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).
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.
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.]
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.