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In Poland, a Jewish photographer risked everything to tell his people’s story

When the Germans invaded Lodz, Poland, in September 1939, Henryk Ross, a former sports photographer from Warsaw, had just moved to the city. That December, the Nazis began plans to construct a ghetto for Jewish laborers. They ordered Ross, a Jew who had been assigned to the town’s statistics department, to photograph fellow Jews for ID cards and show them engaged in hard labor for propaganda posters. But Ross, 29, soon found another subject.

Over the next four years, the Nazis relocated more than 160,000 Polish Jews to the Lodz ghetto; by August 1944, when they announced plans to liquidate the ghetto, over 45,000 Jews had died of disease and starvation. Some had been publicly hanged. Those unfit for work had been sent to nearby concentration camps. Ross secretly snapped photos of their suffering. “I did it knowing that if I were caught my family and I would be tortured and killed,” he said later.

Ross placed his negatives—over 6,000 of them—in a box and buried it at the ghetto. “I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry,” he said. “I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.” In 1945 after Soviet troops liberated the camp, Ross returned for the box. Many of the negatives were water damaged—the deportation scene, opposite, for example—but about half survived. The result is a haunting mix: the grace of everyday life coupled with the terror of unthinkable cruelty.