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Facing the unthinkable

Exhibition offers a complicated picture of life in a ghetto in Poland

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/1/2015 (2097 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

If history is a story told by "the winners" and, at least recently, one told largely through images, we're only getting half the picture.

The photographs of Allied soldiers unsealing the death camps at the close of the Second World War are indelible. The Nazi regime fastidiously documented its own crimes, magnifying their horror. Though they provide indispensable evidence, these images show us the perspectives of liberators and perpetrators, but never victims. They present Europe's Jews and other targets of Nazi brutality as either walking ghosts, dehumanized test subjects, or worse. To see them fully, we rely on the testimony (and art) of those who survived and the surviving accounts of those who died.

The Face of the Ghetto, which opened at the Ogniwo Polish Museum on Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, aims to fill in the historical record with images produced by Jewish photographers themselves. Selected from an archive of 12,000 contact prints, its 50 or so images document everyday life in the Litzmannstadt Ghetto in what was then occupied Poland. Though grainy and anonymous, the photographs help restore their subjects' humanity, offering rarely seen, first-hand glimpses of resilience and quiet resistance.

Their sensitive handling underscores the importance of self-representation for oppressed people, but the story they tell is also more complicated than that.

When the Nazis annexed Lodz in 1939, renaming it Litzmannstadt, it was a city of 670,000, almost exactly the size of present-day Winnipeg. Fully one-third were Jewish. Those who couldn't flee -- some 160,000 -- were forced into to what would become the longest-lasting and second-largest Jewish ghetto in occupied Poland. A prison-city unto itself, in short order, schools, hospitals and synagogues were established, with nearly the entire population mobilized in the production of goods for the Nazi war effort.

Many of the photographs in The Face of the Ghetto project an eerie semblance of business as usual. We see adults at work in different industrial settings, making tires or building furniture. Children gather around a snowman, while others dance in circles, arms linked. One boy prays, tefillin strapped to his arm and forehead; another traces a map of the Holy Land while a teacher looks on. A young girl looks up dreamily from her school desk; another works on a piece of embroidery. On closer inspection, we see that she's stitching insignia for a Nazi uniform.

It was thought -- notably by Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the autocratic, German-appointed "elder" of the ghetto's governing council -- that productivity might save the Jews of Litzmannstadt. The photographs in the exhibition intimately document moments of daily life, but most were in fact commissioned by Rumkowski to highlight the ghetto's value to the Nazi regime, its efficiency and order. In later photographs and in the accompanying survivors' accounts, we learn the outcome of that gamble.

Those too young or old or ill to work were deported to extermination camps, or else they starved for lack of rations. A final purge took place in 1944, with nearly all remaining residents, including Rumkowski and his family, deported and murdered at Auschwitz and Chelmno. In photographs, we watch them go in ragged clusters, weighed down with their belongings. Of the 204,000 who passed through Litzmannstadt, only 877 remained when Soviet troops finally reached the ghetto 70 years ago this month.

A more complete picture isn't always a clearer one, especially when there's no clear "winner" to shape the narrative. The Face of the Ghetto inspires an ambivalent response, but only because it raises impossible, important questions.

The exhibition runs until Feb. 13 at Ogniwo in the North End, and the Berney Theatre (Asper Jewish Community Campus, 123 Doncaster St.) will host a free talk with curator Thomas Lutz on Feb. 11 at 7 p.m.

 

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer, and educator.

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History

Updated on Saturday, January 31, 2015 at 11:27 AM CST: Alters headline and text in paragraph three.

5:25 PM: Clarifies that the Litzmannstadt Ghetto was in occupied Poland.

7:41 PM: Corrects museum address

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