Saturday, June 17, 2006

Obstacles (June 17)

Before I get to the depressing part, let me first say that the concert last night in Torun was fantastic. It was a small chamber orchestra, and the performed two pieces by Telemann and two by Handel. The star was their soprano, Maria Keohane, who has a clear, beautiful voice, and a great deal of charisma.

The concert was held in the guilded, fin-de-siecle hall opposite the Ratusz in the Stary Rynek. It was a "live" room, so the music resonated. The only flaw: given the heat, some air conditioning would have been nice, but that was only a minor problem.

Today I reached Lodz without difficulty. I found a compartment on the train with only one other occupant, but she had already taken 80% of the overhead storage space. My small suitcase and backpack filled in the remaining gaps. I was sort of amazed at how much luggage she had and wondered how she had gotten it on the train. I counted 4-5 suitcases, a full (and I mean full) backpack, several bags and at least 3 boxes. I wasn't the only one amazed: the conductor called in two back ups and they proceeded to question her quite closely about the luggage. She was in her late 20s, pretty, and reading a book on Mozart. At some points she looked close to tears, but I suspected it was an act, because she was quite well composed when the conductors left the room. One returned later, however, and demanded that she pay additional money for the luggage. As she was still on board when I got off in Lodz, I never did find out how she was going to get it off.

Lodz is a difficult city to like. It presents many obstacles to both the casual visitor as well as to the interested scholar. When I got off the train it was hot, overcast, incredibly muggy, and drizzling. No maps of the city at the trainstation. No chart of tram or bus routes. Just a lot of happy taxi drivers. Considering that my hotel was described as quite close to the train station, I was determined to find my way there (the hotel hadn't made it any easier since they don't provide a map on their website). It took me half an hour and I had to ask several people on the street, but I successfully took the right tram, got off at the right station, and walked the five blocks to the hotel).

Here's how the local Polish tourist guide describes my hotel:

"Within spitting distance of the train station, Mazowiecki [my hotel] is a simple affair which like most of the hotel in town offers a straight choice between unrenovated and refurbished rooms. Go for the latter option. Do so and you'll find pleasant rooms decorated in light colours and a vaguely floral motif. Extremely springy beds and an ugly facade complete that unique Lodz experience."

I have a refurbished room. That means that I have slightly higher end toilet paper (not the grey crepe paper I had in my last three hotels, the kind I used to see in Israel in institutional bathrooms). My tv has only Polish or German stations, but at least this time one of the German ones is a music channel. Oh, and they save money by turning off their water heater by midday (I took a rather cold shower after I got it).

I wanted to get to the tourist office before they closed, so I rushed to the main pedestrian street. They were happy to sell me a book on the Lodz ghetto, but forgot to provide me with the map showing the route one should take in touring it (not in the book, it turns out). Then a grabbed a quick bite to eat at an outdoor cafe called "Roosters." I decided to keep it simple and safe and get the spaghetti bolognese. It quickly became apparent that Roosters is engaged in a bit of copyright infringement with Hooters. Basically, big-breasted waitresses in skimpy tops and bottoms.

Now for describing Lodz. I suppose the city it most resembles is Budapest. Yet while Budapest was the city I've enjoyed the most on this trip, Lodz is the city I like least (though, I should add, I just had my best meal in Poland -- more on that below). 70 years ago, Lodz (pronounced "Woodge" in Polish) was a large, beautiful, economically prosperous city. It had wide, tree-lined boulevards, plenty of local parks, enormous palatial mansions, and handsome beaux art style buildings. The problem is that the city has never recovered from WWII.

Many of those same boulevards, parks, mansions, and buildings are still here. While some ugly communist-era buildings were put up after the war, a lot of the center of Lodz is pre-war construction. The problem is that no work has gone into maintaining any of these structures since the war. Lodz is not so much in suspended animation as it is in a coma. It continues to live, suffer, grow abcesses, and develop bed sores. Except for a few buildings (mostly on the pedestrian promenade), most of what I've seen is soot-colored, grimy buildings with plaster peeling off to reveal the bricks beneath. Even when the front of the building isn't too bad, a quick peek into the courtyard reveals a dark, grimy passage leading to ramshackle wooden outbuildings, populated either by stray dogs or drinkers.

Despite the stifling humidity, I made my way to the the site of the former ghetto (the second largest in Poland -- 230,000) and began to explore. Unfortunately, the book I bought doesn't proceed in any logical order and I found myself jumping around trying to find where I was and determine whether the rotting, decaying structures were ones that had been in or outside the ghetto. I finally found where I was supposed to be when it began to rain again. As I didn't have my umbrella with me, I was forced to cut this part short.

I made my way back to the pedestrian promenade and found a nice cafe where I could sit, drink something non-alcoholic, and have a piece of pastry. This is not an easy thing to do in Poland. The easiest food to get in Poland is beer. You can get a large beer (.5 liters) for about $2.25. Anyone will sell it. There are beer stands all over the place. Cafes with tea/coffee and pastries, however, are much harder to find.

After going back to the hotel and getting my umbrella, I took another tram back to the ghetto area. This is probably the poorest part of Lodz; it makes the neighborhood around my hotel (which I thought looked pretty spotty) look like an upper middle-class area by contrast. After walking down one block looking for the ghetto hospital, I looked up with a shock to see I was standing in front of it. The book mentioned it had recently been vandalized, and, in fact, many of the back walls had fallen in, but the front was still standing. I will never forget how, after watching a video on how the Nazis had seized and deported the patients from this hospital to Chelmno in September 1942, I suffered an awful nightmare. And now I was standing in front of the actual place.

A lot of the original ghetto buildings remain, as does the cobblestone streets. I made my way to the building that housed many of the ghetto offices and it was still there. So too the criminal police headquarters where prisoners were tortured and executed, and the building where the Jewish archivists of the ghetto recorded the day to day persecutions and deaths. Tomorrow I'm going back to see the Lodz museum (former mansion of the wealthiest industrialist in Lodz), the Lodz cemetary (largest Jewish cemetary in Europe, and contains the largest Jewish mauseleum in Europe of the same wealthy industrialist) and the Radagost station or umschlagplatz, where the entire Jewish community was deported, either to Chelmno or Auschwitz.

I decided to get dinner at a kitschy "Jewish-style" restaurant called Anatewka (remember the "w" is pronounced like a "v"). It was decorated mostly in pictures of bearded rabbis, with a manekin in a talit at the door, and a live violinist playing from a perch over the heads of the diners. I ordered the mushroom soup with meat dumplings, the roast goose with "Jewish sauce," red cabbage salad, and the dessert special.

The soup was good and the goose was excellent. I was afraid the goose would be too fatty, but it was quite good (I was served breast meat, I think). The Jewish sauce was wine-based (according to the waitress) and had onions and small, red grapes in it. It was delicious. The red cabbage salad was rather boring and in no way resembled the red cabbage and apples my mother makes. The dessert was a "punch cake" -- basically a small sponge-type cake soaked in rum -- then served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and rhubarb sauce. It was probably the best meal I've had in Poland.

Tomorrow, after finishing the sights in Lodz, I will go to Warsaw


brite said...

That's a pretty harsh opinion about Lodz. Alas, mostly true. But we're trying to make things better and better! I hope you enjoyed your stay here. I wish you could be in Lodz 2 weeks earlier, when there was a nice concert of Sephardic and Klezmer music commemorating 200 years of Jewish community in Lodz - you can see and hear some of it here:
or on my videolog about Lodz:

Good luck on your travels!

Brite said...

Dear J.B.
I represent the association in Lodz which is a community initiative for multi-level development of our city and region. We find your critical comments very useful in terms of feedback about our city. We would like to publish your post in Lodz medias and send it to the authorities (since the election is comming). I would appreciate if you could reply in this regard to

parkomat said...

Don't miss the "Księży Młyn" (Priests' Mill) area and some of the very nice parks - wonderful green areas among grey and ugly streets (take a look at

qudzu said...

This is hardly any opinion about Lodz, it is rather superficial attempt to make few uneducated comments about Jewish past in this city.
The author does not care about Lodz at all, he is mostly concentrated on on his own well being, and complaining about everything around him (muggy weather, not enough space for his luggage, quality of toilet paper, boring salad).
What is really surprising that he does not even notice, acknowledge people living today in Lodz.
Very selfish and disappointing commentary about city with population of 800000 people.
Poor fellow wasted his time, and could not break through the wall of his preconceived stereotypes about Poland and Lodz.