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Leafing through a binder with photos taken by Henryk Ross in the Lodz ghetto, I could not escape the anger and compassion that always rises when I confront the abomination of the Nazi ghettos in Poland. The rage and the pity are not difficult to explain. Even after working as a Holocaust historian for two decades, I have not become used to the pictures of the rag-clad urchins scavenging scraps of food, the dejected grown-ups trading their last meagre possession which no-one needs, and the harrowed people pulling the excrement wagons. The stolen images of the public hangings, the corpses awaiting burial and the anguish of the deportations to the death camps still nauseate me. These are the photos I know well: images that have been published in general histories of the Holocaust, or more focused accounts of the Lodz ghetto.
But as I turned the pages of the binder, there were other photos that I had never seen before; pictures that caused a feeling of apprehension and even an unexpected annoyance. There were photos showing well-dressed children enjoying a party, of grown-ups acting up for the camera, and of the pleasures of a wedding reception. For me, and not only for me, these pictures testify to the uncomfortable fact that, amongst the pauperised and starving mass of ghetto inmates, in the wrenching situation imposed by the Germans, a small minority fared relatively well. These included those who occupied positions in the Jewish Council or its administration, or people who had been able to save some of their wealth, or opportunists who adapted to the whatever opportunities existed in the bewildering ordeal of segregation, starvation, disease and slave labour.
I had read about these people, and the way they had been able to carve out small enclaves of relative privilege amidst a hell of cruelty and suffering. Both survivors, and others who had never suffered the world of the Nazi ghettos, reproached the favoured after the war for their lack of solidarity with those who had died just steps away. And they condemned those who had bought an exemption from deportation – one person's exemption being at the expense of someone else having to go. Many felt a shame that so many had grasped the opportunity to endure the ordeal with a degree of comfort – or with an illusion of control over a very uncertain future. How much more edifying was the self-sacrifice of a Janusz Korczak, who had protected his orphans while he could, and who then chose to share their death rather than seek his own safety. And thus these photos showing privilege amidst general destitution – some cheer amidst despair – did not find a place in the histories we published, to remain hidden in forbidden drawers and closed files.
Two generations after the Germans liquidated the Lodz ghetto, we are ready for the whole picture, and therefore need every single photograph. As I consider all of the images that Henry Ross took and saved, the differences between the seemingly privileged and the obviously destitute fade in the knowledge that almost all of the people caught by his camera were murdered shortly thereafter. The pathos of this halts my all-too-easy reflections on the meaning and memory of social and economic distinctions in the anteroom of Auschwitz. It makes me shudder that, very likely, each of the pictures in this album is the last record of each of these people's unique lives. In the face of this forlorn fact, there remains nothing but to cease conversation and return to observation.
Robert Jan van Pelt
Toronto, March 2004