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The photographs of the Lodz ghetto, and the politics of memory

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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.

Mother at fence with two boys, central prison of Lodz ghetto, prior to her deportation. Photo by Henryk Ross, 1940-1942.

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.

Jewish policeman in Lodz ghetto with his wife and child. Henryk Ross photograph from 1942-1944.

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.

Chaim Rumkowski, by Henryk Ross

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.

Sign on an “Aryan” street adjacent to the Lodz ghetto saying that it is verboten to Jews. Henryk Ross image, 1942-1944.

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.

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About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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29 Responses

  1. Boomer
    Boomer
    August 9, 2018, 1:26 pm

    Thanks for this essay on a question worth reflection. Robert Sapolsky’s “Behave” tries to explain what he knows about human behavior, which is a lot. It includes a chapter on the genocide in Rwanda. It’s worth reading. Yet to me it seems more like a collection of facts than an answer. Some realities seem incomprehensible.

    • catalan
      catalan
      August 9, 2018, 3:22 pm

      “Some realities seem incomprehensible.”
      During the summer of 1944, 550,000 Hungarian Jews were transported to Auschwitz and gassed on arrival. The war was lost by then but the killings of the last major European Jewish community intensified. The SS guards at Auschwitz jokes in anticipation that some fine Hungarian salame is coming their way. Using industrial methods to kill people is very comprehensible. Indeed most of the killers after WW2 proceeded to have fine careers in post war Germany; others like Otto Remmer went to work for the Syrians and the Egyptians or to have fantastic lives in beautiful Argentina and Brazil.
      Just because we don’t like something does not make it in the least bit “incomprehensible”. Think of this way. Your feelings towards Israel are the same as the feelingsof many Israelis and Jews toward Arabs and their supporters in the West. Think of what you wish for Israelis. Now imagine that they think the same. As we are talking here, the conflict in Gaza is intensifying. What is going to happen is very bad and extremely predictable and comprehensible.

      • oldgeezer
        oldgeezer
        August 9, 2018, 8:41 pm

        @catalan

        Oh don’t be shy. Some went to work for the US and Israel as well.

      • johneill
        johneill
        August 9, 2018, 9:22 pm

        it may be fun to invent positions, but i’ve never seen boomer go anywhere near the corollary of ‘gas the arabs’ as was graffiti’d a long while ago in hebron – yet to be erased or investigated.

      • catalan
        catalan
        August 10, 2018, 9:41 am

        “Some went to work for the US and Israel as well.”
        That is true, although mostly for the US. The only example of an SS guy working for Israel (secretly) was Scorzeny; note however that he was an adventurer and not involved in the einsatzgruppen in the East. Ultimately, it does not matter – European Jewry was fully destroyed. Most of the Nazi murderers continued to have great careers in Germany, see for example Heinz Reinefarth, the great murderer of polish civilians. The good news is that Israel has about 400 nuclear warheads; thus, I cannot imagine any scenario in which it loses, short of WW3. And in that case, we are all gone.

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        August 10, 2018, 12:15 pm

        You put a lot of faith in Israel’s nuclear weapons, “Catalan”. And Israel’s ability to use them.

      • Boomer
        Boomer
        August 10, 2018, 12:18 pm

        re: JohnNeill, “it may be fun to invent positions, but i’ve never seen boomer go anywhere near the corollary of ‘gas the arabs’ as was graffiti’d a long while ago in hebron – yet to be erased or investigated.”

        Thanks, John. I was taken aback, and baffled, by the comment posted in response to mine, which I had perceived as supportive of Phil and inoffensive to any group. I had intended only to mention a book that some may find relevant, coupled with a general comment about human nature, and about the disparity between rational analysis and emotional reaction. Either I was somehow unclear, or someone was looking to express ideas not really related to my comment. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to engage, nor sure how to do so constructively.

      • Keith
        Keith
        August 10, 2018, 6:11 pm

        CATALAN- “That is true, although mostly for the US.”

        Yes, and what are the current consequences to this? One was the support of American Jewish organizations for neo-fascist elements of Croats and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia during the Clinton/German/NATO war to dismember Yugoslavia for geostrategic reasons. Currently, it involves American Zionist support for the neo-Nazis in the Ukraine. Demonizing Corbyn while defending Svoboda and Pravi Sektor is a funny way to fight anti-Semitism. And don’t tell me you aren’t aware of this. Does the name Ihor Kolomoisky ring a bell?

      • eljay
        eljay
        August 10, 2018, 8:11 pm

        || catalan: … Using industrial methods to kill people is very comprehensible. … Just because we don’t like something does not make it in the least bit “incomprehensible”. … ||

        And that’s why I think it is entirely comprehensible that Jewish supremacists (Zionists) – consumed by the nightmare fantasy of a religion-supremacist “Jewish State” in as much as possible of geographic Palestine and emboldened by the “unshakeable bond”, “no light between” support they receive from nations around the world – won’t hesitate to use industrial methods to kill people if/when they are relatively certain they can get away with it.

        Jewish supremacists (Zionists) may think they are somehow better or more moral than “ordinary” supremacists, but – as “Jewish State” history demonstrates – they are cut from the same evil cloth.

      • oldgeezer
        oldgeezer
        August 10, 2018, 9:57 pm

        @eljay

        Not merely comprehensible but enough of senior GoI cabinet ministers have indicated a desire to do just that.

        Even the douche-a-witz himself has penned articles calling for the eradication of entire villages/towns.

        The lust for blood is running high and eventually an opportunity will arise. Never again will become oh no not again,

      • oldgeezer
        oldgeezer
        August 10, 2018, 9:59 pm

        @catalan

        Even in admitting Israel employed Nazis you feel the need to deflect to the US. One is more than enough. Too many. For any country.

        And Israel employed him to murder people. Adventurer my ass. Stone cold blooded murderer.

      • RoHa
        RoHa
        August 11, 2018, 2:35 am

        Keith, it isn’t just American Jews who approve of the neo-fascists of Croatia.

        https://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2018/08/09/israel-stamps-approval-on-europe-largest-post-wwii-ethnic-cleansing.html

  2. JLewisDickerson
    JLewisDickerson
    August 9, 2018, 3:14 pm

    RE: “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 crowd in one photograph, they are horse-carted in another, herded by policemen in another, forced at gunpoint on to train carriages in another.” ~ Weiss

    Holocaust trains
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    (EXCERPT) Holocaust trains were railway transports run by the Deutsche Reichsbahn national railway system under the strict supervision of the German Nazis and their allies, for the purpose of forcible deportation of the Jews, as well as other victims of the Holocaust, to the German Nazi concentration, forced labour, and extermination camps.[2][3]

    Modern historians suggest that without the mass transportation of the railways, the scale of the “Final Solution” would not have been possible.[4] The extermination of people targeted in the “Final Solution” was dependent on two factors: the capacity of the death camps to gas the victims and “process” their bodies quickly enough and the capacity of the railways to transport the victims from the ghettos to extermination camps. The most modern accurate numbers on the scale of the “Final Solution” still rely partly on shipping records of the German railways.[5][6] . . .

    CONTINUED AT – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocaust_trains

    • JLewisDickerson
      JLewisDickerson
      August 9, 2018, 3:29 pm

      P.S. ■ PHOTO: Polish Jews being loaded onto trains at Umschlagplatz of the Warsaw Ghetto, 1942. The site is preserved today as the Polish national monument

  3. Nathan
    Nathan
    August 10, 2018, 8:22 am

    If Philip Weiss felt the need to tell us about Rumkowski, surely another line or two should have been added to the article in order to explain the full circumstances of his horrifying speech in the Lodz Ghetto (“give me the children”). Rumkowski thought that he could delay what the Germans called “the liquidation of the ghetto”, thus enabling the ultimate rescue of most of the residents (if the war came to its end in time). Indeed, the Soviet army had advanced to within 90 kms of Lodz by 1944, but unfortunately the Soviets did not continue on to Lodz until January 1945. Had the Soviets entered the city in the summer of 1944, we would surely think quite differently about Rumkowsky today. Lodz, the last ghetto, would have gone into history as the only ghetto that avoided the fate of all the other ghettos. Adam Cherniakov in the Warsaw Ghetto committed suicide when he was instructed to hand over the children, and this choice of action makes more sense to us today. Who knows what was the right course of action in the impossible circumstances of the Holocaust?

    If Philip Weiss mentions in his article the “memoirs of Warsaw ghetto resisters” that he has been reading, surely a few lines could have been added to the article telling us a bit about them. I understand that in an anti-Zionist publication it is really impossible to say something that might be understood as praise for Zionism, so I volunteer to inform the readers that the Jewish Fighting Organization was organized by the Zionist youth groups. In the beginning, the anti-Zionist Bund was disinterested in joining the Jewish Fighting Organization. The Bund defined the Jews as a nation (just like the Zionists), and they believed that the struggle against the Nazis should be “international”. In other words, the Poles (a nation) should fight together with the Jews (another nation) against the Germans – and that would be an international struggle. Eventually, the Bund understood that the Jews are alone – and they agreed that the uprising will have to be a “national struggle” (the Jewish nation alone), and they joined the Jewish Fighting Organization. Marek Edelman, mentioned in the article, became the second in command of the uprising (representing the Bund), but the commander was Mordechai Anielewicz of Ha-Shomer Ha-Tzair youth organization (representing the Zionists).

    It’s interesting to point out that the vast majority of the Jews of Poland – the Bund and the Zionists – saw themselves as a national group. They were Polish citizens, but they saw themselves as a national minority group within Poland. A lot of people here present a case that being Jewish is about religion, but this is not the perception of the Yiddish-speaking Jews themselves. Interestingly, even the anti-Zionists perceived their Jewishness as a national identity (they were anti-religious).

    Finally, the last paragraph doesn’t actually draw a comparison between the Holocaust and the conflict between Jews and Arabs. However, there is an attempt to make some sort of connection without actually defining what that connection might be. There is no connection.

    • Mooser
      Mooser
      August 10, 2018, 12:17 pm

      “Finally, the last paragraph doesn’t actually draw a comparison between the Holocaust and the conflict between Jews and Arabs. There is no connection.”

      So now you tell us?

    • Stephen Shenfield
      Stephen Shenfield
      August 10, 2018, 3:36 pm

      There is some connection but it is a tenuous one. The Jews who suffered at the hands of the Nazis in Europe were not on the whole the same Jews as those who ethnically cleansed Palestine. Most of the Jews in Palestine were absorbed in their own colonial project and paid little attention to what was happening in Europe. Their leaders were afraid that efforts to save the Jews in Europe would divert energy and funds from their campaign for a Jewish state — their first and only priority. So although Jews were central to both contexts they were separate contexts. It is misleading to conflate them.

      The hope of Rumkowski was that by being obedient to the Nazis and showing them how useful Jewish labor was to the German war effort he could save at least a few Jews from destruction. He was wrong because he did not understand that for the Nazis killing Jews was more important than winning the war. But few people at the time understood that.

      • Keith
        Keith
        August 10, 2018, 7:26 pm

        STEPHEN SHENFIELD- ” He was wrong because he did not understand that for the Nazis killing Jews was more important than winning the war.”

        This statement, as written, suggests that the Nazis launched their invasion of Eastern Europe primarily to kill Jews, other objectives of secondary consideration. World War II as little more than one big pogrom. Nonsense. The killing of Jews became a high priority only after the Germans were stopped by the Soviets and the propability of German defeat became apparent. A quote for you.

        “As Mayer develops the theme, the mass murder of Jews evolved from two additional factors, both consequences of the violent expansion of Nazi Germany. First, came the lurch Eastward and the sudden acquisition of territory, chiefly Poland, where the majority of the world’s Jews happened to live. Needless to say, the sudden acquisition of three million delusionally hated people posed a serious dilemma for the Nazi overlords. But even then the “Final Solution” did not take shape until the invasion of Russia, or to be more exact, until the invasion began to run into trouble on the road to Moscow thanks to the unanticipated resistance put forth by the Soviets. It was then, with yet more millions of Jews in the newly invaded lands (chiefly Ukraine), and with the first presentiment that the mad scheme of world conquest was not going to happen as planned, that the pressure-cooker of Nazism began to germinate the scheme of mass extermination, and followed it through with all the nihilism, race-hatred, industrialization, sadism and cold malevolence that was the Nazi trademark.” (p76, “Overcoming Zionism,” Joel Kovel)

      • Stephen Shenfield
        Stephen Shenfield
        August 11, 2018, 11:33 am

        In 1942 and 1943, when the decisive battles were being fought in the East (Stalingrad, Kursk etc.) transport facilities badly needed to resupply the armies were diverted to carry Jews to their death. When some of the generals protested they were told that destroying Jewry was no less essential to the struggle than the battles on the front. That doesn’t mean that killing Jews was the only Nazi aim but Hitler was prepared to reduce the chances of victory in order to kill Jews as fast as possible.

      • Keith
        Keith
        August 11, 2018, 4:20 pm

        STEPHEN SHENFIELD- “When some of the generals protested they were told that destroying Jewry was no less essential to the struggle than the battles on the front.”

        Do you have a link or other source reference?

      • MHughes976
        MHughes976
        August 12, 2018, 8:31 am

        I know it’s said that the rolling stock used for Jewish transports might have made the difference at Kursk but it’s really hard to prove that kind of thing and it’s also possible that the plunder of Jewish property, another aspect of the horrors going on, brought resources into the Nazi war effort. It’s also said that the Ns were addle-brained crackpots of the most extreme kind but it’s still hard to believe that they reached the loony-tunes point of saying to each other that losing the War was a risk worth taking for the opportunity to kill some Jews then and there. Losing the war would entail, quite apart from obvious death and destruction in Germany, a resurgence of Jewish influence. Winning the war would create all sorts of opportunities for killing and persecuting the hated enemy and spreading the anti-Semitic word worldwide. It would have been worth diverting a few trains to achieve that. Surely?
        The Danish Resistance deserves credit for organising the escape of the Danish Jews but the N occupiers seem to have made little effort to frustrate that operation – it must have been in some ways one problem fewer. Bank accounts still there to be seized, no expense and aggro in getting the victims out. I think that tells us something of their mentality.

      • wondering jew
        wondering jew
        August 12, 2018, 3:41 pm

        MHughes and Stephen Shenfield: My understanding is that the Germans were doomed to lose the war by the fact that they did not advance far enough in the first onslaught, the same onslaught that brought millions of Jews to kill under their domain.

        A bureaucratic battle was fought between those in charge of killing Jews and those in charge of running the army and the impression is that the bureaucrats in charge of killing Jews won the battle of the bureaucrats, maybe illogically, but won it nonetheless.

        And also superficially: The Nazis in charge of killing Danish Jews were not the ideologues that the Nazis in charge of killing Eastern European Jewry were. Like comparing a buck private and Goering. The Nazis in charge of the eastern killings were some powerful haters, powerful men and devoted haters and seeking logic from the anomaly of Denmark shows that you are not searching properly, not using your brain to understand what went on, thinking about it incompletely and poorly.

        (Read Littell’s “the kindly ones” that will put you in the right frame of mind.)

      • Keith
        Keith
        August 13, 2018, 9:49 am

        WONDERING JEW- “A bureaucratic battle was fought between those in charge of killing Jews and those in charge of running the army and the impression is that the bureaucrats in charge of killing Jews won the battle of the bureaucrats, maybe illogically, but won it nonetheless.”

        Just to let you know, I responded to this but my comment didn’t pass moderation (surprise, surprise!). Apparently, the moderators, like you, share the Daniel Goldhagen version of history.

    • Mooser
      Mooser
      August 11, 2018, 6:41 pm

      “It’s interesting to point out that the vast majority of the Jews of Poland – the Bund and the Zionists – saw themselves as a national group”

      And how did that work out for them?

      • catalan
        catalan
        August 11, 2018, 7:44 pm

        “And how did that work out for them?” Mooser
        As good as reading books worked out for Polish intellectuals in the hands of Nazis and their (at that time) Russian best buds.

      • echinococcus
        echinococcus
        August 11, 2018, 8:59 pm

        Somebody forgot to tell them they were a subgroup

  4. Misterioso
    Misterioso
    August 10, 2018, 11:06 am

    Zionism and its spawn, the entity known as “Israel,” are a betrayal of Judaism and the six million Jews who perished at the hands of Germany’s Third Reich. As the Nazis subscribed to the “Aryan Myth,” Zionist Jews believe they had/have a “God given” right to “return” to what they erroneously believe to be their “home land” and dispossess, expel, torture, slaughter, oppress, imprison without charge the indigenous Palestinians and subject them to collective punishments and ghettoization, e.g., the Gaza Strip, the world’s largest outdoor prison.

  5. CigarGod
    CigarGod
    August 11, 2018, 6:20 pm

    You are really in the zone on this topic, Phil.
    Best work/trip I can recall.

  6. DaBakr
    DaBakr
    August 12, 2018, 4:39 pm

    Lets see if I put it another way if it passes the censors….

    I can see many parallels between rumkowsky and what he might have thought he was doing
    for the Jews in the ghetto and the Jewish american anti-zionist movement and what they think they are trying to accomplish for world judaism. Especially the fate he met at the camps. or what? do anti-zionists think they would be embraced by the vast majority of world jewry?

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