I’ll be perfectly honest, it was hard for me to willingly view a photography exhibit about the profound human suffering of the Holocaust again. After all, there have been countless shows, entire museums, dedicated to educating generations about the horror of this WWII genocide. However, disturbing current events across the globe impart unfortunate relevancy to such exhibits. The unusual story of Polish photojournalist Henryk Ross and his residency in the Nazi enforced Lodz Jewish Ghetto offers a truly unique view of the inspiring ways people struggle to maintain dignity and mount resistance under brutal circumstances. “Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross”, along with four interrelated exhibits that occupy the entire Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the MFA, Boston will be on view through July 30th, 2017.
Make no mistake, this exhibit is difficult to take, but it’s well worth experiencing. First of all, Memory Unearthed is truly unique in that it offers the extremely rare viewpoint of the oppressed. Kristen Gresh, Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Curator of Photographs at the MFA, organized this deeply moving presentation of the exhibit, devoting the first section to material about Henryk Ross (1910-1991), a Polish Jewish photojournalist who was confined by the Nazis in the Lodz Ghetto (pronounced “Ludge” in English) from 1940 – 1944. Ordered to produce bureaucratic documentation like ID cards and propaganda promoting the productivity of the ghetto’s labor force, Ross secretly stockpiled film and surreptitiously grabbed images of the ghetto’s grim conditions when official heads were turned. So, in addition to sanctioned pictures of mattress factory workers, Ross stole shots of the “fecal workers” who disposed of ghetto waste, often contracting and dying of typhus fever in the process.
Henryk Ross functioned as a veritable double agent, acting in complicity with the Nazis while perpetrating acts of resistance on behalf of Jews. The body of the exhibit consists of over 200 of his photographs, centered around a display of Ross’ handcrafted album, assembled from hundreds of contact sheets in the decades after the war. Mysterious in its mix of subjects and jumbled chronology, it is a fascinating synopsis of the photographer’s personal experience. Likewise, it is disorienting and illuminating to see Ross’ propaganda pictures alongside his candid photographs. Their poignant juxtaposition is intensely affecting: a mother coddling her baby versus a cartload of children being transported off to a death camp; a wall of candid portraits revealing a lively range of personalities and moods versus a cart collecting the corpses of those who literally dropped dead in the streets from the Nazi starvation strategy that claimed the lives of one quarter of the ghetto’s inhabitants.
A film loop in a viewing room off the entry to the exhibit plays footage of Ross and his wife Stefania describing how Ross hid his camera, whipping the flap of his coat open for quick shots when the coast was clear. There are photographs that Ross took through a hole in a storeroom wall of ghetto residents boarding freight wagons for deportation to death camps. Fearing his own death as the ghetto population dwindled from deportation and starvation, Ross and his wife buried his negatives in 1944. Following liberation in 1945, Ross was able to recover more than half of his original 6000 negatives, some of which were submitted as evidence in the post-war trial of Adolf Eichmann. The handwritten numbers Ross scribed on his negatives and the degradation of some due to water damage during burial all appear on his contact sheets and photographs, marks of a harsh history that bear the mantle of perseverance and survival.
After winding through the Lodz Ghetto galleries, all darkened to protect the photographs, visitors emerge into a light, airy gallery with the first of several related exhibits, I Must Tell You What I Saw: Objects of Witness and Resistance. Mixed media works drawn from the MFA’s permanent collections – from an ancient Assyrian stone frieze depicting the banishing of Babylonians to an abstract painting by Gorky in reaction to the Armenian genocide – express creative responses to historical acts of violence, mass displacement and the erasure of cultures across time. This bright, open space and eclectic mix of non-representational artwork draw a breath of air into the room, while inviting a heightened sense of awareness and empathy. Additional related exhibits in the Linde Family Wing feature sculptural installations, films and reflections on other cultural persecutions. In a stroke of superb sensitivity, Curator Kristen Gresh tucked a quiet room into the exhibit where visitors can reflect on their experiences and share their thoughts with others. This is how understanding is nurtured, cultural tolerance takes root, and bigotry begins to end.
Memory Unearthed and its associated exhibits housed in the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art will be on view through July 30th, 2017. The MFA has scheduled extensive programming in conjunction with these exhibits and a book produced by the originating museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, is available in the MFA bookstore. For more information, go to: http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/memory-unearthed
Feature Image: Excavating Henryk Ross’s buried box of negatives and documents in the ghetto Henryk Ross (Polish, 1910–1991) 1945 . Gelatin silver print from half-tone negative *Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift from the Archive of Modern Conflict *© Art Gallery of Ontario, 2016. *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston