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The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) announced a gift of 48 silver gelatin prints by Henryk Ross, a Jewish photojournalist who documented life inside the Lodz Ghetto during the Holocaust — both in his official capacity as a bureaucratic photographer as well as unofficially at great personal risk. Donated by photography collector and gallerist Howard Greenberg, the prints are the first photos by Ross to enter the museum’s collection, making the MFA one of the few US museums to own work by the Polish photographer, who died in 1991.
Ross, a former press photographer, was among the 160,000 Jews forcibly confined to the Lodz Ghetto under German occupation of Poland. He was assigned to the ghetto’s Department of Statistics and tasked with taking official photographs for Jewish identification cards as well as promotional photos demonstrating productivity in the ghetto for use in German Nazi propaganda. Clandestinely, he also used his camera to document the brutal living conditions in Lodz, risking his safety to leave a historical record of atrocities committed by the Nazis. When the Nazis ordered that the ghetto be liquidated in 1944, deporting residents to concentration camps en masse, Ross buried 6,000 negatives in a box in the ground to safeguard them. In January 1945, when the Russian Red Army liberated the ghetto, he unearthed the box; over half of the negatives had survived.
The photographs donated to the MFA, all of which were made before 1945, include official as well as unofficial images. They were given by the photographer to Lova Szmuszkowicz, later Leon Sutton, the son of a textile factory owner and a fellow survivor of the Lodz Ghetto. Sutton, who was deported to Auschwitz, returned to Lodz after liberation and subsequently immigrated to New York in 1947, bringing the prints with him in an envelope. Sutton’s son Paul, who inherited the prints when his father passed away in 2007, sold them to Greenberg after seeing the traveling exhibition Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross, on view at the MFA in 2017. Greenberg went on to donate the prints.
“I am so excited and deeply gratified to see that my father’s collection of original Henryk Ross images will be residing in the permanent collection of the MFA,” Paul Sutton said in a statement. “As the first-generation Jewish American son of two Polish Holocaust survivors I do strongly feel that we must never forget.”
“This extraordinary collection of images reminds us of photography’s power to preserve and amplify the full emotional range of lived experience,” said MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum. He continued:
Together, these 48 photographs serve as both memory and documentary evidence of the extremes of war. They are powerful and memorable. Imagine the journey: passed from the photographer to a fellow prisoner in the Lodz Ghetto, hidden and brought to New York City in a small envelope, passed from one generation to another after a lifetime of care, and now preserved permanently in one of America’s great collections of photography. That, too, is powerful and memorable.