In The Shad­ows of Hen­ryk Ross's Images, A Fam­ily Memory Of The Lodz Ghetto

Forward Magazine - - Reviews - By Ju­lia M. Klein

Memory Un­earthed: The Lodz Ghetto Pho­to­graphs of Hen­ryk Ross At the Museum of Fine Arts, Bos­ton, through July 30

The story of the Lodz

Ghetto has be­come folk­loric. Chron­i­cled in nov­els such as Les­lie Ep­stein’s “King of the Jews” and Steve Sem-Sand­berg’s “The Em­peror of Lies." this was the place that the dic­ta­to­rial Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the so-called El­der of the Jews, trans­formed into a gi­ant slave-la­bor fac­tory for the Nazi war ma­chine. Be­cause of its pro­duc­tiv­ity, Lodz, in Ger­man-oc­cu­pied Poland, was the last Jewish ghetto to be liq­ui­dated, with the fi­nal de­por­ta­tions oc­cur­ring in Au­gust 1944. But, in the end, even Rumkowski was sent to his death at AuschwitzBirke­nau.

Rumkowski’s por­trait is prom­i­nent in the surviving images of Hen­ryk Ross, an of­fi­cial — and un­of­fi­cial — ghetto pho­tog­ra­pher. Ross (1910-91) was tasked by Jewish author­i­ties with cre­at­ing iden­tity cards and pro­pa­ganda pho­to­graphs of the Lodz work­shops. But he also risked his life to show the hunger, shab­bi­ness and mis­ery of the ghetto, as well as fam­i­lies torn apart by de­por­ta­tions to Chelmno and Auschwitz. One of fewer than 900 Jews left be­hind in Lodz at war’s end, he was lib­er­ated by the Soviet Army in Jan­uary 1945 and, in March, re­cov­ered his buried pho­tos. He set­tled with his wife, Ste­fa­nia, in Is­rael, where he tes­ti­fied at the 1961 Adolf Eich­mann trial. “Memory Un­earthed: The Lodz Ghetto Pho­to­graphs of Hen­ryk Ross,” an ex­hi­bi­tion or­ga­nized by the Art Gallery of On­tario in as­so­ci­a­tion with Bos­ton's Museum of Fine Arts, is both a tes­ta­ment to his courage and a re­mem­brance of the tens of thou­sands of Jews im­pris­oned in the ghetto dur­ing World War II. (It’s worth not­ing, as Ross does in doc­u­men­tary footage, that his wife was an in­dis­pens­able part­ner in his pho­to­graphic en­ter­prise.) A somber voy­age through the ru­ins of Jewish com­mu­nal life, the ex­hi­bi­tion had spe­cial res­o­nance for me. I saw it in the com­pany of a long-lost cousin, Peter Cole­man, whom I met for the first time last De­cem­ber – and who told me that our fam­ily had im­mi­grated here from Lodz.

Peter’s fa­ther, Char­lie, was the el­der brother of my ma­ter­nal grand­mother, Betty. With two other sis­ters, Aida and Mae, and my great­grand­mother Anna, they reached New York on July 8, 1907, on the SS Bar­barossa. It is likely that my great­grand­fa­ther, Sa­muel Co­hen, who did not travel with them, was al­ready here. The fam­ily’s youngest child, my great-aunt Rae, was born in New York in June 1908.

As part of the great preWorld War I mi­gra­tion of East­ern Euro­pean Jews, we fled poverty and pogroms. We may well have left cousins be­hind, in Lodz or else­where. I know lit­tle for sure. My ma­ter­nal grandfather, who em­i­grated from present-day Be­larus on his own at age 14, ex­changed let­ters in the 1950s, in Yid­dish and Rus­sian, with a cousin in Dages­tan, in the Soviet Union. The cousin writes that he and his sis­ter Rebecca were the only close fam­ily mem­bers to have sur­vived. An aunt told me that my fa­ther’s mother, Grandma Ida, had lost a brother in the Holo­caust. But my knowl­edge of my ex­tended fam­ily’s fate, like that of many Amer­i­can Jews, is frus­trat­ingly sketchy.

Un­til Peter and I con­nected, I had no idea that this branch of my fam­ily had once called Lodz home. That first gen­er­a­tion never talked about the old coun­try, at least not to us. In fact, my grand­mother Betty, 5 years old when she em­i­grated, al­ways claimed to have been born here. Un­like my other three grand­par­ents, she spoke without a for­eign ac­cent and wrote beau­ti­ful English.

After my mother, who had been an only child, died in 2009, I reached out to her first cousins, all still alive at the time. But none of those I found had been in con­tact, for decades, with Char­lie’s two chil­dren, Peter and Janet, whose fam­ily had changed their name to Cole­man (from Co­hen) and seem­ingly dis­ap­peared.

There were tan­ta­liz­ing clues about fam­ily rifts: My grand­mother, in her let­ters from 1950, ex­pressed anger at her brother over a loan she had made to him, and my mother, in a deathbed in­ter­view, said that Char­lie’s mother, Anna, and his wife, Dorothy, had never got­ten along.

An en­graved in­vi­ta­tion to Peter’s wed­ding to his first wife, at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Beth Sholom syn­a­gogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, turned up in my grand­mother’s cor­re­spon­dence. The mar­riage had been brief, Peter’s ex-brother-in-law, Joel told me and he was no longer in touch with my cousin. But he re­mem­bered that Peter was a bio­chemist or physi­cist who’d met Joel’s sis­ter at Columbia Univer­sity and had taught at Har­vard. But in­quiries to both uni­ver­si­ties turned up noth­ing.

Last sum­mer, to my de­light, Peter, now 79, found me. I owe our reunion to Peter’s cur­rent wife, Jane, who had told him she wanted just one thing for her birth­day: to know some of his fa­ther’s fam­ily. Peter man­aged to track down an­other cousin, Paul, to whom he’d last spo­ken in 1992, when Aunt Mae died. Paul put us in touch.

Dur­ing our emo­tional first meet­ing in New York, Peter, a re­tired pro­fes­dis­rupt­ing sor of bio­chem­istry at New York Univer­sity filled in miss­ing de­tails of our fam­ily his­tory. The name change to Cole­man, in 1944 or ’45, was a re­sponse, he said, to anti-Semitism that his fa­ther be­lieved had kept him from find­ing work as an elec­tri­cian. And his fa­ther’s quar­rel with my grand­mother had “ev­ery­thing to do with money” – specif­i­cally, a loan she had made to help his fam­ily buy a house in Tea­neck, N.J. At some point, for rea­sons un­known, my grand­mother called in the loan, and the Cole­mans were obliged to sell their sub­ur­ban home and move back to the Bronx, their lives. But Peter, a tal­ented mu­si­cian and artist be­fore he be­came a sci­en­tist, had nonethe­less flour­ished, as had his younger sis­ter, Janet, a his­to­rian of po­lit­i­cal the­ory who had set­tled in Eng­land.

After we saw the Lodz show, I asked Peter and Jane for their re­ac­tions. “I keep think­ing,” he said, “that if the fam­ily didn’t get here, of course, I’d be smoke. None of us would be talk­ing.” He ex­pressed sur­prise, too, “that there were so many smil­ing faces, so many pho­to­graphs of what seemed to be nor­malcy in the most ab­nor­mal, grotesque sit­u­a­tions imag­in­able.

“These peo­ple were ghet­toized: they knew that they were be­ing herded like an­i­mals…Yet you see peo­ple smil­ing into the cam­eras. You say to your­self, ‘What are you so happy about?’ Of course, they’re look­ing at things through a very col­ored lens – they have a life they have to live.”

I said I was par­tic­u­larly struck by Ross’s dar­ing. By sur­rep­ti­tiously pho­tograph­ing the de­por­ta­tions — the chil­dren crammed into horse-drawn carts, the adults be­ing herded into a rail car — he put him­self in grave dan­ger of join­ing them. And he did all this know­ing that his pho­to­graphs, which he buried for safe­keep­ing, might never see the light of day.

“I think, psy­cho­log­i­cally, there’s a com­fort,” Peter’s wife, Jane told me. “Like putting a mes­sage in a time cap­sule. It at least keeps hope alive.” It was supremely lucky, it seemed to me, that Ross had lived to re­trieve his pho­tos, that roughly half his 6,000 nega­tives had sur­vived — and that the Cole­mans and I had man­aged, so many decades later, to ex­am­ine Ross’s time cap­sule to­gether.


DE­STROYED IN 1939: A man walks in the re­mains of the shul on Wol­borska Street.


LODZ: A Jewish po­lice­man’s fam­ily — mother with in­fant.


ARTIST AT HIS WORK: Ross pho­tograph­ing for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cards, 1940.

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