized creatures: we can go along with the worst crimes if there are authority figures saying that it’s all for the good of society. There is a lot of evidence in this show of people accepting the hateful as normal. For instance, there is a sign on a street adjacent to the ghetto declaring that it is verboten to Jews. There are the elaborate pedestrian bridges the Nazis created to connect disparate parts of the ghetto, over “Aryan” streets. And everyone just treats it as the way of the world. Of course that includes the Poles who went along with the Nazi occupation, too, but many Jews were complicit, or passive, and caught by Ross’s lens.
No wonder that I have been reading memoirs of Warsaw ghetto resisters: the Jewish heroes who responded to the transports by instructing Jews that the Nazis were lying, the trains were taking them to their deaths, and who began assassinating the worst Jewish policemen in 1942, and trying to kill corrupt Judenrat officers too. (Many of the Jewish policemen and even Judenrat officials were sympathetic, or tried to help other Jews.) The resisters were the exception, in that age and in ours.
The other shadow over this exhibition is the life of Palestine, which figured as a refuge for so many of the survivors of the Holocaust, including Henryk and Stefania Ross. I understand that; and while my heart is with Marek Edelman and the others who chose to remain in their homeland and carry on Jewish culture, I can blame no one for leaving Poland. What is alarming about the Henryk Ross archive is that within a few years of these frightful scenes in European cities, Jews were forcing Palestinians out of their villages and cities and ghettoizing those who remained. That is the great puzzle of Jewish political life today, which bedevils millions of people, from American Jewry to Palestinian refugees: how and why did this come to pass? I recognize that such questions are not easily addressed by museums; because these matters are current and fraught, with very much at stake right now; but the problem is plainly rooted in Europe many decades ago, and if we make an effort to study and remember the fate of Polish Jewry, as we should, it is just as important to picture the Nakba.