It is easy to deride “selfies” and the scads of photos that people today often compulsively take and share via their cellphones. But let’s not write them all off as meaningless. As I’ve seen in my parents’ remarkable journey from the doomed Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland, and in my psychiatry practice, photographs have immense power to heal.
My parents grew up in Lodz, which then was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. On February 8, 1940, the Nazis established the Lodz ghetto. My father, Abraham Bursztajn, was condemned to be part of a sanitation crew called the Fekalists, literally the feces carriers. It was responsible for removing sewage from the ghetto and preventing the spread of infectious disease. The task, which meant near-certain death, was his punishment for refusing to join the ghetto’s Jewish police force, which answered to and worked for the Nazis.
One day Abraham saw Miriam Bryks, a girl he had met before the war, preparing to board a train bound for Auschwitz. In an act of bravado, he told a German soldier guarding the train that Miriam was an essential member of the sanitation crew, and brought her back with him to the ghetto. They married in secret, worked together as Fekalists throughout the war, engaged in nonviolent resistance, and were among the handful of survivors of the 200,000 Jews who had been imprisoned in the ghetto.
Some of my parents’ history I know from the stories they and their relatives have told over the years, some I know from visiting Lodz, and some I learned from the haunting photographs taken at great risk by Henryk Ross who, with the help of his wife, Steffie, secretly documented life in Lodz under Nazi rule. Hoping to leave behind a record of what happened there, Ross and his wife buried their 6000 negatives in 1944. They returned after the city was liberated by the Russian Army in 1945 and were overjoyed to find that many of the images had survived.
On June 17, I had the honor of speaking about an exhibition of some of Ross’s Lodz photographs, called “Memory Unearthed,” now on display in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
At a time when Nazi and Stalinist photographers were using their cameras to generate cold, impersonal images of dominance and superiority, Ross was using his to create images of everyday life in the ghetto that were brimming with compassion and mutual respect. Even in the midst of the Shoah (Holocaust), Ross helped both the photographer and those photographed share with dignity the horror of humiliation, the fear of oblivion, and the pain of grief.
Dr. Bursztajn is Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a co-founder of the Program in Psychiatry and the Law at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; he has also had a private practice in clinical and forensic psychiatry and psychoanalysis. His email address is: [email protected]