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Memory Unearthed Essays

As part of the Memory Unearthed exhibition, the Art Gallery of Ontario produced a catalogue in which noted thinkers reflect on Henryk Ross, his collection and the history of the Lodz Ghetto. Their essays follow and catalogues can be purchased here.

Maia-Mari Sutnik

Among the handful of prints and 3,000 surviving negatives produced by the attentive eye and determined mind of Henryk Rozencwaijg-Ross in the Lodz Ghetto from 1940 to 1945, there are images that are hard to blot out once seen. In their expressiveness, heightened by blights and swirls on the surfaces of the degrading film emulsions, these once-buried images evoke a palpable sense of reality. Each is more than an isolated frame: even if marked with trace damages, it is a moment in history—and all of these images belong somewhere in our collective consciousness. In Ross’s images, which transcribe a chain of events in the ghetto, one sees grace and anguish, hope and suffering, productivity and devastation. Looking at these photographs leads to a subjective “reading,” not simply because we are familiar with other photographic documentation of grievous world events, but because the indelible scenes Ross captured evoke visual and emotional responses. Their immediacy—a connecting experience—urges us to respond, inciting an outcry over the cruel tragedy inflicted on the Jewish community, with so few consoling moments.

Michael Mitchell

By choosing a moment in time, the photographer is rejecting all other moments, whether past or future. Photography is an editing medium. When a photographer frames up an image he is editing reality—excluding everything below the frame line, everything above it and all to the right and the left. Significance is ascribed only to what is bounded by the four edges of the frame. It’s like pointing, but more precise and permanent. And it has more authority.

Robert Jan van Pelt

“I’m in Lodz: factories, the Wild West, the sticks.”1 Thus wrote the German-Jewish physician and author Alfred Döblin in October 1924. Factories: rational determination; the Wild West: lawlessness; the sticks: narrow horizons. Many believe that Döblin caught in these three powerful and clashing images the essence of that most exasperating and also intriguing of cities, which the Poles call “Łódź” (pronounced “woodzh”) and which those who speak other languages generally know and spell as “Lodz” (pronounced “lawch”). To make matters even more confusing: the one-time German inhabitants often spelled the name of their hometown “Lodsch,” while its one-time Yiddish-speaking Jewish inhabitants spelled Lodz in Hebrew letters: “לאדזש.” It was a city where, until the fall of 1939, Poles, Germans and Jews rubbed shoulders—a city of occasional ethnic friction, but little ethnic collision.2 Then Nazi Germany attacked Poland, conquered the western part, incorporated Lodz into the Greater German Reich, renamed it Litzmannstadt and imprisoned the Jews in a ghetto sealed from the world. In the four-year period of the ghetto’s existence, a quarter of the inmates died from starvation. The Germans killed the rest in gas vans stationed at the village of Chełmno nad Nerem, which they had renamed Kulmhof, and in the crematoria of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.

Eric Beck Rubin

The question of how to represent historical trauma—particularly the trauma of the Holocaust—and the greater question of how best to preserve and transmit memory of the past, has elicited a range of contrasting, often moralistic, responses. There are realist approaches, which state the Holocaust is comprehensible and can therefore be analyzed rationally (the dominant scholarly methodology), and anti-realist approaches, which state the Holocaust is overwhelming and unknowable (typical of popular discourses). There are related claims that the Holocaust is unique and requires its own language in order to be portrayed, or that it is universal, part of a continuum that means it must be compared to other genocides. There is a contingent that argues for relaying only information that can be scientifically verified, and regards any authorial interjection, clarification or contextualization as mitigation. And against this position, there are those who suggest that many such facts are noted or recollected by witnesses, and are therefore subject to the minor uncertainties, mistakes and errors of even the most fastidious observers— our senses are fallible, they argue, and therefore so are our testimonies. Having recognized the errors of witnesses, this group then insists that nothing meaningfully separates the purportedly factual from the inevitably fictional, and that rather than resisting artifice, we must embrace it as part of the process of preserving the past. Indeed, the argument goes, works of fiction give us more than evidence of the event—they give us knowledge.1

Bernice Eisenstein

The pull of history and the soul of memory are heard in a Yiddish expression: “Es hot undz dos lebn gerufn.” “Life called for us.” It is a phrase of the mamaloshn, the “mother tongue,” that resonates and expands, stemming from its place in the past and reaching forward to the generations to follow, to those who will inherit the knowledge of all that was once done to extinguish its breath. For every occasion on which the memory of the Holocaust is unearthed, Time finds us newly located. We have moved along its linear path, through the measured passage of days and with the accumulation of years, repeatedly to discover that the protective boundaries of our selves have been altered by a ghostly refrain. And it is one that addresses us with a request, accompanied by the awareness of a debt to be paid: “Remember us.”