Łódź: site of the first of the large ghettos established in German-occupied Poland. The ghetto was 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 was Bałuty, in the northern section of the city, the district with the city’s poorest housing and sanitation––then, and still now. The ghetto’s population increased 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 were established, mostly producing textiles for the German war effort. The head of the Jewish Council in the ghetto, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, believed that Jews’ best chance of survival was to make the ghetto as productive as possible, and though he was wrong in thinking that cheap Jewish labor was more valuable to the Nazis than Jewish death, the ghetto did survive longer than any other.
Life in the ghetto was horrendous, and death from hunger and disease was rampant, claiming some 50,000 lives in the ghetto’s first two years. Regular deportations to the death camp at Chełmno began in the winter of 1942, and continued until the fall of the next year, totaling some 70,000 Jews and 5,000 Roma who were also confined in the ghetto. In the spring of 1944, the Germans began 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 were sent west on death marches into Germany. When the Soviet army entered Łódź on January 19, 1945, they found only 877 Jews still alive. Of the 223,000 Jews in Łódź before the invasion, only 10,000 survived the war in hiding in other places.
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 also the streets of the city, including a commission to document the lives of poor Jewish children. With the outbreak of the war, he is confined with his family in the ghetto. He wrangles a job as a photographer for the ghetto’s Department of Statistics, taking product pictures, and mug shots 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—living “death notices,” as the near dead are called. He photographs Jewish self-help and the everyday labors of the ghetto—the sorting, the allotting, the shit-hauling. And he photographs everything having to do with food: the ration cards, the distribution systems, the soup kitchens, the scavenging and scrounging, the thousand ways that hungry people eat. He photographs the activities of the ghetto that make life purposeful—schools, worship, games. He photographs the movements of people across checkpoints and over bridges. He photographs in the ghetto’s workshops and factories, hospitals and cafeterias, and he photographs the offices and flats of the ghetto's potentates, with their comforts and privileges. Notwithstanding a bad heart, he scales the steeple of a church in the ghetto to photograph the vast prison from above. He walks rooftops and he climbs electric power posts to photograph German troop movements, countersurveiling his captors. 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. You are therefore strictly prohibited to do any other photographic work.” 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 folds this technique into the 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. A few days later, 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 people at the Chełmno death camp. Resistors are killed immediately and their bodies are thrown into the streets and into heaps in the cemetery. Defying a strict curfew, Grossman attaches himself to the laborers ordered to transport and bury the dead. He photographs the faces of the corpses before their deposit into mass graves: the gravediggers lift the head of each body quickly for Grossman to make an identification photograph. Through 1943 and into 1944, Grossman photographs the deportations obsessively, walking with convoy after convoy of condemned people through the ghetto, photographing intensively, putting himself in great danger——particularly at the railroad station, where he photographs the Germans pushing Jews onto cattle and freight cars bound for Chełmno and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
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, his camera underneath his coat. 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, his camera reportedly still with him in the snowbank where he dies. After the war his surviving sister recovers the archive from its hiding place in Łódź and sends it to Kibbutz Nitzanim near Ashdod, Palestine—where it is 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.
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 Jewish memory mostly points at that rupture, not really entering it, occasionally––as in the life’s work of Mendel Grossman––memory takes the inner shape of the rupture-in-process, toward a dialogue between the open past and an imagined outside world, the world of future generations––we ourselves.
And me, I cannot write my homage to Mendel Grossman. With words I cannot find him––I am not enough of a novelist or a poet to follow him as he flutters through my studies and my visions. But I can go to Łódź, to Bałuty, and I can make photographs. In a sequence of pictures––one that manages to fly and to crash at the same time––there I might find Mendel Grossman, just maybe.
Jason Francisco, 2022