April 30: Preservation

Date #30April 30: Bury your photos.

Today is the day Mordka Mendel Grossman died in 1945 in Königs Wusterhausen, Brandenburg, Germany.

Lodz (Litzmannstadt), Poland, had been a large town of a quarter-million Jews prior to the establishment of a Jewish ghetto by the German occupiers between 1940 and its liquidation and closure of the ghetto in 1944.

Two significant archives of photographs which document this sinister corralling of people, children and adults, leading to the death of most through disease, starvation or their deportation to death camps and the gas-vans of Chelmno. Less than 300 survived. One was Henryk Rozencwajg-Ross (born tomorrow May 1, in 1910), who was left behind with the Aufräumkommando cleanup squad which was to erase the evidence of this war crime, and who was rescued when the city was liberated by the Red Army.

The slightly younger Mendel Grossman (born 27 June 1913) suffered the fate of his fellow citizens and was shot when he collapsed on a forced death march. He had been a lover of literature, the theatre and the arts, a painter, a sculptor, and also an amateur photographer who believed that photography was an art. Just before the war, in 1938, he had accepted a commission to photograph the children of the Jewish poor for TOZ, the Jewish organisation for the protection of children’s health.

Mendel Grossman (early 1940s) Young boys in the Lodz ghetto
Jews relocate to the Baluty section of Lodz
Mendel Grossman (1940) Jews relocate to the Baluty section of Lodz

In February 1940, the Chief of Police ordered all the Jews in Lodz, including the two photographers Ross and Grossman, to move to the slum in the northern part of town, the Old City, Bałuty, and Marysin, dilapidated, with no sewage and only public standpipes for water, 160,000 people had to live within an area of only 4.13 square kilometers (1.6 square miles) fenced in with barbed wire and guarded by German police, the Schupos, in  the most strictly isolated ghetto in occupied Europe.

Tens of thousands of Jews from the surrounding region and all of Western Europe were also shipped into the ghetto, while thousands of Austrian Roma were segregated into a neighboring area. It was the Nazis’ second most populous concentration of Jews after Warsaw. The ghetto was completely closed off on April 30, 1940 and the slow death of its population commenced, though at first this was not understood.

Soup line in the Lodz (Litzmannstadt) Ghetto. Source- Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
Henryk Ross (early 1940s) Soup line in the Lodz (Litzmannstadt) Ghetto. Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

It was the subterfuge of the Nazis so as to maintain order, to appoint a Jewish administration overseen by ‘the Eldest of the Jews’ Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski who oversaw numerous organisations and departments that dealt with food supplies, health, welfare, justice, and education and delivered by the population. They had their own police force and issued their own currency which was of course valueless outside. In the photograph above Jews patiently queue at a communal soup kitchen, all wearing the required yellow Star of David badges and clutching pots. They are supervised by a Jewish policeman the Ordnungsdienst (‘Order Service’).

Rumkowski was deceived by his masters into believing that if the ghetto could deliver indispensable goods to the Germans such as uniforms and bedding, the Nazis would supply its inhabitants with food and spare them from deportation and certain death.

Two Jews with cameras in a Nazi ghetto seems a contradiction. It is only to be understood as part of the German Reich’s obsession with documenting its own actions and Rumkowski’s desire to show his masters what a great job he was doing (beware the bureaucrat!). Both were given jobs in the Statistics Department operated by the Jewish Council, or Judenrat who oversaw the community on behalf of the city’s German Food and Economy Office, Ghetto Division. A photographic office functioned within this institutional framework from August 1940 to April 1944. The photographers’ official tasks included taking photographs for the identity cards that every ghetto resident had to carry with them, as well as documenting work in the ghetto factories and workshops

Mendel Grossman (early 1940s) At the soup kitchen; Photographer Mendel Grossman’s sister and her son, Yankele, are in the foreground

They were given film and photographic paper for the task, and no doubt their daily bread too. But both reserved film for their own clandestine purpose; to bear witness: “I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry,” Ross said about his photographic work, “I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.” They risked their lives to reserve about half of their pictures for this purpose, made without the Judenrat‘s official mandate, and thus forbidden on punishment of death. Here Grossman records Ross making identification photographs using one negative to record many in order to save film.

Photo attributed to Mendel Grossman showing Henryk Ross photographing identification cards for the Jewish Administration, Statistics Department, in 1940. (Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts,
Photo attributed to Mendel Grossman showing Henryk Ross photographing ghetto residents for identification cards for the Jewish Administration, Statistics Department, in 1940. (Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Remarkably, many photographs of the ghetto have survived, including some, the best known, taken by Germans; colour photographs by Walter Genewein, the head of the finance department of the Gettoverwaltung (German civilian administration), and others by members of the Wehrmacht, the Schutzstaffel (SS), or civilians. A very large number was also taken by Jewish ghetto inhabitants themselves including Lejb Maliniak (*1908), the only other photographer from the ghetto whose name is known, though only very few pictures can be clearly attributed to him.

Ross had been a news and sports photographer and was used to photographing groups of people, while Grosman’s background as an art photographer suited him to his street photography of people unaware of the camera hidden beneath his coat. Keeping his hands in his coat pockets, which were cut open inside, and carefully opening his coat and turning in the right direction in order to angle the shot, Grossman would quietly press the shutter. Such strategies enabled him even to photograph public executions and deportations; evidence for posterity of German war crimes.

Forced deportation
Mendel Grossman (1942 or 1944) Forced deportations.

Through their subterfuge, photographs of the 1942 and 1944 deportations from the ghetto to the Chełmno extermination camp remain, but too many cry out for explanation and interpretation, only because they so clearly show suffering. The pictures show large processions of people heading to the Radegast station where the trains departed, as well as Jews boarding a train guarded by Germans and Jewish policemen. They are to be murdered only hours after. Grossman was concealed by friends in a cement storeroom to enable him to make this photograph ‘through a hole in a board’

Loading trains
Mendel Grossman (1942 or 1944) Boxcars being loaded at the station during deportations.
Jewish police
Mendel Grossman (1942 or 1944) Jewish police prevent escapes.

Mendel Grosman survived the ghetto, but in autumn of 1944 was sent from Lodz to a concentration camp in Königs Wusterhausen, Germany, about 20 miles southwest of Berlin. Grossman’s friend, the designer Pinchas Shaar, said he was there with Grossman as Soviet forces surrounded Berlin in April 1945 and the SS camp commander tried to hurry the Jews out of the facility. Shaar said Grossman was marched out in a first group, but that he and the rest of the prisoners were halted when American and British bombers flew over and were liberated days later by Soviet troops. “After the war, upon meeting the survivors of the first group [marched out of the camp], in which Grossman had been included, we learned that they had been taken in the direction of the Bavarian Alps,” Shaar said. “Sick men on the march who could not keep up with the group and lagged behind were shot. One of them was Mendel Grossman.”

Grossman had taken steps while still in the ghetto to ensure that his photographs would be preserved by frequently distributing them among his friends who hid them (Arieh Ben-Menachem thus retained 417 prints) and hiding them before his deportation in October 1944 (he had been part of the “cleanup commando” after the liquidation of the ghetto).

Grossman’s friend, the designer Pinchas Shaar, said the photographer stashed thousands of negatives, hundreds of prints, his Leica camera and jewelry entrusted to him by relatives, in two big clay jars and buried them in opposite walls of an abandoned bunker. Ben-Menahem gives a somewhat different account, writing that Grossman packed his archive in tin cans inside a wooden crate, “with the help of a friend he took out a window sill in his apartment, removed some bricks, placed the crate in the hollow, then replaced the sill.” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., says the prints were hidden in the apartment and in a cellar.

Nevertheless, they were retrieved during the confused period post-war by Pinchas Shaar and Grosman’s sister who brought most of them to Israel, where many disappeared during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948.

Henryk Ross (who died in Israel in 1991) and his wife Stefania, who married in the ghetto, also stayed there as part of the Aufräumkommando and took that opportunity to bury his photographs and negatives, retrieving them after liberation.

Henryk Ross' excavating his hidden box of negatives and documents from the Lodz Ghetto in 1945. (Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Henryk Ross’ excavating his hidden box of negatives and documents from the Lodz Ghetto in 1945. (Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.