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Hesitantly, Holocaust Survivors Revisit Past

Published: January 18, 2005

Correction Appended]


LONDON, Jan. 17 --The survivors of the Lodz ghetto held their magnifying glasses close to the photographs and fixed their eyes on each enlarged image, searching for a familiar face, a recognizable building, a known street.

"I am trying to find someone I know," said Esther Brunstein, 76, a native of Lodz, Poland, who lived in the notorious ghetto as a child from 1940 to 1944, before she and her mother were taken to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Of the more than 200,000 people who lived in the Lodz ghetto, only 5 percent or fewer are thought to have survived the war. "Here, look," she said, "someone is selling something on a scale, perhaps a little medicine, a little food."

"But I won't look at many more," she said as her magnifying glass rested on the face of a beaming toddler. "You see, when I see the face of a child like this, and then you know he did not survive."


As the official photographer of the German-supervised Jewish Council, Henryk Ross was able to capture scenes of the seemingly contented ghetto "elite," or Jews who held coveted jobs. [Photo: Jonathan Player.}

Arrayed before the survivors for a private viewing on Sunday was the largest collection of images of ghetto life during the Holocaust by single photographer, Henryk Ross. Mr. Ross, an official photographer of the Jewish Council, the ghetto's German-supervised administrators, lived in Lodz for years and chronicled its daily life. As the Germans prepared in 1944 to round up most of the ghetto residents for deportation to Auschwitz, Mr. Ross buried his 3,000 negatives. While his photographs include more familiar images of the horrific aspects of ghetto life, because of the nature of his job they also show less frequently seen scenes of the seemingly contented ghetto "elite," Jews who worked as ghetto supervisors and police officers or held coveted jobs.

These latter pictures are at the heart of Mr. Ross's collection and raise difficult questions about the tiny minority of people in the ghetto who lived relatively privileged lives amid mass deprivation and were reproached, some as collaborators, after the war. Among them are Chaim Rumkowski, the feared and despised leader of the Lodz ghetto's Jewish Council.

"It was a very complex society, and a class system existed," said Janina Struk, who was at Sunday's gathering and is author of "Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence" (Chris Boot, 2004). "We are seeing a people who had to survive, who had birthday parties, who took photos of each other. We are so used to images of horror that when you look at something different, it is easy to say it's not true."

After the war, Mr. Ross, who later emigrated to Israel and died in 1991, retrieved his negatives, distributing a few of the most ghastly images, which served to document the atrocities of the time. His son offered the collection to the Archive of Modern Conflict in London in 1997.


The photographs of the elite or the "protected class," as the survivors called it, were the most striking in their departure from the stark pictures typically associated with the Holocaust. [Photo: Jonathan Player.}

The collection, aside from 100 images published last year in "Lodz Ghetto Album" (Chris Boot), had never been seen by the public until Sunday, when six survivors of the ghetto, along with a few relatives and academics, gathered in a room of the National Portrait Gallery here to search for recognizable faces and discuss their impressions.

Helen Aronson, 77, who lived in the ghetto from 1942 until its liberation by Soviet troops in January 1945, planted the idea for the meeting after she spotted her boyfriend in a photograph in "Lodz Ghetto Album" three months ago at a Holocaust commemoration ceremony.

"I know this man, I know this man with the accordion," Mrs. Aronson recalls saying as she looked at the image of young people celebrating the arrival of Soviet troops in Lodz. "This is my boyfriend, Wysocki Szlomo, my first love."

Her daughter, who was with her at the event, said: "Mum, look at the girl sitting next to him. That is you. That is you."

 So it was, and soon Mrs. Aronson called other survivors to spread the news. They asked the archive for a viewing of the collection.

 The fresh images, even after so many years, stirred a labyrinth of emotions. The memories proved disquieting, not only because some of the images recorded suffering, but also because some showed the mundane and the contented.

 The two women in the group seemed the most interested in scouring the pictures. The four men seemed considerably more reluctant. Aron Zylberszac, 67, who spent four years in the ghetto and a year in labor camps, sat in his wheelchair and avoided the task altogether.

"All of these images are very much stuck in my mind," he said. "I still have dreams every night, and photographs make it worse, which is why I don't like looking at them. In the dreams I am always trying to run away and always trying to hide. It is so realistic, like it was all happening, and I wake up in a sweat. I am completely wet."

As one image, a photograph of a postage stamp, was projected on a screen, Perec Zylberberg, 80, who is Mrs. Brunstein's brother, recognized himself. The stamp, of the internal ghetto postal service, included a photograph of him working behind a loom. "I am there," he said, nodding.

Mrs. Aronson picked out another familiar face, a young man holding a rabbit and staring into the camera smiling. "He was my friend," she said, "and here is his family."

As the official photographer, Mr. Ross, along with his colleague Mendel Grossman, was directed to catalog everyday life.

The photographs include images of tailors, cleaners, weavers and doctors at work; of the hungry searching for food and ladling soup into their mouths. There are also unauthorized single frames of Jews being loaded into the cattle cars that carried them to extermination and labor camps, a corpse hanging from a noose in Lodz square, people escaping from the hospital as the Germans rounded up the sick, the old and the very young to send to their deaths. Mr. Ross, academics say, risked his life to record those scenes.

The photographs of the elite or the "protected class," as the survivors here called it, were the most striking in their departure from the stark pictures typically associated with the Holocaust. They featured smiling children in neatly pressed clothes, sitting around a table laden with food and drink for a party. A plump boy in a mini-policeman's uniform, marching with his young friends around the street. Revelers gathered on top of a horse-drawn carriage.

"It looks like Nazi propaganda," said Susanne Pearson, 76, who last saw her parents in 1939, when she was taken to Britain as a child. Her parents were sent to the Lodz ghetto, and she never saw them again. "I know I will not find my mother and father among them."

The former residents of the ghetto held a complicated, decidedly nuanced view of these images, and wavered between bitterness and understanding. "We can't today judge certain circumstances of Lodz ghetto and Rumkowski," said Roman Halter, 77, who was among the last to be taken to Auschwitz.

"I am very hurt and bitter about the way the Lodz ghetto was run," Mr. Halter said. "I lost my whole family in Lodz." But, he added: "They were exceptional circumstances. And it is easy to say now, 'He should have done this.' "

The elite encompassed both the bad and the good, Mrs. Brunstein said. A ghetto policeman saved her life after he spied her and her mother hiding on a roof during a German roundup and continued on his way.

"Hunger does not bring out noble feelings," she said. "We knew it was a hierarchy. They were privileged and they had more food. If I had a chance, I would have taken it, too, depending on the price."

For Mrs. Aronson, the photographs touch a more personal chord. She was indirectly a part of the elite, she said. Her father, who she said died after trying to save the children of her small town, knew Mr. Rumkowski and, because of that, Mrs. Aronson, her mother and brother were given good jobs. Hers was at an orphanage and later at a confectionary factory. She was in Lodz until the war ended.

"To say that we were privileged and that we knew we were going to survive is a load of rubbish," she said, adding that she, too, went hungry and feared for her life. "We had the same rations as everyone else. My brother got from the Germans a bit of food now and again. Food was the most important thing to survive."

But survival, she added, was never a given. Safety came only after liberation, when, after hiding in a bunker with 15 others for more than a week with a vial of poison in her possession, they heard Russian voices.

Shortly after, she and her accordion-playing boyfriend sat down with friends, pulled out the accordion, and smiled for Mr. Ross's camera.


Correction: January 19, 2005, Wednesday:

Because of an editing error, an article in The Arts yesterday about a gathering of six survivors of the Lodz ghetto at the National Portrait Gallery in London to look at photographs of the ghetto misidentified the publisher of "Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence" by Janina Struk, who also attended. It is I. B. Tauris, not Chris Boot.


Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company


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