Henryk Ross, Children talking through fence of central prison on Czarnecki Street prior to deportation, 1940-1942
Henryk Ross, Children talking through fence of central prison on Czarnecki Street prior to deportation, 1940-1942. Gelatin silver print, 18.2 x 12.8 cm (7 3/16 x 5 1/16 in.) ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO. Gift from Archive of Modern Conflict, 2007. © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario.

Photography as remembrance and resistance

This fall the Portland Art Museum (PAM) and the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (OJMCHE) present two exhibitions that offer an extraordinarily rare glimpse of life inside the Lodz Ghetto through the lens of Polish Jewish photojournalist Henryk Ross (1910–1991)—Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross at the Portland Art Museum and The Last Journey of the Jews of Lodz at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.

Judy Margles, the director of OJMCHE and Julia Dolan, curator of photography at PAM reflect on the exhibitions and their importance at this moment in time.

Have the devastating events that took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh made you think differently about these exhibitions? 

J.M. I’m not sure that I’m thinking about the Lodz ghetto exhibitions any differently. I am certainly more anguished than I was before the shooting and I feel an even greater urgency about getting school children and the general public into our two museums. Two thoughts come to mind: first, I’ve been absorbing the fact that the suspected shooter had directed his wrath towards HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which has worked since the 1880s to resettle refugees from everywhere, including Jews. In the 1930s, tragically, HIAS was unable to find countries who would offer safe haven for the Jews of Europe. Jews incarcerated in the Lodz Ghetto were there because they could not leave. And, second, the mass murder at the Tree of Life synagogue is yet another reminder of the consequences of hatred towards innocent people.

How do you see art as playing a role in remembrance, tolerance, and education?

J.M. Art brings communities together. We know from research that that exposure to stories of other cultural experiences through art increases empathy and the ability to see other viewpoints. We see this time and time again at OJMCHE, especially with visitors who are interacting with our exhibitions about discrimination and resistance and the Holocaust. Art makes certain that what might seem unthinkable and remote in our collective memory remains as an indelible mark on our conscience. Henryk Ross is an ideal example: in his expressive photographs that depict the chain of events in the ghetto he evokes an almost tangible sense of reality. Within this grim reality, Ross also manages to convey the resilience of the human spirit and hope.

J.D. Photography can give us a direct connection to someone’s lived experience. In this case, we can see through Ross’s camera and see much of what he saw, which links us to his experience while confined to the Lodz Ghetto. His photographs depict the people who were confined with him, as well as those who were forced to do manual labor, and starve, and be deported to death camps solely because of their religion and familial backgrounds. We witness this horrific reality through Ross’s photographs. These images remind us of the crimes against humanity that can occur when hatred goes unchecked.

How do OJMCHE and PAM respond to, and serve our local community in times like this?

J.M. OJMCHE bears the growing immediacy of our mission and each day brings us another sobering reminder of the relevance of our work, a feeling that grows more urgent each day. We strive to nurture a safe space in which visitors can find the relief offered by the intimacy of human experience. Our gallery docents are ready to talk with visitors who seek conversation. In our public programs we address urgent issues as they arise. Forging partnerships that encourage inclusion and foster understanding are a top priority.

J.D. Many people find comfort in art museums during difficult times. I like to encourage folks to also consider challenging artwork within our galleries. Museums are places that allow us to slow down, look carefully, and think critically. We are bombarded by photographic images all day, every day, and must consume them rapidly. Museums invite us to take more time, to think and feel deeply, and can provide a supportive space to consider tough subjects.

What impact does having these exhibitions on view at the same time have? And what is the value of partnership for a project like this?

J.M. Memory Unearthed and The Last Journey of the Jews of Lodz serve as bookends to one another. While both show photographs taken by Henryk Ross while he was imprisoned in the ghetto, Memory Unearthed is perhaps the more personal of the exhibitions, displaying the fully, stark breadth of ghetto life and the longing for normality that incarcerated Jews tried to create. The Last Journey of the Jews of Lodz focuses on Ross as witness to the events and conditions of suffering that led to the last journey to Auschwitz – the liquidation of the ghetto – in 1944. Similar to the survivor testimonies in our oral history collection, Ross’s photographs transcend time and place. Using his camera as a tool of resistance, he emboldens the viewer to envision the complexity of human experience in the ghetto.

The partnership between OJMCHE and PAM has allowed for an immersive experience of Ross’s photographs and provides the opportunity for a wider audience to view and understand the importance of his legacy. The partnership has also allowed us to share expertise. Julia Dolan has shown us new ways to look at photographs and we see things in Ross’s photographs that we would otherwise have missed. We hope that we have been helpful to PAM in offering ways to understand and talk about the difficult issues that come up when we talk about the Holocaust. We’ve also had some terrific interaction between the two docent groups, with each learning from the other.

J.D. Community institutions like OJMCHE should not have to bear the weight of the history of the Holocaust on their own. We can join forces to share that burden, and reach wider and diverse audiences together.

What else would you like to share with readers? 

J.M. When I reflect on when OJMCHE opened its new home in June 2017, the timing could not have been more inflamed – our entire planning process had coincided with the presidential campaign and election. Its impact continues to pervade OJMCHE’s work. The challenge of this era is what propels us to keep working – to hold historical memory close and never forget the experience of the past. Our partnership with the Portland Art Museum has been immensely gratifying. I hope that thousands of people will take the time to view Memory Unearthed and The Last Journey of the Jews of Lodz.