Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Memory Unearthed: My Ties to the Lodz Ghetto

Here’s what I know about Łódź (Lodz).

My maternal grandparents were married in that Polish city at the beginning of the 20th century. Separately, they emigrated at different times to New York. First to arrive in America was my grandfather, Louis Gerson. His wife, Sarah, came later with their son, Solomon, and three daughters, Pola, Sylvia (my mother), and Victoria. A fourth daughter, Lily, would be born in New York. Sylvia was four when they landed at Ellis Island in 1921 from one of the last ships before immigration quotas were initiated that would ultimately doom hundreds, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands even a million Jews who would have sought refuge from the darkness engulfing Europe in the 1930s.

My mother and aunts were too young to remember and pass down details of life in Lodz. Except, that their regal mother would complain that compared to her apartments in the Bronx, her house in Lodz had parquet floors and was staffed with servants. Louis was a jeweler in Lodz, a trade he continued in New York. 

And one more story. Pola was once kidnapped by gypsies, but like the boy in O. Henry’s classic tale “The Ransom of Red Chief,” she was soon returned no worse for the experience. 

Unlike the immigrant benevolent society my father joined in New York from his hometown shtetl of Ottynia, to my knowledge and that of my brother and sister, our mother’s family did not keep up with relatives or friends back in Lodz. Accordingly, I was only aware of Lodz as a big city and would comment casually that my mother emigrated from there whenever mention of Lodz came up in conversation, in a film or TV show. 

So I was deeply intrigued by a recent CBS Sunday Morning segment of an exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) entitled, “Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross” (http://www.cbsnews.com/amp/news/memories-unearthed-from-the-lodz-ghetto/).

The exhibit would run through July 30. Serendipitously, Gilda and I would be visiting the Boston area last week. Last Friday, we went to see the exhibit with Allison, our daughter-in-law. (There are no immediate plans for Memory Unearthed to tour other cities. The exhibit will return to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, where its condition will be assessed, and a determination made whether another venue is in the best interest of the collection, according to an AGO representative.) 

As TripAdvisor notes, “The third-largest city in Poland, Lodz’s historical and global significance is largely due to the ghetto that was built there during World War II.” 

Lodz fell to the Nazis on September 8, 1939, one week after Germany invaded Poland. According to Wikipedia, “The Nazi authorities soon established the Łódź Ghetto in the city and populated it with more than 200,000 Jews from the Łódź area. As Jews were deported … for extermination, others were brought in. … Due to the value of the goods that the ghetto population produced for the German military and various civilian contractors, it was the last major ghetto to be liquidated, in August 1944. ...

“Prior to World War II, Łódź's Jewish community numbered around 233,000 and accounted for one-third of the city’s total population. The community was almost entirely wiped out in the Holocaust. By the end of the war, the city and its environs had lost approximately 420,000 of its pre-war inhabitants, including approximately 300,000 Polish Jews and 120,000 Poles. ...

“When the Soviet army entered Łódź on 19 January 1945, only 877 Jews were still alive, 12 of whom were children. Of the 223,000 Jews in Łódź before the invasion, only 10,000 survived the Holocaust in other places.”

Two of those 877 survivors in Lodz were Henryk Ross and his wife Stefania. A photographer, Ross had been tasked by the Nazis to chronicle the “good” life in the ghetto, but he also surreptitiously focused his lens on the inhumane conditions in the ghetto and the cruel life its inhabitants endured and succumbed to. 

Ross buried more than 6,000 negatives hoping someone would unearth his documented history after the war. After he was liberated Ross himself dug up his cache. Water had damaged about half of the negatives. The MFA exhibited about 200 negatives and prints. (For a more complete background on Ross and the exhibit, follow this link: http://www.mfa.org/news/memory-unearthed.)

My mother and her sisters never spoke of any surviving relatives. In truth, they never spoke of Lodz, other than the comments noted above. 

Perhaps I was imagining a connection, but there in Negative 268 of Ross’ treasured records, a face hauntingly stares out at the camera. It is of a woman on a bed taking off or putting on a nightshirt. It is a face that to my eye resembles that of my mother and her sisters. A relative? I will never know. It doesn’t really matter. Jews have a saying, “All Jews are related to one another.” 

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