In 1942, the Jewish Council of Elders, under Nazi orders, decreed that parents had to give up their children under 10 for “resettlement.” Ross photographed carts filled with children and the sick and elderly being deported to Chelmno, a death camp 30 miles away. By this point, up to 100 people a day were dying from disease and starvation, and Ross documented how enslaved residents hauled bodies to the morgue.
In August 1944, when the liquidation of the ghetto was announced and mass deportations to Auschwitz commenced, Ross was one of some 900 residents held back as a clean-up crew to make the ghetto habitable for German refugees. Not expecting to survive, Ross buried the images he had risked his and his family’s lives to capture.
Some of the more harrowing images in the exhibition are accentuated by the chance effects of their brief entombment. Water damage destroyed half the negatives and created haunting abstracted passages in others. In a blurry image shot hastily from a distance and captioned by Ross “the gallows in operation,” a dark silhouette dangles off the ground from a rope with a trail of shadowy figures moving in the background. The degraded emulsion along its edges makes the corrosive horror of the image all the more palpable.
After liberation in 1945, Ross lived in Poland for another decade before emigrating to Israel. He would never take photographs again, but he printed some of his negatives in preparation for the Eichmann trial, and published a book, The Last Journey of the Jews of Lodz, in 1962. In 1987, he began cutting and pasting all his contact sheets into a storyboard-like album with unsettling juxtapositions—scenes of happy family life, say, followed by deportations.
“He created this album that’s not in any way a linear narrative, but there are lots of stories within it,” says Gresh. “It’s really the moment we can see Ross’s vision—or the experience of what he went through.” Clearly, he was still trying to process the trauma several decades later.