When the Nazis took over Lodz, Poland in 1940, they initially confiscated the camera of photojournalist Henryk Ross, who was Jewish. They returned the camera, but only so Ross could take official photos for Jewish identification cards and other Nazi propaganda. That’s according to Maia-Mari Sutnik, curator of the exhibit Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Photographs of Henryk Ross, opening Sunday, Sept. 22, at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. Ross defied strict orders and secretly captured the daily life of other residents of the Jewish ghetto. Ross buried the negatives, but they were eventually unearthed and have been on display in various exhibits.
Below are some of the photos featured in Memory Unearthed. They show the horror of life under the Nazis, but also the banal-and sometimes joyous-daily life in Lodz.
Since curator Maia-Mari Sutnik first discovered Ross’ photos in the Archive of Modern Conflict, she said matching names to the faces in the images has been like putting together a puzzle. Some survivors have recognized their parents. When the images started to be shown publicly, one woman named Krysia Rosenstein discovered a picture of herself sitting with her parents. Sutnik said Rosenstein had never seen the image. But many of the faces remain unnamed.
Sutnik said without a caption, it’s difficult to know the full story of what’s happening. “Is this a picture of adoring the child or is it something of impending tragedy?” Sutnik asked. In 1942, all the children that were seen as being useless to the Nazi regime were conscripted to be sent off to what they call re-settlement, which is essentially was to have them killed,” Sutnik said. The curator said everyone’s life was in peril so the anxiety of the mother comes through on her face.
One wall of the Memory Unearthed exhibit features 100 photographs of everyday life that Ross captured. There are images of people dancing, children being born, and other realities of life. Sutnik imagines that Ross wanted these to show the humanity of the Jewish residents in Lodz. “We gotta have some kind of moments that are not degrading us as individuals,” Sutnik said they convey. And, of course, that includes moments like this one that show love and romance.
Sutnik said Ross still managed to bring creativity to the photos he was capturing in secret. This is one of Ross’ wife’s friends, Sutnik explained. Ross used a mirror to get two pictures out of one. The photos in this part of the exhibit show that the photographer was trying to show some sense of normalcy, even though all the subjects knew “peril was around the corner for everyone,” Sutnik said.
Carrie Shepherd is a news reporter for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @cshepherd.