This Photographer Risked His Life to Document Jews’ Humanity in the Face of Nazi Cruelty

In Poland, a Jewish photographer risked everything to tell his people’s story

When the Germans invaded Lodz, Poland, in September 1939, Henryk Ross, a former sports photographer from Warsaw, had just moved to the city. That December, the Nazis began plans to construct a ghetto for Jewish laborers. They ordered Ross, a Jew who had been assigned to the town’s statistics department, to photograph fellow Jews for ID cards and show them engaged in hard labor for propaganda posters. But Ross, 29, soon found another subject.

Over the next four years, the Nazis relocated more than 160,000 Polish Jews to the Lodz ghetto; by August 1944, when they announced plans to liquidate the ghetto, over 45,000 Jews had died of disease and starvation. Some had been publicly hanged. Those unfit for work had been sent to nearby concentration camps. Ross secretly snapped photos of their suffering. “I did it knowing that if I were caught my family and I would be tortured and killed,” he said later.

Ross placed his negatives—over 6,000 of them—in a box and buried it at the ghetto. “I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry,” he said. “I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.” In 1945 after Soviet troops liberated the camp, Ross returned for the box. Many of the negatives were water damaged—the deportation scene, opposite, for example—but about half survived. The result is a haunting mix: the grace of everyday life coupled with the terror of unthinkable cruelty.

  • Jews get ready to board the train leaving behind their homes and belongings as they head to Lodz ghetto.

  • Photographer Henryk Ross smiles from his work ID card. But his photos of Jews in the ghetto, taken in secret and at great personal risk, were mostly grim. After the war, Ross published his work in a book; he later testified at the 1961 trial of Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann, where the photos served as evidence in sentencing Eichmann to death. In 1956 Ross emigrated to Israel; he died there in 1991, at age 81.

  • Members of the Gestapo arrive to inspect Lodz’s factories. Jewish hard labor helped manufacture war supplies —including leather, textiles, and timber—that the Germans exploited to fill their coffers. Many Jewish workers endured abuse and torture at the hands of their oppressors.

  • When Germany invaded Lodz in September 1939, the Nazis reigned terror upon the town—beating, arresting, and torturing Jewish citizens and religious officials. They burned down the city’s four major synagogues and established a curfew. Here, a man walks by the snowy ruins of the town’s oldest synagogue

  • Jewish children engage in a game with sinister undertones. In a scaled-down uniform of the ghetto’s Jewish police, one child pats down a mini-deportee. Actual Jewish police often were criminals the Germans recruited to maintain order in the ghetto.

  • Ross’s photographs depict many aspects of Jewish life, capturing intimate moments of families and couples engaged in everyday activities—playing, dining at social events, and reading religious texts. Ghetto residents—such as the mother enjoying the kiss of her child—struggled to make the best of their new life from behind a fence. But for nearly all in the ghetto, conditions would take a turn for the worse.

  • A group of children about to be deported interact with friends and family one last time. Sympathetic to their suffering, Ross took many photos of children, captioning one image as “the most tragic victims.” The Germans would later deem many children, particularly those under the age 10, as unfit for work and send them off to death camps.

  • Along with children, the elderly were frequently among those selected to be killed. Those who were especially sick, infirm, or disabled were left to their deaths without proper food, care, or medicine. Here, several elderly persons are hauled off on a cart—likely to never be seen or heard from again.

  • SS men execute Jews near a mass grave Jewish workers had dug (opposite, bottom). During the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto, the Nazis conducted mass killings and deportations to death camps. Hiding his camera under his jacket, Ross snapped images. When ghetto residents learned of the deaths, Ross recalled, “it became known to them that they were going into the ‘frying pan.’”

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