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Art Gallery of Ontario offers rare glimpse of life inside a Second World War Jewish ghetto
Negative 204 (boys in wagon).

TORONTO, ON.- This winter the AGO offers an extraordinarily rare glimpse of life inside the Lodz Ghetto during the Second World War through the daring lens of Polish Jewish photojournalist Henryk Ross (1910-1991). Situated in the heart of Poland, the city of Lodz was occupied by German forces in 1939 and became the country’s second largest ghetto for the Jewish population of Europe, after Warsaw. Incarcerated in 1940 and put to work as a bureaucratic photographer by the Jewish Administration’s Statistics department, Ross unofficially—and at great personal risk—took thousands of images of daily life in the ghetto. These profoundly urgent representations of Jewish life in the ghetto, taken through cracks in doors or through Ross’s overcoat, capture the complex realities of life under Nazi rule, from the relative privileges enjoyed by the elites to the deportation of thousands to death camps at Chelmno and Auschwitz. “Having an official camera,” Ross later recalled, “I was able to capture all the tragic period in the Lodz Ghetto. I did it knowing that if I were caught my family and I would be tortured and killed.”

Opening in Toronto on Jan. 31, 2015, at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross will display over 200 of these incredible images, including original prints in addition to prints from surviving negatives, contact sheets and film projections. Never before exhibited in Canada, the images will be accompanied by artifacts, including Ross’s own identity card, ghetto notices and footage from the 1961 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann, where Ross’s photos were submitted as evidence.

As the time of the mass deportation began, when the last remaining ghetto residents were being sent to their deaths at Auchwitz, Ross hid his negatives. “I buried my negatives in the ground,” he said in 1987, “in order that there should be some record of our tragedy…I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry. I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.” Ross and his wife Stefania were among a very small percentage of ghetto inhabitants to survive the war, and after the liberation of Lodz Ghetto in January 1945 he was able to excavate his negatives. Over half of his original 6,000 negatives survived, albeit with some damage, making his collection one of the largest visual records of its kind to survive the Holocaust.

The indelible scenes displayed in Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross evoke a visual and emotional meditation on a harrowing moment in history. Curated by Maia-Mari Sutnik, the AGO’s curator of special photography projects, these negatives are part of the AGO collection and were generously gifted by the Archive of Modern Conflict in 2007. “Ross’s images make up a deeply moving record of human life and suffering,” said Sutnik. “He had an ability to make many singular moments into poignant narratives, allowing us to reflect on our difficult history and remember.”

In the 1950s, Ross and his wife moved to Israel, where he worked as a photographer and zincographer. Although he made very few prints from his collection of surviving negatives, Ross handcrafted an album of contact prints, which forms the centerpiece of the exhibition and will be shown in its entirety. Its pages are filled with small 35mm prints, roughly arranged in rows, documenting people, activities and loss. Capturing Ross’s personal narrative of life in the ghetto, the album is a summation of his memories and an attempt to tell his story through photographs.

Accompanying the exhibition are several large colour photographs by contemporary Toronto photographer Yuri Dojc. These images - which depict views of Slovakia’s abandoned synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and other fragments of the country’s Jewish history - provide a contemporary vehicle for remembrance. “The power of Ross’s photos lies in their rawness and immediacy and the visceral sense of being in the moment and at the scene,” said Gillian McIntyre, AGO interpretive planner. “In Dojc’s work, we see similar scenes but through a retrospective lens. This distance, we hope, will provide visitors a space to reflect.”

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