Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature! Bernice Eisenstein on Contributing to Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross

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Bernice Eisenstein

When Polish Jewish photographer Henryk Ross (1910-1991) buried 6,000 negatives of his photos of the Lodz ghetto in 1944, he feared they would be the only record of the Polish Jewish people who were being systemically murdered in the ghetto during WWII. And indeed, only 10,000 of the more than 200,000 Jews who passed through the Lodz ghetto would survive the War.

Ross was an official Lodz ghetto photographer from 1940 to 1944, taking identification card photos for the ghetto's constantly swelling Jewish and Romani population, as the Nazi regime packed more and more people into the area.

Tasked with documenting the ghetto's efficiency, Ross undertook great risk to take photos of the actual, increasingly grim, lives of the ghetto's inhabitants, which included starvation, oppression, and the deportation of thousands to death camps. When the ghetto, the second largest in Nazi-occupied Poland after the Warsaw ghetto, was liquidated in 1944, Ross hid his negatives. Only half survived until he was able to dig them up the following year, after the end of the War.

Ross dedicated the remainder of his life to working with his images of Lodz. 200 of these photos are now collected in Memory Unearthed, a powerful exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The AGO has published a book, also titled Memory Unearthed, featuring the photos, alongside essays by acclaimed Jewish writers, including Bernice Eisenstein. Eisenstein is the author of the Trillium Prize-nominated graphic memoir I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors.

Today we speak with Bernice Eisenstein about her contribution to Memory Unearthed. She tells us about which Ross photograph spoke most deeply to her, a long-forgotten Yiddish phrase that inspired her and how we inherit the past.

The exhibit runs January 31 – June 14, 2015 and is free with general admission to the AGO.

Open Book:

Tell us about your contribution to Memory Unearthed. How did you become involved with the project?

Bernice Eisenstein:

Maia-Mari Sutnick, the AGO’s special photographic projects curator, was familiar with my work, with the graphic memoir I had written about being a child of Holocaust survivors. She invited me to contribute an essay for the catalogue, one that would be a response to Henryk Ross’s photographs, and about memory and the Holocaust. Maia also further involved me in the exhibition itself, asking that I write the final panel — and that was to be of a personal nature, reflective on the experience of photographs and the narrative they told. I felt quite honoured to be part of this profound and important exhibition, and at the same time, hesitant. It’s not an easy place to enter, and there is a great deal to consider, and feel, while looking through the lens of the Holocaust.

OB:

What was your reaction to seeing Ross’s photographs? And in what way did your response help shape your writing?

BE:

Perhaps in describing the resonating effect of one image, I hope it will in some way represent a fuller response to them all, since there was one particular photograph that affected me deeply. It is the photograph of Henryk Ross, surrounded by his friends, as he unearths the box of negatives that he had buried in the ghetto — an image of Memory being awakened, filled with the many lives that had been silenced, unknown, now released to be seen. I felt myself to be in their company. The experience gave me both a centre and a place of departure from which I could write, beginning with a Yiddish phrase that I remembered from a long time ago — Es hot undz dos lebn gerufn — Life called to us. The clarity of these emotions also helped me to write a few thoughts for the final panel, since I understood that it would not be easy for the people who had come to the exhibition to take their leave. It was to be a moment of pause, with respectful consideration of their privacy and for all that they had gathered and taken into their hearts and learned.

OB:

You write that the preservation of these photos and memories is important not only for those who have gone before but also for generations to come. What duty of historical memory do you think we owe younger generations?

BE:

We inherit the past — in that way, Henryk Ross’s photographs are an endowment to the memory and teachings of the Holocaust. I think of it as if a moral compass has been placed in our hands, which points us in the direction towards our continual need to question, with the desires to understand, not only the past that has preceded us, but also the present times that we live in. And so in understanding it as an inheritance, we feel ourselves to be guardians as well. Our generation had never before felt themselves to be other than learning recipients about the past, about the Holocaust, but that is about to change. We have an added responsibility to future generations since our survivors are now aged and so many are gone. The witnesses within our own lifetime — with the documented testimonies that they given — their voices are soon to pass into memory as well. They have been our living conscience and the way in which they had all rebuilt new lives after the war is a testament to the strength of their spirits, bequeathing life into ours. And so it is for us to extend and breathe this life into the next generation as well, since it is full of compassion and sorrow and inestimable regard.

OB:

What are some reading recommendations you would offer to people interested in learning more about the experience of the Jewish people during the war?

BE:

The canon of books on the Holocaust is large, and it continues to grow. I’m far from remotely resembling a scholar of the literature, but I’ll offer a few that are personal — books that have had a lasting and guiding effect on my own sensibility. But first, I’d also like to suggest just a few films that are worth seeing: Claude Lanzmann’s documentary, Shoah; Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants; Jan Kadar’s Shop on Main Street; Vittoria De Sica’s Garden of the Finzi-Continis; and Agniezka Holland’s In Darkness.

And for reading:
The Last of the Just by André Schwarz-Bart; The Seventh Well by Fred Wander; Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi; Night by Elie Wiesel; Fatelessness by Imre Kertész; Memory by Philippe Grimbert; and Maus by Art Spiegelman. I’ve also just finished reading an advance copy of Jim Shepard’s The Book of Aron which will be available in a couple of months. This list is far from complete, but I’ve always found that in reading one book, the path to another is found.

OB:

What are you working on now?

BE:

Right now? Sending these answers off — with my sincere thank you — and then back to my drafting table, and some paintings that I’ve begun.


Bernice Eisenstein was born in 1949 in Toronto, shortly after her parents immigrated to Canada. She is an artist whose illustrations have appeared in a variety of Canadian magazines and periodicals, including the Globe and Mail. She is the author and illustrator of the graphic memoir I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors (nominated for the Trillium Book Award) and the illustrator of Correspondences, written by Anne Michaels. She lives in Toronto.

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