Secretly Photographing the Holocaust: A Rare Exhibition of Photos Taken by Jews in the Ghetto

A new exhibition at Yad Vashem shows photos taken of Jews from all angles: Germans, Jews, and Americans or Soviets – the murderers, victims and liberators

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Jewish photographer Mendel Grossman shoots the deportation of Jews from the Lodz ghetto.
Jewish photographer Mendel Grossman shoots the deportation of Jews from the Lodz ghetto.Credit: Courtesy of the Yad Vashem Archives
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

“I took thousands of pictures, and I kept on taking more and more pictures, for a later time, for posterity,” said Zvi Kadushin shortly before his death in 1997. A half-century earlier, Kadushin, an amateur photographer from Kovno, Lithuania, secretly took a raft of photos in the ghetto there, which was built in 1941 and liquidated three years later.

Photographs from the 'Flashes of Memory' exhibition at Yad Vasham.Credit: Courtesy of the Yad Vashem Archive

His work as an X-ray technician at a German military hospital gave him access to photography equipment and the means to develop pictures. He also came up with techniques for covertly taking photos through his clothes. He hid the pictures, and himself, before the ghetto was liquidated and its captives killed. Thanks to his efforts, many of his photographs survived the war, and he later showed them around the world.

Jewish photographer Henryk Ross.Credit: Courtesy of the Yad Vashem Archives

Now some of these photos can been seen in an exhibition that just opened at Yad Vashem, “Flashes of Memory,” curated by Vivian Uria. The Holocaust photos are divided into three main categories based on the person who wielded the camera: Germans, Jews, and Americans or Soviets. In other words, the murderers, the victims and the liberators.

Each had their own reasons for pulling out a camera, whether it was a professional expensive one or a simple amateur model. The exhibition shows just how slippery the term “propaganda” can be. Alongside the photos staged by the Nazis, both of the “master race” as filmed by Leni Riefenstahl for Hitler and of the “inferior” Jews as depicted in the magazine Der Stürmer, are photographs staged by the Soviets after the liberation of the camps.

Especially notable are the pictures of Jewish prisoners from Auschwitz, who were brought back there after the liberation to stand before the cameras of the Soviet Army. According to the exhibition’s catalog, since photographers weren’t present at the liberation on January 27, 1945, a week later the Soviets reenacted the event.

A Mendel Grossman photo of children in the Lodz Ghetto.Credit: Mendel Grossman / Courtesy of the Yad Vashem Archives

Indeed, not only the Nazis but also the Americans and Russians took photographs during the Holocaust for press and propaganda purposes, including for use in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, and in the re-education of the people of occupied Germany.

Some pictures in the exhibition can’t be easily categorized; for example, the photos by German soldiers, police officers or ordinary citizens who weren’t taking pictures for anyone else. Some came to the ghettos because of their work. Others just happened to pass by. For many of them, the ghettos were a startling sight that made them reach for their cameras.

German readers send in photos

In these photographs, the camera captures the Nazi brutality to which the Jewish prisoners were subjected, not just the “unproductive Jews” whom the Nazis sought to portray in their propaganda. One photo shows a woman and three children in the Warsaw Ghetto. The photo credit reads: “A personal photograph taken by an unidentified German.”

German SS man Heinz Jost is credited with several hard-to-look-at photos, including one of a Jewish boy lying on the ground in the Warsaw Ghetto. Another is of two children in the ghetto – a boy lying on the ground dead or near it, and a girl holding him.

A different group of private photographs was originally published by Der Stürmer, which encouraged readers to send in anti-Semitic material that would be published in its letters-to-the-editor section. Readers rose to the challenge and sent in photographs and accompanying text.

“This is how they idly roam the streets of Lublin,” wrote Ernst Müller from Vienna. “The eternal Jew! See how he goes around in the world endangering humanity” was the caption on the back of a photo sent in by Cpl. Albert Glass. “This is how we deloused the Jews in Poland,” an unnamed private wrote on the back of a photograph.

Lodz ghetto photographer Mendel Grossman in his photo lab inside the ghetto.Credit: Courtesy of the Yad Vashem Archive
Jewish photographer Mendel Grossman shoots the deportation of Jews from the Lodz ghetto. Credit: Courtesy of the Yad Vashem Archives
A photograph by Mendel Grossman from the 'Flashes of Memory' exhibition at Yad Vasham. Credit: Mendel Grossman / Courtesy of the Yad Vashem Archives
A Kadushin photo of Jews digging potatoes.Credit: Kadushin / Courtesy of the Yad Vashem Archives

Besides Germans, some Jews – not many, to be sure – had permission to take photos. Such was the case with the photographers of the Judenrat in the Lodz Ghetto, the second-largest ghetto after the Warsaw Ghetto.

Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Judenrat in Lodz, wanted to show the Germans the ghetto’s economic prowess so that they wouldn’t liquidate the place. To that end, he hired two professional Jewish photographers named Mendel Grossman and Henryk Ross.

The two worked in the ghetto’s statistics department; their job was to take pictures for the reports written by the department. But they – as well as Aryeh Ben-Menachem, Grossman’s assistant – also took a lot of photos outside their job, in direct violation of Rumkowski’s orders.

From the 'Flashes of Memory' exhibition at Yad Vasham. Credit: Karina Pasternak
From the 'Flashes of Memory' exhibition at Yad Vasham.Credit: Courtesy of the Yad Vashem Archive
From the 'Flashes of Memory' exhibition at Yad Vasham.Credit: Courtesy of the Yad Vashem Archive
From the 'Flashes of Memory' exhibition at Yad Vasham.Credit: Courtesy of the Yad Vashem Archive

“Because I had a camera as part of my official job, I could capture the whole tragic time of the Lodz Ghetto. I did it knowing that if I were caught, my family and I would be tortured and killed,” Ross later said.

Also shown in the exhibition is a page from an underground photo album put together by Ben-Menachem in 1943. It shows the travails of ghetto life, the kind of thing that didn’t appear in the official Judenrat reports and albums. One page shows Rumkowski and unsparing photos of deportations and dead bodies. The full album did not survive. All that is left are reproductions made by the Polish underground.

The eyes of the victims

Also on display is a letter dated December 8, 1941 that Rumkowski sent to Grossman. He wrote: “I hereby inform you that it is prohibited for you to engage in your occupation for personal purposes .... From now on, the photography work will be limited to the department in which you work. All other photography activity is strictly prohibited.”

Grossman did not survive the Holocaust. Yad Vashem director Avner Shalev writes in the preface to the exhibition catalog that Grossman was both a victim and the eyes of the victims, noting that Grossman preserved human dignity in his images of the Lodz Ghetto. These included the dying days of his relatives – his brother-in-law eating a bowl of soup at the end of a day of labor, his father wrapped in a prayer shawl and praying for the last time, his young nephew chewing on a carrot.

Uria, the curator, says that while some may argue that photography provides a narrow “selective reconstruction” of reality, “bear in mind that photographs provide incontrovertible testimony that a given incident did in fact happen.”

As she puts it, “Photography doesn’t invent an event, it serves as evidence of its existence. The manner of photography can distort the picture presented, but there is no question that the thing seen in the photograph existed at the time the photo was taken.”

Her words are echoed by a quote from the 1942 diary of Rokhl Auerbakh, a Holocaust survivor and Polish Jewish writer who directed Yad Vashem’s Department for the Collection of Witness Testimony in the 1950s and ‘60s.

“Let them film, let them film as much as possible so a filmed record will remain of the situation to which they have brought a community of 400,000 Jews,” she wrote, referring to the German photographers. “They have the ability to create such a record. The editing, the interpretation – those aren’t important,” she added.

“But let there remain on film, even in snatches, the faces of the Jewish passersby from the dim streets. The faces, the eyes that in the years to come will silently shout out the truth. May the masses of beggars be remembered, the people of yesterday dying a slow death from poverty and hunger in the closed ghetto.”

Nearly 1,500 images are displayed in the exhibition, and the ones by Jews can be seen as an answer to the sole Nazi victory in the war – the vast photographic and cinematic record they left behind.

“The German-produced visual materials, much of which were created for propaganda purposes, played a large part in shaping the visual imagery of the events of World War II, including the Holocaust,” says Daniel Uziel, the head of Yad Vashem’s photo-collection section and the historical adviser for the exhibition.

“Even now, for the purpose of a historic visual representation of the Holocaust, one cannot avoid relying to a large extent on German material, including material that was created for anti-Semitic propaganda purposes.”

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