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Holocaust Memorial Day blog

January 27, 20209:30 amOctober 5, 2023 9:35 amLeave a Comment

This year to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, Emilia Bazydlo, who is with us on placement from the University of Leeds, takes a closer look at our latest exhibition Eye As Witness: Recording the Holocaust and the amazing story of a featured photographer, Henryk Ross. 

The 27th January marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp. The day commemorates millions of Jews and other minorities killed under the Nazi Persecution. It is estimated that around 6 million of European Jews lost their lives. Whole societies, which were often over half of the population of cities, disappeared. People were killed in ghettos, concentration camps, work camps and death camps; many of them died from hunger and diseases. 

Thousands of graves and monuments remind us about this genocide. 

Our new exhibition The Eye as Witness: Recording the Holocaust, from National Holocaust Centre and Museum and University of Nottingham, shows images produced during that time. These pictures shape our understanding of history, however most of the most notable images of the Holocaust were actually taken by professional Nazi propaganda photographers. The exhibition, from National Holocaust Centre and Museum and University of Nottingham, juxtaposes photographs taken by Nazis with pictures taken by Jewish people to ask a question: through whose eyes are we seeing the past?

The exhibition includes photographs of Polish Jewish photographer Henryk Ross. Before World War II Ross worked in Lodz as a photographer for Polish press. During the war, he was appointed to work for the Jewish Administration’s Statistical Department. Officially he produced propaganda images as well as identification photographs. He also took pictures of unidentified corpses and demolished buildings. Secretly, risking his life, he recorded the lives of people in the ghetto. Ross captured images of trauma, but also moments of happiness – such as children playing or a mother kissing her child. His work is a rare documentation of the life of a  community in extreme circumstances. 

© Mendel Grossman, Henryk Ross working in the photography darkroom, 1940 – 1944, Art Gallery of Ontario

After the war, Ross and his wife Stefania remained in the ghetto area as a part of the team clearing this part of the city. Later, he operated a photography business in Lodz; in 1950 he and his family emigrated to Israel. He testified at the trial of Adolf Eichmann and his photographs were used as an evidence. This experience inspired him to share his images publicly. 

Ross’s photographs and other images presented in the exhibition suggest that photographs are pieces of historical evidence, and we need to examine them critically to make an informed decision about their meaning. The exhibition points out that the response to photographs changes over time, for example, propaganda images of Jewish people produced to legitimate antisemitism, inspire very different feelings today than originally intended. However, that does not change our perception of what these images show.

Nowadays, these problems seem even more relevant than ever. 

Written by Ezra Kingston

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