The last ghetto: life and death in Lodz

There's a photograph being projected on to a screen in a room full of mostly elderly people. Then a voice says quietly: "That's me!" Perec Zylberberg, 80, gets up and moves confidently to the screen. "On the left," he says, pointing at the black and white image. "There I am, behind the loom. I was on the ghetto postage stamp."
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Between 1940 and 1944, Zylberberg worked on a loom in the Lodz ghetto, the longest-surviving and most profitable of Poland's dozens of ghettos, or "death boxes," as Himmler called them. Zylberberg grew up in Lodz, and "you could say I loved it," even after he, along with the 34 per cent of Lodz's population who were Jews, were sent to live in a "residential area" of the city, an enclosed zone of 1.5 square miles, which - after the Nazis started sending Jews to Lodz ghetto from Germany, Austria, Luxembourg and other Polish cities - had to house 200,000 people.

Between 1940 and 1944, Zylberberg worked on a loom in the Lodz ghetto, the longest-surviving and most profitable of Poland's dozens of ghettos, or "death boxes," as Himmler called them. Zylberberg grew up in Lodz, and "you could say I loved it," even after he, along with the 34 per cent of Lodz's population who were Jews, were sent to live in a "residential area" of the city, an enclosed zone of 1.5 square miles, which - after the Nazis started sending Jews to Lodz ghetto from Germany, Austria, Luxembourg and other Polish cities - had to house 200,000 people.

Lodz was the first ghetto to be sealed, in May 1940, and the last to be liquidated, in August 1944. Starved, diseased and deported, only 5 per cent of Lodz ghetto residents survived. Six of them are here, in the education room of the National Portrait Gallery, sitting on chairs more suited to smaller people, next to tables covered with photographic contact-sheets.

This is the archive of one of Lodz ghetto's two official photographers, Henryk Ross. It was sold after his death in 1991 by his son, bought by the Archive of Modern Conflict, turned into an exhibition, and then into a book published by Chris Boot. On this open day, Ross's 3,000 images have been made available for examination by the people who might be in them.

In 1944, Ross buried his negatives and went into hiding. He survived, dug them up - and that's the last anyone really saw of them, until now. It's the largest collection of ghetto photography known to exist, and this is the first time survivors have had access to all of it.

In a way, today's event is a treasure hunt for the people, places and situations it offers up. In another way, it's a trip back to hell. On the screen, an image appears of a man beaten to death. He was killed in riots, says Chris Boot. "No," says Roman Halter, 77, in the quiet but authoritative voice of someone who remembers things only too clearly. "I don't think that's correct. The Kripo - German criminal police - used to beat and torture people to get them to say where their valuables were. Look at his physiognomy, he doesn't look starved yet."

Halter was sent to Lodz in 1940. The seventh child in his family, he is the only one who survived: his grandfather and father starved to death, and the rest were sent in 1942 to Chelmno, the first Nazi extermination camp, where 300,000 were herded into trucks and gassed with carbon monoxide. It usually took 10 minutes to suffocate.

Halter doesn't find himself in these pictures, but Helen Aronson does. Now 77, she survived the liquidation by hiding in a bunker. "We heard a Russian voice speaking," she says, "but I never ever believed the Germans would leave. It was not possible." Last year, when some of the pictures were shown at an event at the Beth Shalom Holocaust centre in Newark, Aronson was in the audience with her daughter Anne. "I first recognised a young man I knew well, pictured holding a rabbit."

Then, in a photograph of a group of young people celebrating liberation, she noticed the young man holding an accordion. "I said, 'But that was my boyfriend! His name was Wysocki Szlomo.' It was such a shock. Then my daughter said, 'But Mummy, that's you sitting next to him.' I'd been concentrating so much on Wysocki, I hadn't even seen myself. I tell you, I was shaking."

Ross was employed by the Department of Statistics in Lodz ghetto. His direct employers were the Jewish Administration, tasked by the Nazis with running the ghetto and led by the controversial Chaim Rumkowski, eldest of the Jews. Rumkowski believed that work was salvation. Productive Jews were valuable Jews to the Nazis (Lodz ghetto earned the Germans £14m in profit). So the Department of Statistics set out to record, visually and in statistics, the daily, highly productive life of the ghetto, its factory workers, its child labourers and its starving, productive "subhumans", or Untermenschen, who produced anything from Nazi uniforms to fake five-pound notes.

But Ross also recordedthe rations that meant that most people starved after three months, and the faeces collection workers, barefoot and grubby, who got extra rations of bread but were soon killed off by disease.

"Because we were outsiders - we had been taken to Lodz - we starved from day one," says Roman Halter, who later became an architect, stained-glass window maker and creator of coats of arms for the Queen. "When you starve, your flesh starts to swell, and when you press it, it leaves an indentation. The swelling starts at the ankles and if it goes above your knees, you're dead. The worst things were the starvation and losing my whole family." But the other worst thing is what makes Ross's collection so unsettling. "I'm still bitter about the way the ghetto was run. It was terrible to realise that your own people could be brutal, too."

Like any town of 223,000, Lodz ghetto was a complex, hierarchical society. There was the majority - starving - and the "protected class", as residents called them, who were less starving. This included employees of the Jewish Administration, and a police force and prison. There was corruption, nepotism and cruelty. "You were afraid of the ghetto police," says Perec Zylberberg. "They could beat you until you were blue. They would say, 'Give us diamonds,' even if you'd never seen a diamond. Jewish police, German police, Polish police - it was just a question of who got to you first."

But here in Ross's archive are image after image of ghetto police in their black uniforms, larking around, playfully posing for the camera. Here are their wives and children, eating, drinking and not looking too unhealthy. Here, most shockingly, is a young child dressed up in a child-size ghetto-police uniform, play-hustling his companions along with a stick.

More than half of Ross's photographs focus on the "protected" class, and by the easy familiarity of the poses, it's clear that Ross must have been one of them. This could explain his attitude to the pictures. Though he catalogued his archive before his death and captioned many images - a hanging in Lodz central square, a deportation - he hardly gives any information for the thousands of images of the elite.

This, and the overwhelming presence of the smiling, sunny ghetto residents, bother many in the room. Suzanne Pearson, who was sent to the UK by her German Jewish parents in 1939, came to see if she could spot them in Ross's archive, because they were sent to Lodz before being killed in Chelmno. She had been hopeful, but now she's not. "I've realised I won't find them in these pictures, because these people don't represent the majority of experience in the ghetto. These pictures look like Nazi propaganda." They're disproportionate, says someone else. Misleading. Not the whole truth.

The truth, they say, was soup so thin that potato peelings were precious, and being so weak you couldn't speak without your eyes watering. It was lying in a hospital bed during the Gehsperre, a week-long curfew in 1942 when the Nazis demanded 24,000 children for deportation. Rumkowski got it down to 20,000, and arranged for children to be substituted by the elderly or sick. But on 4 September 1942, he said to inhabitants in the ghetto square: "They are asking us to give up the best we possess. Fathers, mothers, give me your children!" Perec Zylberberg was due to be deported, lying in his hospital bed. But he jumped from the second-floor window, just like the people in one Ross image, and escaped. "I don't know how I did it," he says, "but I suppose I just didn't like the set-up."

Helen Aronson had already lost her father, Motus Chhmura, in her home town of Pabianice, when the Jews were rounded up to be sent to Lodz and the children sent to Chelmno to be killed. "They asked for volunteers to escort the children. My father spoke German, so he went with them."

Her father's action, and his position in the Pabianice Jewish Administration, entitled Helen and her mother to the protection of Rumkowski. He found her a job in an orphanage, until all the children were loaded on to trucks in the Gehsperre "and I could hear them crying my name". Then she cleaned the offices of the Nazi ghetto administrator, Hans Biebow, and other German officials. Her brother got extra food from his job in an office liaising between the Jewish Administration and the Germans.

Aronson has listened quietly to the discussion raging about the elite and collaboration, and the evils of Rumkowski. "You're talking rubbish!" says Aron Zylberszac, 67, to one woman. "How can you say the Jews didn't resist? Surviving was an act of resistance." "Hunger doesn't bring about noble feelings," says Zylberberg's sister Esther Brunstein, who was sent to Auschwitz and saw her mother taken to the gas chamber. "You get demented."

Finally, Aronson stands up. "It's true that I was privileged," she says. "It's true that I was extremely lucky that I wasn't in Auschwitz, and that I lived in a part of the ghetto where I didn't see so many skeletons or people dying in the street. But there were no assurances. We knew we would be finished off in Auschwitz, like everyone else."

She and Ross were assigned to the clean-up commando left behind in the ghetto in 1944. But, she says: "They dug six mass graves for us in the Jewish cemetery. I know - I saw them." All these smiling policemen and their well-fed wives probably ended up transported along with the others. Rumkowski was deported in August 1944 and - rumour goes - was thrown alive into the furnace by ghetto residents. Roman Halter thinks it's too easy to judge. Things are more nuanced. "They were extreme circumstances. No one can judge now and say, 'He should have done that.' We can say Rumkowski was deranged, but we were surrounded by Germans armed to the teeth, so we can also say he was forced to do it."

But Ross's archive has been judged, and somewhat harshly. After the war, Halter was asked to help set up a museum in the Ghetto Fighters House in Israel. "They wanted to use some of Ross's photographs, but never these of Jewish police. That just wasn't acceptable. When Israel became a state, it had to emphasise the pictures of resisters."

That could explain Ross's obscurity after the war. "He tried to get his pictures published in the 1950s," says Janina Struk, the author of Photographing the Holocaust. "But no one wanted to know. The iconic pictures of the Holocaust were of atrocities, horrors. The message of these pictures is not so straightforward."

People take magnifying glasses to the images. There are sounds of recognition, though not from Suzanne Pearson and another man, who have sought information about their parents for decades. Mostly, the survivors want to talk rather than look. They have enough images in their heads. "Honestly," says Perec Zylberberg, "I'd rather watch anything but a film about the Holocaust. When you've been submerged in that, you never clean yourself. Every so often, you smell the stench. It's my companion."

Roman Halter is disturbed by the archive, but he accepts it. "It's right to show these pictures. They were subnormal times, terrible times. Sixty years on, we need to express the whole truth. This man endangered his life to take the photos, and they are part of the truth. History is finally being told the way it should be."

'Lodz Ghetto Album' is published by Chris Boot. Roman Halter will speak at the Holocaust Memorial Day event at the Imperial War Museum in London on Thursday at 7pm (020-7416 5439)