Worked to Death in Lodz

 

Polish ghetto
An exhibition of photographs taken in the Lodz ghetto of German-occupied Poland from 1940 to 1944 are accessible for the first time in the US, displayed in the UN lobby. INSTITUTE FOR CONTEMPORARY HISTORY/MUNICH AND BERLIN

In the Lodz ghetto in the center of German-occupied Poland, residents were not allowed to own cameras, but at least two professional photographers there, commissioned by the local Department of Statistics for the Jewish Council, documented the area’s slide, from 1940 to 1944, into near obliteration.

The images by Mendel Grossman and Henryk Ross record life for the ghetto Jews: adults and children working, relaxing, eating, seeing the doctor and standing in line to board freight trains. But few people look brightly into the camera, given that they were for the most part starving, exhausted, persecuted, diseased and deprived of other basic human needs.

Dozens of the photographs are on view in an exhibition in the United Nations lobby, called “The Faces of the Ghetto, Pictures Taken by Jewish Photographers in the Lodz Ghetto (Litzmannstadt Ghetto), 1940-1944,” up through March 12. The show is presented by the Topography of Terror Foundation in Berlin and sponsored by German mission to the UN in cooperation with the Lodz State Archive. The foundation is located on a site that from 1933 to 1945 housed the headquarters of the German Gestapo and the SS.

In 2009, Ingo Loose, a historian at the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich and Berlin, and Thomas Lutz, a curator at the Berlin foundation, researched the fate of the 4,200 Jews who were deported from Berlin to the Lodz ghetto in 1941. In the Lodz State Archive, the director, Piotr Zawilski, showed Loose and Lutz 27 photo albums and suggested making an exhibition from them.

The albums held about 12,000 contact prints in small format, sorted thematically and taken by the photographers in the ghetto. The images, of which the exhibition is drawn, are now accessible to the American public for the first time in the UN display. (The photos have been seen in Berlin, Cologne and Stuttgart, Germany.)

Two other shows marking the International Day of Commemoration for the Holocaust (Jan. 27) are also in the UN lobby:  “A Monument of Good Deeds:  Dreams and Hopes of Children During the Holocaust,” recounting the lives of 13 children (closes March 27), and “Holocaust — Keeping the Memories Alive,” featuring winning posters by graphic-design students (closes Feb. 25).

Jewish ghetto in Poland
Forced labor was the norm for the Lodz ghetto Jews. The children here are making tin-metal toys. LODZ STATE ARCHIVE

The Lodz exhibition follows a thematic narrative as the Jews tried to maintain a semblance of normalcy in their sequestered part of the city, which had been renamed Litzmannstadt during the Nazi occupation of Poland. It came to be a large group, 230,000 people, the second-biggest Jewish community in Europe after Warsaw, and it was industrious, which helped the ghetto stave off its liquidation until August 1944.

As plans were made to deport Lodz Jews to the Chelmno concentration camp, about 30 miles away, more Jews were shipped in from Vienna, Prague, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Cologne, Dusseldorf and Luxembourg, Dr. Loose said in an e-mail to PassBlue.  Since the new arrivals tended to be older and prone to illnesses and other problems, “their fate was especially tragic,” he wrote. Ultimately, more than 150,000 people were killed in gas vans in Chelmno.

Not surprisingly, normalcy eluded both healthy and sickly residents in the ghetto, no matter how hard they worked for the Nazis, with shootings and forced labor soon part of the daily routine. In four years, conditions deteriorated inexorably, so that children became severely malnourished as their day’s rations were sliced by more than half and they suffered from rickets, tuberculosis, edema and other serious problems.

The photos of children, as with much of Holocaust documentation, are wrenching in their frank detail. In one, two boys eat from big white bowls, which look ominously empty, while a picture of toddlers chewing on what appears to be chunks of bread reveals many blank stares of hungry stomachs and bewildered minds. In another large shot, children stand in line to be checked by a nurse, their arms marred with scabby spots and spirits gone.

photos of Polish ghetto
The photographs in the "Faces of the Ghetto" exhibition were lent by the Lodz State Archive.

To survive in the ghetto, people had to prove that they could do work that was in demand outside it, and in one photograph, a girl is sewing, making goods for export – not for herself. And in another “labor” picture, boys work in a sheet-metal factory, producing tin toys for children outside the ghetto and beyond.

At the end, pictures of deportations in 1944 depict the all-too-familiar scenes of bedraggled people waiting in queues to board trains – unbeknown to some – to the death camp. A ghetto resident’s quote, noted on a display card, says, “We shouldn’t have left the ghetto.”

The exhibitions are free, and the UN lobby is open to the public Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; in March, it opens on Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

For more information on the educational materials and activities of the Holocaust and the UN Outreach Program, visit www.un.org/holocaustremembrance.

 

[This article was updated on Feb. 23.]

Don’t Miss a Story: Subscribe to PassBlue

Sign up to get the smartest news on the UN by email, joining readers across the globe.

We respect your privacy and take protecting it seriously

Leave a Comment

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

Support nonprofit journalism →
Left Menu Icon

Sign up to get the smartest news on the UN by email, joining readers across the globe.

We respect your privacy and take protecting it seriously

Don’t Miss a Story:

Subscribe to PassBlue