Warning: What you're about to read will disturb you, or at least it should. Heaven help us the day we become desensitized to Nazi atrocity, though sometimes, in its pervasive, perennial presence, it can sometimes feel possible.
Auschwitz was liberated 70 years ago, as we've been persistently reminded on the occasion of its anniversary last month, and the curtain has been pulled back on what few could argue was the most barbaric episode in human history ever since.
"It happened, and therefore it can happen again," Primo Levi once famously said, and maybe the key to that is less to never forget, as the popular mantra goes but to find ways to deepen our understanding of atrocity in a very public way.
A model of such things is the Art Gallery of Ontario's current presentation of the photographs of Henryk Ross, who spent years as a captive of the Nazis in the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland, during the occupation. Like most of his fellow prisoners, he was put to work for the Germans, but with his background in photojournalism, his job was relatively plum: Tasked with being an official ghetto propaganda photographer, Ross did headshots for identity cards and shot trumped-up scenes of workers sewing mattresses or tanning leather, forcing smiles through gritted teeth.
Along the side, though, Ross was doing very unofficial things. Shooting groups of people all at once for identity cards and then cutting the prints, Ross preserved precious film stock rationed out by the Nazis and turned his lens to the gruesome reality of the everyday.
The pictures include what you would expect: Emaciated, sunken-cheeked faces in various stages of starvation, corpses, deprivation. Wide-eyed men, women and children, their faces numb and hollow, stalk broken streets; children lay slumped on sidewalks, paralyzed by hunger. But Ross's project is more holistic and therefore more humane, imparting dignity to the doomed. Life, however disregarded by the Nazis, went on, and Ross gives depth and nuance to the gruesome carnival of brutality to which we've become accustomed.
His pictures show things like a group of friends gathered around a table, smiling for the camera, one playing an accordion, or a husband and wife clowning for his lens in a playful embrace. A large grid of portraits on one wall here are dignified, serene, almost carefree, as though Ross's camera could at least temporarily offer refuge from the ugly reality just outside.