"I am trying to find someone I know," said Esther Brunstein, 76, a native of Lodz, Poland who lived in the notorious ghetto as a young teenager from 1940 to 1944, before she and her mother were transported to Auschwitz. Of more than 200,000 who lived in the Lodz ghetto, only 5 percent survived. "Here, look, someone is selling something on a scale, perhaps a little medicine, a little food." "But I won't look at many more," she said, as her magnifying glass rested on the face of a beaming toddler in a makeshift crib. "You see, when I see the face of a child like this, and then you know he did not survive."
Arrayed before the survivors, at their request, was the largest collection of photographs of ghetto life during the Holocaust taken by one man, Henryk Ross, a Jewish photographer who lived in the Lodz ghetto and chronicled daily living there. As the Germans neared in 1944 to liquidate the ghetto, Ross, buried his 3,000 negatives - many of them rare pictures of the seemingly contented ghetto "élite," people who worked as supervisors, police officers or held coveted jobs.
These seldom seen pictures are at the heart of his collection and raise difficult questions about the tiny minority of people in the ghetto who lived relatively privileged lives amidst the mass deprivation around them, and were reproached for doing so, some as collaborators, after the war. Among them are photographs of Chaim Rumkowski, the feared and despised leader of the Jewish Council, which administered the ghetto under German orders.
"It was a very complex society, and a class system existed," said Janina Struk, author of "Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence," published last year. "We are seeing a people who had to survive, who had birthday parties, who took photos of each other. We are used to images of horror that when you look at something different, it is easy to say it's not true."
Ross, who died in 1991, retrieved his photos after the war, distributing a few of the most ghastly ones, which served to document the atrocities of the time. His son offered the collection to the Archive of Modern Conflict in 1997.
The collection, with the exception of 100 images published last year in "Lodz Ghetto Album," had never been seen before by the general public, until Sunday morning, when in a nondescript building of the National Portrait Gallery, six Lodz ghetto survivors, and a few relatives and academics, gathered for the day to search for recognizable faces and to discuss their impressions of the controversial photographs.
Helen Aronson, 77, who lived in the ghetto from 1942 until it was liberated in January 1945, planted the idea for the gathering after she spotted her boyfriend in a photograph in the book three months ago during a Holocaust commemoration ceremony in Nottingham. "I know this man, I know this man with the accordion," Aronson recalls saying, as she looked at the picture of a group of young people celebrating liberation in Lodz. "This is my boyfriend, Wysocki Szlomo, my first love."
Her daughter, sitting next to her at the ceremony, said: "Mum, look at the girl sitting next to him. That is you. That is you."
So it was, and soon Aronson called other survivors to spread the news of the pictures. The fresh images, even after so many years, stirred a labyrinth of emotions for the survivors and the smattering of people who escaped Poland as children and hoped to find photographs of their parents in the stack. The memories proved disquieting, not only because the images recorded both the familiar and the horrific, but because they showed the mundane and the contented.
The two women in the group seemed the most interested in scouring the pictures; the men were considerably more reluctant, and one Aron Zylberszac, 67, who spent four years in the ghetto and then a year in six different labor camps, sat in his wheelchair and avoided the task altogether.
"All of these images are very much stuck in my mind," he said. "I still have dreams every night, and photographs make it worse, which is why I don't like looking at them. In the dreams I am always trying to run away and always trying to hide. It is so realistic, like it was all happening, and I wake up in a sweat. I am completely wet."
As one picture, an image of a postage stamp, was shown on the overheard, Perec Zylberberg, 80, Brunstein's brother, recognized himself and made his way to the screen. On the postage stamp was his photograph, taken when he was working behind a loom. "I am there," he said, nodding.
But it was not entirely surprising that there were so few recognizable faces. As the official photographer, Ross was directed by the Jewish Council to catalogue every day life in the ghetto. From the pile of photographs, there are images of tailors, cleaners, weavers and doctors at work; of the hungry searching for food and ladling soup into their mouths. There are classic unauthorized single frames of Jews being loaded into the cattle cars that ushered them to extermination and labor camps, a corpse hanging from a noose in Lodz square, people escaping from the hospital while the Germans rounded up the sick, the old and the very young to send to their death. Ross, academics say, most certainly risked his life to record those iconic scenes.
The photographs of the elite - or the "protected class" as the survivors here called it - were the most striking in their departure from the stark pictures most typically associated with the Holocaust, among them smiling children in lovely, neatly pressed clothes, sitting around a table full of food and drink for a party.
A labyrinth of emotions from the Lodz ghetto
Contact sheet of photographs by Henryk Ross at the National Portrait Gallery in London