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BOSTON — What does it look like when the everyday is co-opted by evil?
In Henryk Ross’s “Portrait study of young girl in the ghetto” (1940-44), a girl with a floppy bow reaches for a butterfly offered by a hand emerging from the left side of the frame. In this 35 mm photograph, the sky has a semi-opaque quality, punctuated by a gauzy cloud directly above the protagonist. Sewn on the front of her dress is the Star of David.
Between 1940 and 1945, Ross recorded life in the Lodz Ghetto, a 1.6-square mile district in the Polish city where 45,000 Jews died of starvation and disease during World War II. An official photographer in the ghetto administration, Ross defied the laws of the Nazi regime by taking clandestine photographs of Jewish residents as they confronted poverty, squalor, debasement, and death. What he saw was a campaign of annihilation overlaid on the everyday: young men hauling a cart of bread like draft animals, a man trudging through the snow next to a ruined synagogue, and a policeman carrying luggage on behalf of Jewish residents on their way to a deportation station and, eventually, a death camp.
The Polish-born photographer, one of fewer than a thousand Jews still alive when the Lodz Ghetto was liberated in 1945, is the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Memory Unearthed, that brings together hundreds of photographs on 35 mm cellulose nitrate film, mixing covert shots of ghetto inmates with propaganda images taken by Ross on behalf of the Jewish-run ghetto administration. Many of the photographs are arranged in a series of mosaics or collages — culminating in a 100-image display that emphasizes the dignity and grace of ghetto residents in the face of impending destruction. This patchwork format is reminiscent of the “Tower of Faces,” a three-floor-high installation at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C., that constitutes a vertical inventory of the dead. This installation includes more than 1000 photographs of villagers from a shtetl near the Polish-Lithuanian border, nearly all of whom were exterminated over the course of two days in September 1941. At the MFA, the effect is much the same, a gallery of ghosts, a congress of lost souls, that activates a bond of empathy and recognition between the living and the dead.
The exhibition begins at the end of story: featuring excerpts from a 1979 documentary by David Perlow in which Ross recounts his testimony at the trial of Adolph Eichmann, who came to represent the feeble-minded depravity — or the “banality of evil,” as Hannah Arendt understood it — of bureaucrats in the Nazi regime. At first, the photographer affects a rakish air, demonstrating how he hid the camera in his overcoat while his wife, Stefania, kept a lookout, but it soon becomes clear that his soul is heavy, freighted with the memory of thousands of murdered Jews. He and Stefania left before the conclusion of the trial because, as he explains, “I was shaking uncontrollably — everything came back to life.”
And, indeed, this was the photographer’s objective: to bring the ghetto back to life, to “leave a historical record of our martyrdom.” As the exhibition makes clear, the collective memory of World War II has not yet congealed, but is still fluid, still being negotiated. This ongoing negotiation is represented in the contested legacy of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, who directed the Judenrat, or the Jewish-run administrative apparatus of the ghetto operating under the direction of the Nazis, and convinced the Nazis to allow Jewish residents to engage in small-scale industrial enterprise in exchange for food. Rumkowski has been condemned in some quarters — Arendt characterized him as an instrument of the Nazi regime “who issued currency notes bearing his signature … and who rode around in a broken-down horse-drawn carriage” — but it has also been said that Rumkowski protected the Lodz Ghetto by making it indispensable to the Nazi war effort. As a result, it was the last ghetto in Poland to be liquidated.
The format of the exhibition, and the attendant wall text, emphasize the documentary function of Ross’s photographs, which are characterized as a frank account of Nazi-engineered incarceration and annihilation. Of less importance to the curator is the question of whether a photograph is an impartial record or conditioned by the subjectivity of the photographer. The works on view do not present a grand narrative on the machinery of evil, but a story of resistance, of survival, as told by one man. Ross often resorted to subterfuge, as when he disguised himself as a cleaner to enter the Radogoszcz station, a staging area for trains headed to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, and took photographs through a crack in the wall of a storeroom. When the war came to an end, he sealed the film in iron jars, then buried them in a tar-lined wooden box, where nearly half of the negatives were destroyed by moisture.
Viewing, too, is an act of resistance, as explained by Matthew Teitelbaum, current director of the MFA, in the exhibition catalogue: “Is there a position of neutrality, in Ross’s time, or in ours? What does such evidence lead us to conclude? We are, I believe, moved to judgement.” The photographs on display compel us to repudiate the pretense of neutrality, to condemn the architects of evil. This exhibition is, in effect, an excavation of our collective consciousness: we are digging for memory, digging for justice, digging for life.
Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross continues at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA) until July 30.