Tuesday, July 02, 2013

I Hate Łódż (updated with pictures)

When I first visited Łódż in 2006, I published a blog entry called “Surviving Łódż“ about my difficult experiences in the city.  I arrived at a train station with no maps and no one to help me.  The city, which originally must have been quite beautiful before WWI, now was run down and decayed.  I described it as a coma victim.  Now seven years hence, I see no reason to revise my judgment except that now I actively dislike the city.

This is the third time I’ve been in Łódż, and the second time I’ve brought students here.  Last time, we got off at the main train station and ended up walking forever to get to the pedestrian mall and then the Jewish ghetto.  That train station is closed for renovation, so I made plans to exit at Łódż Widzew station.  I found directions online on how to get from there to the Jewish cemetery by public transportation, cutting back on the amount of walking we’d have to do.

Nothing went well.

First, our train was delayed 40 minutes as we sat motionless on the tracks.  In fact, as I right this now on the train to Krakow we are again sitting motionless.  I saw online a warning notice about delays on Polish trains, but I’m not sure what the problem is.  Instead of arriving at 10:30, we didn’t get in until well after 11.  I found the tram to the city center, but then thought I got on in the wrong direction, changed to what I thought was the right direction, but then found out I had been right the first time. Eventually we reached the city center where we needed to change to a the #1 tram.

By that time, though, our one-hour tram tickets had expired so I bought new ones.  And we waited.  And we waited.  No #1 tram.   I saw a traffic person, so I went up to him and asked “Line 1?”  He said “no.”  After much confusion, I found out that Line 1 had been discontinued (even though it was still listed as stopping where we were).  A very helpful Polish woman (and I met several very helpful people in Łódż who helped me at various crisis points during the day) told me that I needed the #57 bus, which I could get from the other side of the mall, two blocks away.  I gathered the students and we started walking.

We missed the #57 by two minutes, so we now had a fifteen-minute wait.  One student wanted to know if she could go into the mall and use the restroom, but I told her if she missed the bus she was on her own.  She decided to wait.  The bus arrived late, but eventually it did arrive.

I overhead a conversation on the bus of two people speaking English talking about changes to the public transportation system.  Several people on the bus were very upset that it wasn’t going to stop where it was supposed to.  From what I could see, a major street was undergoing renovation and was closed and several buses and trams were either rerouted or cancelled.  Meanwhile, I had to try to figure out what our stop was to find the cemetery.  After 35 minutes I thought I recognized a corner where we had bought snacks two years ago and asked someone “Jewish cemetery?”  He said “next stop.” So we got out.

I saw a bakery and announced this was a food break.  I got some fruit-filled sweet rolls (the blueberry was very good),

and the student found a restroom in a rehab center across the street.  After we walked one block I found the walls of the Jewish cemetery.

As a result of all our delays, it was after 1 pm when we finally reached our first location of the day’s tour.  The students played with the cemetery cat and used the restroom while I bought tickets. 

We began with the mortuary, built in the late 19th century, with its main hall for funerals and a hearse.

Łódż was basically a small town up until the industrial revolution in the later half of the nineteenth century; the main part of the grave yard is from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  However, since the cemetery was in the ghetto, some 48,000 Jews who died from starvation and disease in the ghetto are also buried here.  It’s the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe (I think in acreage, not in numbers of the dead).

Along the wall of the cemetery are numerous plaques set up by Jews and Jewish communities for individuals who died in the ghetto.  There are also a set of deep pits.   

These were dug by the 800 so Jews who remained in the ghetto after its liquidation in July and August 1944 (it was the last Polish ghetto to be killed).  The Nazis had them remain in order to go through all the houses of the people who had been sent to Auschwitz and in the fall forced them to dig these pits, which were intended as mass graves once they had finished their work.  Thankfully, though, the Nazis panicked as the Soviets approached and ran, and just under 900 Jews were liberated on 19 January 1945.  They asked that the pits remain as a memorial since they were meant to be their graves.

The students had lots of questions about the designs on the tombstones.  I explained that the hands making the Vulcan gesture meant a descendant of priests.  Candlesticks were for women.  Books meant a scholar or rabbi.
[The train has finally begun moving again.  YAY!  I think that was a 30-minute delay]

My goal was the ghetto field.  During the war, daily burials ranged from just a few dozen to almost two hundred.  They did not bury them in mass graves, but rather individual plots.  They have been trying for nearly 10 years to place markers on each grave, but they have a long way to go.  

Some of the earliest markers also seem to be deteriorating.

While we could easily spend two hours in the cemetery, I wanted to move on (and not just because of the mosquitoes).  I made sure we walked out past the Poznanski tomb.  He was the wealthiest industrialist in pre-WW I Łódż, and he owned the largest textile factory in the city.  His home, the Poznanski Palace, is now a museum and his former factory is a large shopping center.  His tomb is prominent and impressive.

After leaving, we made our way to Radagast Station.  The two times I had been here previously, the museum exhibit was closed, but thankfully, it was open now.  The exhibit is in what looks like a long concrete train tunnel with tracks on the roof having motion-censor lights that come on as you near them. 

On the walls they display pages of lists of deportations that came into and left the station.  

Jews were deported to what the Germans called the Littsmanstadt Ghetto from surrounding towns, as well as Germany, Austria, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands.  Over 5000 Roma and Sinti were also deported to the ghetto; in the space of two months some 700 died from the horrendous conditions (and buried in part of the Jewish cemetery), with the rest deported to Chelmno in January 1942 where they were all gassed.  Jews sent out of the ghetto were mostly sent to Chelmno to be gassed on arrival or to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where a small fraction survived as slave laborers.

At the station there’s a WW II  German train with cattle cars, one of which you can enter.

There’s also a very small exhibit in the Radagast Station building, which includes a map of the ghetto.  I photographed so I could find my way back to the main area.

Unfortunately, it appears that this is the historical map, and some of the streets have since been renamed and rerouted.  Following what appeared to be a direct path, we ended up in the parking lot of a beer distribution plant with no exit.  Not willing to hop the six-foot fence into someone’s backyard, we had detour around it.

After about 30 minutes of walking we finally reached the center of what had been the ghetto.  I was looking for the ruins of Hospital #1, but turned one block too soon.  I told the students how on 2 September 1942, the hospital was surrounded and all the patients loaded on trucks bound for Chelmno.

This piece of wall art reproduces a photo of a child slave laborer in the ghetto.

We also saw a pharmacy building that had stood in the ghetto and was still a pharmacy today, as well as the main ghetto administration building.

I found a small green area to the side and we read as a group ghetto elder Chaim Rumkowski’s horrific speech to the ghetto on 4 September 1942, when he explained that he had been ordered to deport all children below the age of 10, the sick, and the elderly from the ghetto; some 20,000 people.  The ghetto chroniclers recorded that Rumkowski’s speech was repeatedly interrupted by the screams of distraught parents.  Everyone knew that in this case, deportation meant death.  The ghetto was placed under curfew and the police went building by building.  When one building fought, the Germans came in and even more people were taken.  It was the worst moment in the ghetto’s history up until its liquidation.

What had happened was that Himmler wanted to liquidate the entire ghetto, as he had done in Warsaw, but the German army objected because the ghetto was making all its uniforms.  So the compromise was that all Jews who were either too young, too old, or too sick to work would be taken, and the surviving portion of the ghetto would basically become a forced labor camp.  As a result of this compromise, the ghetto survived an additional two years.

By now it was nearly 5 pm, and the students (and I) were pretty tired.  It was time to get an early dinner before taking the train back to Warsaw.  I knew that the students really didn’t want to do any more walking, but the restaurant was off a pedestrian mall and the trams didn’t run down that street.

In fact, neither did the pavement.  In preparation for the high tourist season of summer, the city fathers of Łódż decided to rip up the entire pedestrian mall, the main tourist attraction of the city.  We walked six blocks over earth and stones with various wires and pipes sticking out.

Finally, we reached Anatewka (like the city in Fiddler on the Roof), a “Jewish-style” restaurant.   I’ve eaten there before and I like the food.  As this place is a little pricier than what the students are used to, and since I have a small surplus at the moment, I told the students I was treating them to this meal (though they were on their own for alcohol).

The restaurant is decorated in Jewish-themed kitsch:  small rabbi dolls, pictures of Hasidic rabbis, and Jewish melodies over the speakers.  In the evening, they have a fiddler who sits on a perch over a small, makeshift roof.

I didn’t like the goose I had last time, so I ordered the duck breast.  It came with a sauce of red currants and baked apples and chips.  The student to my left ordered the duck in cherry sauce, while other students got the cheese and onion kreplach.  

Everyone seemed to enjoy the  meal, and afterwards they gave us all little tiny toy rabbis, each one holding a single grosz coin.  What could be offensive about that?

We left the restaurant and I managed to buy tram passes and find our way to Łódż Kaliska train stop.  This was the very same station I used when I first arrived here in 2006.  The walls of the parking lot are decorated with bizarre, and slightly threatening wall art.

I recognized the same large number of taxis and the same absence of city maps.  I went into the main hall to buy our tickets.  I got into what I thought was the shortest line, just two people, but it turned out that the one at the window was negotiating student tickets for about a dozen Polish high school students, each one of whom had to fill out a separate form and pay independently.  Thirty minutes later, I had my chance at the window.  I booked us on the 20:08 train to Warszawa Centralna station.

Around 19:45 we went up on the platform.  A train came in from Warsaw but they wouldn’t let us board.  It got closer and closer to the time of our train, but no listing came up on the platform.  Apparently our train was delayed.  How long?  150 minutes.

We returned to the main hall where a very helpful Polish computer graphic design student helped me negotiate new tickets with the clerk. I had gone to the information window, but the clerk spoke no foreign languages.  Eventually, I got us tickets on the 21:05 train.

When I met back up with the students, they told me they wanted to wait up on the platform despite the mosquitoes.  It seems a Polish man named Christopher had come up to them and started talking.  He described himself as “black, black, black,” by which, he apparently meant, he loved black rap.  He asked where they were from and they said Long Beach.  He immediately replied “Snoop Dog!!”  He then kept asking them for money.

Up on the platform, as I swatted away flies, he came up to ask for a light.  I said no.  He said “shit” and walked away.  I said “no shit,” and continued to shoe away the mosquitoes.  Finally, the train arrived and we got on.  Thankfully there were no delays and we reached Warsaw by 11:15 pm. 

Since we hadn’t been able to visit the Museum of the Warsaw Rising last Friday, my plan was to get up early on Tuesday and see it before our train to Krakow.  Unfortunately, the museum is closed on Tuesdays.  I told the students they could sleep late and that we would leave for the train station around 10 am and take the 10:50 train. 

I’m on it now, and after two half hour stops for no apparent reason, we are finally nearing Krakow.  Oh, and it turns out that the tickets I purchased were for an IR train, not the IC train we’re on, so I had to buy new tickets on board.  From what I could tell from the conductor, we may be able to get a refund on our IR tickets at Krakow train station.  I hope so.

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