Sunday, June 18, 2006

Surviving Lodz (June 18)

The weather cooled off significantly last night and I had no difficulty sleeping (although, as usual, I was up at dawn -- i.e. 5:45 am).

After an odd breakfast -- meatless scrambled eggs (served in the pan), a roll, butter, preserves, etc. -- I headed off to find the Jewish cemetey. Lodz had the second largest Jewish community in Poland and 1/3rd of the city was Jewish. The Jewish cemetery is the largest in Europe (I think in terms of the number of people buried here) -- about 190,000 -- and is still being used. After finding my way in, my first stop was the mortuary where they have a hearse used in the ghetto on display.

About 43,000 ghetto inmates were buried in the Lodz cemetery. On my way to the ghetto field, I passed about half a dozen large pits by the cemetery wall. After the Germans liquidated the ghetto in July-August 1944 (it was the last ghetto in Poland), about 830 Jews were kept in the ghetto to clean up the various buildings. The Germans ordered them to dig these holes in the graveyard, apparently intending to shoot the remaining Jews and bury them in them, but in their haste to flee the advancing Soviet troops, these Jews were left alive to be liberated, and the holes, meant to be their graves, were kept as they were as a memorial.

The graveyard strongly resembles the Weisensee graveyard in Berlin, except here the graves tend to be monolingual and in Hebrew only, though occasionally in Polish (whereas in Berlin, the markers tend to be German on one side and Hebrew on the other). The cemetary is quite peaceful. The ghetto field is being restored and is only partially marked and cleared. It is dominated by large, squawking crows, who cawed noisely while I was there.

I headed from there to the Poznanski mauseleum, the largest in any Jewish cemetary. It is at least three stories tall and is being repaired. I noticed several graves of Jews buried here after the war, some as recently as last year. By the entrance wall, I saw several memorial plaques set up by survivors for family members who died in Chelmno or Auschwitz, including one from a Moshe Liebermensch of San Diego.

After leaving the cemetery, I made my way to Radogaszcz (or, as it was known in German, Radosgast) Station. This was the main train terminal for the ghetto, and the place where supplies or new deportees were unloaded, where goods made in the ghetto were shipped out, and ultimately as the umschlagplatz -- the deportation square -- for the 200,000+ Jews who were sent to the death camps (mostly Chelmno and Auschwitz-Birkenau).

As you approach the memorial at the station, what you see first is a brick smokestack that has been cut off in a diagonal. At its base, a small square brick structure meant to resemble a gas chamber with heavy black-barred gates and a star of David. Above the door is an inscription in Hebrew, Polish, and English: "Thou Shalt Not Kill." To its right stretches a long concrete wall with years written in Nazi gothic script: 1945 1944 1943 and so on up to 1939. At the end of this wall there are train tracks with three Nazi boxcars, a locomotive, the small station building, and more memorials. The wall ends to reveal a large vacant space within. Entry is barred by locked gates and the rails enter and disappear into the darkness, as if it is a black hole from which there is no escape.

On the wall opposite are a set of memorial markers from the city of Lodz, and the government of Poland. At the far end of the station is a concrete memorial in the shape of several gravestones bearing the names of the various death and concentration camps to which Jews from Lodz were deported. In the concrete surface, one can make out shapes of heads and outstretched arms. The effect is of people crying out for a salvation that will never come.

To the right there are two rather interesting memorials. One is from the City of Vienna recalling the several thousand Viennese Jews deported to the Lodz ghetto. It ends with the words (I'm paraphrasing from memory): "We remember them in mourning and in shame." Next to it is a memorial from the Roma community of Austria memorializing the 5000 Roma (over half children) sent to Lodz and incarcerated in a closed-off space within the ghetto. With no running water or sewage, over 600 died in a few months. The Germans then sent the remaining population to Chelmno were all were immediately gassed.

At first I did not intend to enter any of the box cars (in part because I feared nightmares), but I did go into one.

After I left the station, I walked through an area known as Maryinsin in the ghetto. This area was mostly wooden structures and fields used to grow food, and little of it has survived to the present. In the 1950s, the government built many large blocks of flats on the land. Much of the population living in the former ghetto area has little if any knowledge on what happened in the place where they are living. The efforts to commemorate the ghetto have mostly taken place only in the last 10 years. This area of the ghetto was also used as a concentration camp for Polish youths, who were used for slave labor.

I tried to find the Jewish community center, but all I found was a Jewish guesthouse and restaurant (both closed).

From there I headed to the Poznanski Palace, the former home of one of the wealthiest Jewish industrialists in pre-war Lodz, and whose home vaguely resembles a wing of Versailles. It now houses the Museum of the City of Lodz. There is a small exhibit on the Jews of Lodz in the cellar, but all of it is signed in Polish. The ground floor has works by local artists. The most interesting is the first floor, which contains the grand living spaces of the Poznanskis (basically nouveau riche splendor) along with a collection of paintings by Jewish artists, and a whole section devoted to native son Artur Rubenstein.

I read that Lodz has a nice collection of avant garde art, so I made that my last stop in the city. Housed in another mansion built by the Poznanski family, it is spread over several floors and one goes through it in reverse chronological order. The art I find most interesting -- 1900-1940 -- is located on the top most floor. They have a pretty good collection, including a small statue by Kathe Kollwitz, a Nolde, and some interesting expressionists, many of whom appear to have been strongly influenced by Matisse. There was one piece with a strongly Jewish theme, but as the gift shop did not have a post card of it (they never do, do they -- that is, have cards of the paintings I like the most), I don't remember the artist's name. It is a painting of the artist's parents, done in the early 1930s. I kept thinking it seemed somewhat Chagall like, but I'm at a loss to explain why. The colors are much more somber and dark. No one is floating in the sky, etc. Both the father and mother are pointing at a Hebrew parchment attached to the painting, which is a quote from Deuteronomy. It is, in fact, the second paragraph of the Shma. The artist survived the Holocaust (either in Europe or outside it). No word on his parents.

I took the train this afternoon to Warsaw. My first impression of the city, based on the area around the central train station, was that it was quite dreary. As I walked towards my hostel (described as the nicest in the country, by the way), however, the neighborhood improved. I'm staying just off Constitution Square, which is mostly noteworthy for the three giant candlelabras stuck on one side of it.

Dinner was nice. I went to a place nearby and had too much to drink (becherowka vodka as an aperitif, 0.4 liter beer, and a small wisnioc as a degustive -- the last on the house). The hostel provides free internet, but there was a long line and I didn't want to wait, so I'm now at a rather overpriced internet cafe, so I will end this here.


aga.p.p said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
aga.p.p said...

Dear J.B.,
I'm glad to hear that after all you found something you liked in Lodz:) The painting you're writing about is titled "My parents", and it's from 1921. The artist's name is Jankiel Adler.
The complete (I think) collection can be found on the museum website:, and if someone wants to see "My parents", but doesn't feel like searching, here is a direct link to the painting:

Best wishes,

J.B. said...

Thanks for the information on Jankiel Adler's painting and the link to the websites.

Actually, I think you're the first person to comment on this blog (or actually the second; I saw there was another comment two days ago). I never expected anyone to comment, so I hadn't checked them before now.

There were more things in Lodz that I liked, but I usually type up my comments in internet cafes and am rushed for time.

I thought the new Manufactura center was the most promising development I saw in the city. The pedestrian mall is a start, but this seems more likely to generate jobs.

When I left from the other train station, I saw that there were plenty of maps and charts available. Had I arrived there, I'm sure I would have had a much better welcome to Lodz.

I was also particularly moved by the new memorial at Radogaszcz Station and by the renovation work at the cemetary.

aga.p.p said...

Actually, I wasn't the first one to comment:) Your entries about Lodz became very popular on some local forums, with the responses ranging from "he's so right" to "he's so arrogant". Truth is, we have issues with our local government. Lots of us believe that the people responsible for the city promotion are not doing their job, and what you'd written is a perfect proof to this. Please, read Mateusz's comment under yesterday's entry, maybe you'll be able to help us change that.

And speaking of good welcome - I hope this wasn't your last visit to Lodz, and next time you come here, we'll make a much better "first" impression. BTW there are lots of people here who could show you the better side of the city. Just let us know you're coming:)