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Holocaust Survivor Describes Depravity And Humanity Of Lodz Ghetto; Photographer's Work Shows It Clearly

SKOKIE, Ill. (CBS)-- For most of us, the Holocaust is a dark period in world history. But for survivor Max Epstein, it's still a living memory.

"It was murder, outright murder," Epstein said.

Epstein was in Lodz Ghetto for five and a half years. The Lodz Ghetto was created by the Nazis when they invaded Poland in 1939.

Epstein described the strict physical barriers of the ghetto to CBS 2 Morning Insider Vince Gerasole.

"First of all, there were immediately wires -- and they had some parts where there were even electric wires," Epstein said.

Nearly 200,000 Jews were confined there, forced to work in the area's factories and paid in sparse bread rations.

Epstein recalled losing aunts, uncles and cousins to starvation. One cousin sacrificed her own rations for her sick mother.

"She didn't tell her mother that she's feeding her bread, and the girl died in three months," Epstein said. "Just extinguished. I loved her."

Epstein's recollections are now hauntingly echoed at Skokie's Illinois Holocaust Museum, in the rare photos taken in Lodz by a young and courageous Jewish photographer, Henryk Ross.

"[Ross] really risked his life to document this crime and scream the truth to the world about what happened," said Kelley Szany of the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

Ross, a prisoner himself, was tasked by the Nazis to take identification and propaganda photos. But when no one was looking, and under punishment of death, he snapped pictures of the bleak and oppressive realities in Lodz. Photos show crowds of Jews being processed and sent to camps. It was his act of defiance.

But Ross did something more: He also snapped pictures of families together, couples holding hands and neighbors gathering. Each face, each smile is a testament to human resilience in the most brutal of circumstances.

"Through family, love and hope they survived in unimaginable conditions," Szany said.

To leave some record of the tragedy, and fearing his own death, Ross buried 6,000 negatives in the ground. But he somehow survived. After the liberation of Poland he returned to that spot, retrieving 3,000 negatives that weren't damaged by the elements.

An exhibit of Ross's work debuts at the museum this weekend.

Epstein, from Highland Park, got a glimpse of the photos with CBS 2, recalling painful moments. But he also remembered the spirit of his family and neighbors who carried on in the face of death.

"Kindness never died," Epstein said.

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