An Homage to Mendel Grossman
Łódź: site of the first of the large ghettos established in German-occupied Poland. The ghetto is established in February 1940 and sealed on May 1, 1940 with 160,000 inmates enclosed in an area of 1.5 square miles. Its location is Bałuty, in the northern section of the city, the district with the city’s poorest housing and sanitation. The ghetto’s population increases by many tens of thousands in the next two years, receiving Jews from the surrounding areas and also from Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, Czechoslovakia. Some 100 factories are established, mostly producing textiles for the German war effort. The head of the Jewish Council in the ghetto, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, believes that Jews’ best chance of survival is to make the ghetto as productive as possible, and though he is wrong in thinking that cheap Jewish labor can be made more valuable to the Nazis than Jewish death, the ghetto does survive longer than any other.
Life in the ghetto is horrendous, and death from hunger and disease is rampant, claiming some 50,000 lives in the ghetto’s first two years. Deportations to the death camp at Chełmno begin in the winter of 1942, and continue until the fall of that year, totaling some 70,000 Jews, and 5,000 Roma who are also confined in the ghetto. In the spring of 1944, the Germans begin to destroy the ghetto, sending approximately 70,000 Jews to Chełmno, and others to Auschwitz-Birkenau (including Rumkowski). In the winter of 1944, some Jews in the ghetto are sent west on death marches into Germany. When the Soviet army enters Łódź on January 19, 1945, they find only 877 Jews still alive. Of the 223,000 Jews in Łódź before the invasion, only 10,000 survive the war in hiding in other places.
And Łódź: a Polish city Germanized and Nazified like no other city in Europe. The Polish population (396,000 in 1940) is kept under constant surveillance, terror and threat of expulsions. The no-man's land that arises between the ghetto and the rest of the city is brutally effective, cutting off virtually all contact between the ghetto and the outside world. Indeed, there is no record of any Jewish family or individual surviving on the Aryan side of the city of Łódź.
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Into this world, enter Mendel Grossman, born in 1913 into a Chasidic family, spending his childhood in Łódź, attending yeshiva and then leaving the straight and narrow path. In his twenties he becomes a photographer, a painter, and becomes knowledgable about literature, theater, and the arts. Before the war he photographs the theater––where he is interested in expression, light and drama--and in the streets of Łódź, including a commission to photograph poor Jewish street children. Confined to the ghetto with his family, he wrangles a job as a photographer for the Department of Statistics in the ghetto, making images of products made in the ghetto and identification photographs for work permits. This job serves as the cover for his real purposes––to photograph all aspects of life in the ghetto using the film and paper in the department’s supply. He becomes a visual diarist, one of many ghetto diarists, most famously Emanuel Ringelblum in the Warsaw ghetto. Leveraging an official purpose for the sake of a personal one, Grossman spends his time in the streets and alleys, in homes, soup kitchens, workshops and the cemetery, orphanages, hospitals. He photographs children bloated with hunger, and the living “death notices,” as the near dead are called.
He photographs convoys of men and women condemned to death at Chełmno and later Auschwitz-Birkenau, and public executions. He photographs the everyday labors of the ghetto—the factory work and the self-help work, all manner of organizing, record-keeping, and shit-hauling. He photographs the activities of the ghetto that make life purposeful—schools, music, worship. And he photographs everything having to do with food: the ration cards, the distribution systems, the soup kitchens, the thousand ways that hungry people eat. He photographs families and children and the elderly, and he photographs the ghetto's institutions, particularly its potentates and their coteries, and their shameful way of living that mocks the suffering of the starving population. He photographs the corpses in the ghetto's morgue, and he photographs his captors––the troop movements of the Germans themselves. With a bad heart, he climbs electric power posts, walks rooftops, and scales the steeple of a church in the ghetto. He photographs the inscriptions on the walls and doors of the abandoned houses of the deported, no matter how illegible, to help in deciphering their names.
He is trailed by the Gestapo and by the ghetto’s Jewish police. In December 1941, Rumkowski writes to Grossman, “I inform you herewith that you are not allowed to work in your profession for private purposes….Your photographic work is confined only to the activity in the department in which you are employed.” Grossman’s response is to learn to photograph with his camera hidden beneath his coat, working the camera through holes cut in his pockets. He learns to turn his body in the direction he wants, slightly part the coat, and click the shutter. He makes an art of strategically hanging around, anticipating things. His courage is astonishing. At one point, a Viennese Jew condemned to deportation succeeds in escaping through the barbed wire, only to reach the railway station, pull out his handkerchief and have the yellow patch fall out of his pocket. He is arrested, and the inhabitants of the ghetto are ordered to congregate to witness his execution. Grossman photographs the event, but is unsatisfied because the photograph is not close enough. After a few days another execution takes place, and Grossman does not assume a protected position, rather stands in the front row of the crowd, directly behind a German policeman. During the execution the silence of the crowd is so absolute, so tense, that when Grossman clicks the shutter, a German policeman turns his head.
During the massive deportations of 1942, the German Criminal Police and the Jewish Police go from home to home selecting Jews for death. Resistors are killed immediately and their bodies are thrown into the streets and into heaps in the cemetery, while those selected for death are held in the hospitals. Defying a strict curfew, Grossman attaches himself to the gravediggers and laborers ordered to transport and bury the dead. He photographs the faces of those who die en route to the ghetto, before their deposit into mass graves, and also those waiting to be buried whose chests are marked with numbers which later appear on graves: the gravediggers lift the head of each body quickly for Grossman to make an identification photograph. He likewise photographs the deportation convoys of 1943 obsessively, putting himself in great danger, particularly at the railroad station where the German police are pushing Jews onto trains.
Between 1940-1944 Grossman makes over 10,000 photographs, gives away some large unknown number to people who ask for them, and in the summer of 1944 hides a complete annotated archive of his work in tin cans stacked into a wooden crate. He places his archive in a cleared-out hollow in the wall underneath the windowsill in his apartment. Grossman is deported on one of the last trains leaving the ghetto. After his deportation, the Gestapo finds some of his prints in abandoned flats, and looks in vain for him in the ghetto. Alone, separated from his family and friends, he arrives in a work camp in Germany. The camp is evacuated several days before the German surrender, and Grossman, aged 32, collapses from a heart attack during the death march. I like to imagine his camera is still with him in the snowbank where he dies.
In perhaps the greatest tragedy—after the war his sister recovers the negatives from their hiding place and sent them to Kibbutz Nitzanim in the south of Israel, where they are lost in the Israeli war of Independence. Grossman's close friend, Nachman Zonabend, remains in the ghetto until liberation, and succeeds in saving the archives of the Judenrat and some of Grossman's photographs, concealing them at the bottom of a well.
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If history, as Ulrich Keller notes, generally means continuity in change, the history of European Jews is different. All other countries and peoples ravaged by the Second World War eventually returned to a normal existence, but the annihilation of six million Jews in the Holocaust completely devastated the thousand year civilization of Ashkenazic Jewry, and destroyed that continuity. And if memory mostly points at that rupture, not really entering it, occasionally it happens––as in the life’s work of Mendel Grossman––that memory takes the inner shape of the rupture-in-process, toward a dialogue with an imagined outside world, the world of future generations, we ourselves.
And me, I cannot write my homage to Mendel Grossman, rather I can only make pictures, and braid them together––black and white pictures made in the former ghetto in Łódź, where I have returned several times in the last years, and portraits of people, strangers, made in many locations in that city, his city. I cannot write the homage I want, cannot conjure Grossman in words in such a way that I see him in passing, clip him on his arm before he flits away. In words, everything about my approach is too direct––I am not enough of a novelist, or a poet. But in a sequence of pictures––one that manages to fly and to crash at the same time––there I might find Grossman, just maybe.
San Francisco, September 2016