For decades, Leon Sutton kept the photographs hidden away in an unassuming envelope, 48 documents that offer an astonishing portrait of life inside the Lodz Ghetto in Poland during the Second World War.
The postcard-sized photos, images that Jewish photographer Henryk Ross once buried underground to protect from the Nazis, reveal everything from street and work scenes, to heart-wrenching images of mass deportations, separations, even a hanging.
Sutton, a Polish Jew who was confined to the Ghetto before being sent to Auschwitz, guarded his cache of memories from the end of the war until his death in 2007. Now, more than 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the photos have found a permanent home at the Museum of Fine Arts, a gift from collector Howard Greenberg. The donation positions the MFA as one of the few US museums to have Ross’s work in its permanent collection.
“These pictures survived,” said Greenberg. “They didn’t have to survive. Nobody had to survive. Ross didn’t have to survive. Sutton didn’t have to survive. But they did, and the pictures are here. It’s pretty amazing.”
The hard-fought gift — some images show vast crowds on foot, presumably headed for a death camp — took an improbable journey from Lodz to the MFA, which presented many of Ross’s images in the 2017 exhibition “Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross.”
During his confinement to the Ghetto, Ross, a photojournalist, was pressed into service as an official photographer, producing photo IDs for workers and propaganda for the Nazis. Meanwhile, he secretly used his camera to document worsening conditions in the Ghetto, producing some 6,000 images that bear witness to the suffering and strength of its inhabitants.
The Lodz Ghetto, the second largest after Warsaw, housed more than 160,000 people during the war. But while Sutton was deported to Auschwitz during the Nazis’ final liquidation of the Ghetto, Ross was among a small group that the Germans retained to clean up as the Allies advanced.
In the tumult, Ross took a desperate step.
“I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy,” the photographer said prior to his death in 1991. “I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry.”
The Russians liberated the Ghetto in January 1945, roughly a week before Auschwitz. Ross later returned to excavate his negatives, an estimated half of which had been ruined underground. It is unclear whether Sutton’s photos were also buried or printed from these negatives.
Sutton returned to Lodz after the war, looking for other survivors. And although it’s unknown how the two men knew each other, it’s believed that Ross gave Sutton the prints when they met again in Lodz following the war.
What is clear, however, is that Sutton, originally named Lova Szmuszkowicz, cherished the images, carrying them to his new home in the United States, where he quietly guarded them for decades.
“My parents did not talk a lot about the specifics,” said Paul Sutton, whose mother, Felice, also lived in the Ghetto. “They were very much looking forward, not back.”
So it was that the younger Sutton, a photographer in his own right, came across Ross’s images after his father’s death. His father had kept them stored in an envelope, where he’d written: “Pictures taken by Henryk Ross in [Lodz Ghetto] and given to me personally by Henryk after the war in Lodz in 1945.”
Paul Sutton was unaware of Ross’ legacy at the time, but he knew the images were important, so he placed them in a drawer for safekeeping.
It wasn’t until a decade later that Sutton, who lives in Woodstock, N.Y., heard about the 2017 “Memory Unearthed” exhibition at the MFA and realized the historical importance of his father’s collection.
“That’s when I became cognizant of what they really were,” recalled Sutton, who traveled to Boston for the show. “Something had to be done to preserve these photographs.”
Sutton contacted collector Greenberg, who owns an eponymous photography gallery in New York.
“His real goal from the beginning wasn’t mercenary in the sense that he just wanted to sell and get as much money as he could,” said Greenberg. “Paul was really interested in honoring his father. That meant a lot to him.”
He also had conditions.
“They had to stay together; they couldn’t be broken up,” Sutton said. “And my father’s name always had to be attached to that collection.”
Sutton had no previous relationship with the MFA, but Greenberg did: The museum had recently acquired his personal collection of iconic 20th-century photographs through a major gift from the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust.
As Greenberg was making inquiries about the Sutton collection, he conferred with MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum, arriving at a solution: Greenberg would purchase the collection himself and donate it in honor of Jacques Preis, who as trustee of the Leonian Trust had orchestrated the MFA’s acquisition of his personal collection.
“I thought to myself: This is too good to be true,” said Greenberg. “All the stars line up.”
Teitelbaum, who previously headed the Art Gallery of Ontario, where the “Memory Unearthed” show originated, said the MFA would share Ross’s photos “generously.”
“Henryk Ross’s photographs are testament and acknowledgment of a life of loss and resilience,” he said. “To have these extraordinary photographs preserved in our collection, where the experience of Henryk Ross’s subjects can be returned to over and over again, is a great honor and privilege.”
Ross is believed to have salvaged nearly 3,000 negatives stored underground, many of which were subsequently printed by Ross and others. One factor that makes the Sutton collection stand out, however, is that Ross made the prints himself during or immediately after the war years.
“This donation is very much from a moment when he was in this lived experience and the choices he made of what memories to hold on to through these photographs,” said Kristen Gresh, senior curator of photographs at the MFA. “It connects us with the photographer in a new way.”
It also solves some mysteries about Ross’s work in the Ghetto.
“It’s such a complete vision of his; it has workers, portraits, deportations, moments of separation. It represents his entire body of work during his time in the Ghetto,” she said. “We heard from many family members connected to the Lodz Ghetto during the ‘Memory Unearthed’ show, but we never heard of anything like this. It feels incredibly rare.”
For Sutton, the donation is deeply gratifying, a potent blend of his father’s life with the greater tides of history.
“These memories are much bigger than my family heirlooms, and I’m proud of my father for having preserved them” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m giving it up; I feel like I’m giving it to the world. My father, as a survivor, his legacy. That’s what it is.”