Above is the Wisla River in Plock (pwutsk), Poland, the town where my grandmother Mollie was born. At the bottom of the blog is a map of Poland.


Stories in Łódź

Sunday and Monday, May 29 and 30, 2011 * the 40th and 41st days of the Omer

One of the other guests at Linat Orchim guest house was an Israeli man with whom I chatted in Hebrew. He was rather round with a sweet face and a gentle, lispy voice. We never exchanged names. We were from different worlds, but here in Lodz we were neighbors. He was a Hasid, perhaps 55-60 years old, bearded, and he wore a large yarmalka and his arba kanfot (4 cornered undergarment with fringes) on top of his shirt. I know that outside he also wore a hat because on my first day in Lodz I saw someone like him walking on the street, and I nearly pulled inside a doorway to photograph such a strange phenomenon. Who else would it have been but this man? Later I learned to recognize his face behind the beard and the garb.

His father was from Lodz and was put in the ghetto along with his first wife and five children, and only his father survived. His mother was from a small town outside of Lodz and was married with three children, and only she survived. These two survivors eventually met and married in Israel, lived among the Hasidim in Bnei Brak, and raised a new family together. They spoke to their children about their homes in Poland and the family they had lost, and this son of theirs had already made several trips to discover what graves he could and to discover living relatives. He had even visited his father’s house in the Lodz ghetto (here is a photo of the ghetto's notorious "Red House" that is still there), and with the help of a translator had a pleasant conversation with the family that now inhabits it. “People here in Poland are nice,” he told me. “I walk around outside dressed like this and people are indifferent, they don’t say antisemitic things.” I asked him he had heard that Symcha had to call the police on Shabbat because of the hooligans that came into the courtyard in the afternoon shouting abusive statements. He dismissed this stuff. He was sitting in the big room on Saturday night with photocopied lists from Jewish genealogy web sites, and he told me that each time he went to the Lodz cemetery he found more relatives. Once he even met there an Australian woman who was also seeking relatives’ graves, and they discovered they shared a grandmother, and once in Bnei Brak he was visited by previously unknown relatives from the U.S. Next year he wants to gather everyone together in Lodz.

On Sunday morning, Kaja met me at the guest house for a day of activities that was to start with the cemetery, but we first ate at the vegetarian restaurant in Manufaktura. This is an area about twice as large as The Grove/Farmer’s Market and with the same idea of being a center for shopping, restaurants and movies, but Manufaktura also has a huge area in the middle for public performances and gatherings. Plus, its core buildings are historic, originally the handsome red brick factories of Izrael Poznanski, the mid-19th century pioneer of Lodz’s textile manufacturing industry that was the mainstay of the city’s economy. His home, called Poznanski’s Palace, is outrageously designed on the outside and crafted beautifully and extravagantly on the inside (we went later in the day), and other lovely Poznanski buildings can be found all around Lodz, but the red brick factory buildings are mostly concentrated in the northeast side of the city alongside tenements for the workers.

We took a tram to the cemetery, and I finally saw residential buildings for normal people that are attractive. Okay, so at least they seem to be in good repair. There were other things I learned: all through Poland I was convinced that the frequent appearance of this sign meant that Poles needed stomach specialists to help digest all that meat and pierogies, but Kaja explained that the word means “dentist.” It’s good to have someone around to explain things!

Kaja was happy to explain things, but she made clear that much of her formal schooling in history was inadequate and skewed by communist rules. She illustrated this with reference to Katyn. This is the name of a forest in Belarus where the Soviet invaders, after arresting about 180,000 Poles in 1939 (army officers, judges, professionals, and members of the intellectual classes) and transporting them east, shot nearly 22,000 of them and buried them in mass graves. The Germans discovered the remains in 1943 and of course word leaked out, but after the communists came to power it was forbidden to discuss such matters. Kaja’s mother was a school teacher, and when one of her students did the unthinkable and wrote the word “Katyn” in his schoolbook – simply that, nothing else, another student informed on him, he was expelled, and Kaja’s mother for months was investigated and officially observed in her classroom. It took some time after the fall of the communists in 1989 to write new school books, and therefore much of Kaja’s extensive knowledge about 20th century Polish history and certainly about Polish Jews is the result of her own exploration. She is not Jewish, but she regards the tales of Polish Jews as part of her own story. Her expertise and her fluent English got her a job at the Marek Edelman Center for Dialogue, a non-profit organization funded by the city of Lodz to promote awareness of the four cultures that are the basis of Lodz’s history: Polish, German, Jewish, and Russian. It was not only fun but also a terrific experience to spend so much of my time in Lodz with Kaja, hearing her insights and stories of the people whose lives passed through Lodz, and learning about life from the perspective of a member of this new generation of Poles.

The Jewish cemetery we in Lodz we visited dates back to the 1890s, and all but the oldest part of it has been mapped and is available online. I made sure to visit the graves of the four young Zionists who were murdered after the war, whose graves are decorated with Israeli Zionist youth group shirts, candles, and signs. We wandered through the cemetery, Kaja showing me stones with interesting stories behind them. We followed the guidebook on the cemetery written by Kaja’s boss that explained common symbols: the broken tree symbol (cut down in its prime), hands for a cohen and a pitcher for a levite, and this one for a wife that says that people cried streams of tears for her. We found for a man that praised his work at matchmaking (hakhnasat kalot). All through the graveyard the ground was moist and soft with disintegrating trees and leaves, like Bialowieza. In the Lodz cemetery all the graves face the same direction so that at the end of time when the dead are resurrected, they will know how to walk to Jerusalem, though you’d think that with such a big miracle they’d know exactly where to go. My Hasidic buddy explained that this practice is the norm, and the inconsistent direction of gravestones in Warsaw’s cemetery started as an error and then no one wanted to cast aspersions on the early burials so they kept up the practice.

Afterwards we walked to the Radgast station, the loading platform for the trains that brought in the meager supplies for the ghetto in Lodz, which the Germans named Litzmannstadt Ghetto, where Jews were brought in from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Luxemburg; and from where the dwellers were deported to Auschwitz. Most amazing to me was the memorial Tunnel of the Deported, a long concrete tunnel as wide as a street, and alongside the walls are the original lists of those bound for the death camp. The head of the Judenrat, Chaim Rumkowski, was exceedingly organized so as to please the Nazis as a way to, he said, to save more Jews. There are all the lists: full name, birth date, place of origin, occupation – all in alphabetical order, so you see families all together, on the original paper, some in handwriting and some typed, with checks next to them when their time came. This photo, which is not mine, gives you a sense of the space.

The thing is, on this trip I’ve learned first-hand that Poles as a group are notoriously disorganized, plan poorly, are careless with details, and read one-fifth of the email message and ignore the rest, so that an email that says “We’re visiting you in July" means “We’re visiting you” and prompts excited phone calls about the imminent event. Every time there was a screw-up (and during the first two weeks of my trip there were plenty), the Poles around me would say “Oh, that’s so Polish!” Of course, all the terrible planning and ridiculous miscalculations of the Warsaw Uprising showed that, on a national level back during the war, the Poles were way outmaneuvered by the superior organization and efficiency of their enemies. There's no way they could have organized a Holocaust. Examining the deportation lists, I got the sense, one more time, of how bizarre and depraved was this event. And I couldn't imagine what it must be like to live nearby the remaining evidence!

The next day I focused on lighter matters. I took a bus to Aleksandrow, former home of the Hasidim but current home of Jaga and Zbigniew, faculty from the University of Lodz who graciously gave me lunch in their flowering back yard. We exchanged tales of our research projects and our travels, and upon hearing my report about Torun, Zbigniew pointed to another unfortunate trait of Poles: their artists don't seem to be able to make good likenesses of their subjects. In downtown Lodz, there is a monument in honor of Artur Rubinstein that looks nothing like him (his daughter made a stink when it was unveiled, but it’s still there in the middle of town), and all the Lodzers I spoke to complained that the portraits painted on the side of this building (supposedly famous people from the city) are unrecognizable.

And then I visited Joanna Podolska-Plock, who is Kaja’s boss and the vision behind the Lodz Center for Dialogue organization. I’d heard about her previous career as a journalist and read a bit of her research on Lodz Jews, and it was fascinating to meet her and hear her talk about the challenges of multicultural programming. It was a good way to end my visit in Lodz. I walked back to the guest house through the town one last time, packed my bags, and left the next morning.

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