Discover the Hidden Jewish Heritage of Lodz, Poland, and its Beauty
Lodz (pronounced woodge and translated as “boat”) is approximately 130 km southwest of Warsaw. It is not a city that will instantly make an impression on you, because it does not have the (almost) mandatory picturesque square that you will find in so many of Poland’s other cities and towns. However, Lodz turned out to be one of the most interesting and unique cities in the country. For a different and eye-opening experience of the world and its cultures, Lodz is certainly a recommended destination.
Getting to Lodz from major cities in Poland like Warsaw was easy. Its excellent infrastructure and location make it a place easy to reach by various transportation options. The Europe Rail high-speed train offers efficient and rapid connections between cities, with panoramic regional trains showcasing spectacular scenery. For me, it was a delight and a smooth journey from Warsaw to Lodz with an average travel time of approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes. Whether your journey is long or short, comfort is always appreciated. On board, you’ll find spacious carriages with large seats and room for luggage. The trains are clean, spacious and comfortable. The on-board staff is friendly, efficient, and informative. The inter-city trains are the best way to travel around Poland and around Europe.
Lodz’s recent legacy lies in the textiles industry, as a city that grew wealthy in the 19th century off the back of its production and was sometimes referred to as the “Manchester of Poland.” As a result of all of this wealth, rich mill owners and industrialists such as Izrael K. Poznanski left their mark by building opulent palaces and mansions throughout the city. In spite of its industrial character, the city of Lodz was also an active cultural center and a birthplace of well-known writers, poets and musicians such as Arthur Rubinstein, Yitzchak Katzenelson, Artur Szyk and Julian Tuwim. After communism collapsed the industry in Lodz slowly faded away, leaving the city with numerous problems to deal with.
The city’s Jewish heritage sites are a rich part of Lodz’s history. The Lodz New Jewish Cemetery is the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe. It was established in 1892 on Bracka Street and contains more than 180,000 graves, 65,000 tombstones, ohels (structures built over the grave of a righteous person), and mausoleums .The main alleyways were exclusively for people of high rank. A number of tombs commemorate factory owners like Silberstein, Prusak, or Stiller. Do not miss the spectacular mausoleum built in Art-Nouveau style for Israel Poznanski, the cemetery’s founder. The Konsztat family tomb is among the most interesting tombs with a beautiful Tuscan colonnade, and the tomb of Marcus Silberstein is reminiscent of Hellenist patterns. Next to the grave are the family tombs of other famous industrialists from Lodz such as the Cohen, Jarocińscy and Prussak families. Many of the more modest plots are tangled with greenery and shaded by trees, lending to an eerie beauty.
A walk along the cemetery’s side aisle brings us to the Ghetto Field. Here the look changes. Traditional matzevot (headstones) give way to a large open space dotted with concrete stones, small metal plaques, vertical slabs, and a few matzevot newly placed by families. An estimated 45,000 people who died or were murdered in the Lodz ghetto between 1940 and 1944 were buried in the “Ghetto Field” section. As we turn left and walk in the direction of the wall and walk along the prewar quarters to a row of pits, we realize that these were intended to serve as mass graves for over 800 Jews who, after the liquidation of the ghetto in 1944, were left to clear the land. Miraculously, they survived the war as the Germans fled when the Soviet Red Army approached the city. The pits have remained uncovered to remind visitors of that time.
In 1959, a monument commemorating the Jews of the Łódź ghetto murdered during the Holocaust was erected in the cemetery. Its black marble plaque bears the following inscription in Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish: “This monument is dedicated to the blessed memory of the innocent victims, Jews from Lodz and the vicinity murdered in the ghettos and camps by Nazi criminals in the period from 1939 to 1945. Your memory will remain in our hearts forever.” The cemetery is also a burial ground for famous tzadiks (righteous figures) and rabbis, who include Elimelech Weissblum, son of Abraham Icchak, who came from the family of Elimelech the Great from Leżajsk, a tzadik in Staszów; and Meir Bornstein, son of Zew Nachum. For more information, visit: www.jewishlodzcemetery.org/PL/OCmentarzu/OCmentarzuNaBrackiej/Default.aspx.
Following the cemetery, we visited the Radegast Station, one of the most important historical sites connected to the Lodz ghetto. From this place, as many 200,000 Polish, Austrian, German, Luxembourg and Czech Jews left for the death camps. The original wooden building along with its loading platform still stands today. As one approaches the main part of the memorial site, walking along the road, visitors will see the Column of Remembrance shaped like a chimney bearing the inscription “Thou shalt not kill,” and through the column a tunnel engraved with the beginning and end dates of World War II. In the distance one can see the paved courtyard and wooden building of the train station.
Three original cattle cars stand starkly at the station’s platform with their doors open. One of the cars is left open, so that visitors may enter the car to experience what it was like inside, even for a brief moment. Often people will come out in such a hurry with a sense of horror from the claustrophobic conditions, and unable to imagine what it must have been like for the victims who often had to spend days confined in such cars. For many visitors, the most moving part of the memorial is the long tunnel to nowhere. The designers of the memorial continued the track where the railcars are sitting in a long dark tunnel. Lights, lit up by sensors reveal lists of the people who were transported to their deaths. Elsewhere there are large signposts — in the shape of headstones — denoting the destinations of the trains that left from here. There are also plaques commemorating the Jews of Vienna and Luxembourg, who were transported to the death camps after first passing through the ghetto.
Each year, Lodz marks the anniversary of Litzmannstadt Ghetto liquidation, now in its 74th year this August, with a memorial service at the Lodz Jewish Cemetery followed by a two-mile memorial march to the Radegast station, the arrival/departure point for all the transports to and from the ghetto. Three cattle cars, reminders of those used for transporting Jews, stood on the side. The program of the commemoration includes, among others, exhibitions, film screenings, workshops and meetings with special guests.
As Rabbi Dawid Szychowski of Lodz explained: “For us, for the Jewish community, it is to honor the memory of the dead and those murdered. This is also an opportunity to reflect on Polish-Jewish relations, here and now, today and in the future, because for us such events are an opportunity to meet and build relations with the inhabitants of Łódź.”
Polish children’s concentration camp with the Children’s Martyrdom Monument
A startling discovery for most tourists, let alone Polish citizens, is the fact that there was a concentration camp solely to children. During the German occupation, a concentration camp for children was established in the city of Lodz and probably the only concentration camp of this kind in Europe during World War II. This tragic fate was endured by these children, who were transferred from such camps as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek or Stutthof to the children’s camp in Lodz, a place called “Little Auschwitz.” Those in the special children’s camp, however, were not Jewish; they were Poles whose parents were either dead, missing or unaccounted for, or incarcerated. Many of these children were caught committing petty crimes such as stealing food or begging. The ages of most of the children ranged from 6 to 16, whilesome were as young as two. At 16, they were to be sent to adult work camps. It was estimated that the average number of children in the camp at any one time was 3,000.
A documentary film called “We Were Stripped of our Whole Childhood” tells the story of the camp, and in 1971 a memorial for the children was raised in Szare Szeregi Park in Lodz. A commemorative plaque was unveiled in the local cathedral and every November prayers are held at the Memorial of the Children Martyrs of Wars, known as theMonument of a Broken Heart.
Very impressive is the Marek Edelman Dialogue Center, founded in 2010 in order to promote the multicultural and multiethnic heritage of Lodz. It is a place that educates, organizes multicultural events, carries out activities that commemorate the survivors and the Righteous Among the Nations and their families; it also holds walks, open lectures, exhibitions, concerts and performances.
As Joanna Podolska, director of the center, told NYJTG: “The city of Lodz is a Polish city made out Polish, Jews, Germans and Russians; these are our neighbors. This is our history but because we are researching the past but we must also be thinking about the future, because this is the most important.” She noted that the Center was created and mostly paid for by the city of Lodz, but also was partially sponsored by an Israeli entrepreneur Mordechai Zisser, the son of a survivor who donated a lot of money to the building. Podolska said the center has regular classes and education for local students as well as for adults and for tourists, and it has walks, tours, and conferences on a weekly basis open to the public.
“For example, we speak about the history of Jews, World War II, the history of the Holocaust as well as the problems of today,” she said. “We are giving lectures during the academic year about Islam, which is the most important talked about subject for the last few years and refugees. We also do exhibits for children’s rights, past and future, and we ask ourselves how to make the future better.”
The Center contains the Survivors Park, one of the newest public gardens in Łódź honoring those who survived the Lodz Ghetto as well as the Polish Righteous Among the Nations. Halina Elczewska, a survivor of the Litzmannstadt Ghetto, came up with the concept for the park, which was established with the efforts of the president of the city of Lodz, Mr. Jerzy Kropiwnicki. This memorial inside the park was designed by Polish–Jewish architect and politician Czesław Bielecki and where you will find the monument of the famous Jan Karski bench.
This park is an impressive site covering 15 acres where the Ghetto was situated and includes 594 trees planted by survivors. The saplings consist of birches, oaks, larches, maples, and ashes. Each tree is numbered and registered under the name of the survivor who planted it. Survivors who visit Lodz in the future are invited to continue this traditionand plant a tree in his or her honor. The park has a walk with the names of survivors, leading to a Memorial Mound, on a hill 8 meters tall from which most of the city can be seen.
Its walls take the form of a six-pointed Star of David. Currently, there are 6,200 names of Poles on this list which accounts for 28 percent of all Righteous Among the Nations worldwide. The names of the heroes are listed on a wall in Yad Vashem’s Garden of the Righteous. One of them is Irena Sendler, who helped save more than 2,500 children from the Warsaw ghetto and found shelter for them on the “Aryan” side. A high triangular pedestal supports an eagle with spread wings (the symbol of the Polish nation) and the words: “He who saves one life, saves the whole world.” On both sides of the alley grow geometric patterns of trees. They are surrounded by walking alleys leading to a square with a stone placed commemorating the establishment of the park. Granite plaques with the names of the survivors and tree numbers are located along the alley as well.
To learn more about The Marek Edelman Dialogue Center and the Survivors Park, there is no better resource than spokesperson Ms. Justina Tomaszewska. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jewish Community Centre & Synagogue
The main gate to the heart of Lodz’s Jewish community, consisting of approximately 150 to 200 Jews, is located opposite the magnificent edifice of the Credit Society. The building housed the most important institution financing the construction of factories in Łódź in the 19th century. Across Pomorska, at No. 18, are the most important Jewish institutions of Łódź – the community center, synagogue, newly built mikveh (ritual bath, the pride of the Lodz community) and a guest house called Linat Orchim.
Rabbi Dawid Szychowski, the community’s spiritual leader, is also the recently appointed emissary to Lodz of Shavei Israel, an Israeli organization that encourages people with Jewish ancestry to strengthen their connection with Israel and the Jewish people. Rabbi Szychowski told NYJTG, “The rumor is that there are approximately 2,000 to 2,500 Jews living in Lodz, as I can see from many Jewish names that are on the intercoms all over the city.” Rabbi Szychowski actively participate in the social life of the city, representing the Jews of Łódź during local and national celebrations, educating residents about Judaism and more.
The guest house Linat Orchim offers lodging which is overseen by the local Jewish community. Inside this restored building dating from the 19th century, you will find pristine rooms with twin beds to large-sized suites with private balconies. Religious services are held at the synagogue located next to the Linat Orchim and conducted by Szychowski. The Jewish community in Łódź is growing as it attracts people from other cities to visit and to live in this beautiful city. During the holidays, there is no shortage of visitors at the tables or hands to help with the preparation of meals for Friday Shabbat dinners.
Gan Matanael is the city’s first Jewish kindergarten. The pre-school core curriculum is based on the Hebrew alphabet, Hebrew songs and Julian Tuwim’s poems. The children make decorations for the sukkah and colorful chanukiyot. Other activities include visiting the library, zoo, and museums and sometimes taking long walks. Every day the children have contact with members of the Jewish community as they become involved in the preparation for holidays and Shabbat (covering the Sabbath table is a children’s “specialty”). Both the president of the community, Jozef Weininger, and the Rabbi of Lodz, Dawid Szychowski, shared with me their upcoming project to build a new synagogue and a new hoteladjacent to the existing Jewish community. This project would be hopefully realized and finished within the next two years, but much additional funding needed to complete this beautiful project.
While most cities in Poland have market squares in old towns serving as central gathering places, Lodz has Piotrkowska Street. There is no better way to get acquainted with the city than by exploring this pedestrian street, the longest in Poland and all of Europe. Measuring 4.2 kilometers long, this street is filled with pastel-colored and elegant townhouses, art nouveau and neo-Renaissance buildings, restaurants and cafes, shops, hotels and other important buildings such as the neo-Baroque House of Scheibler to Wilhelm Landau’s Bank House. Some of the attractions you can visit are Scheibler’s Palace, the Jakub Szmulowicz House, Oskar Kon’s House and the Grand Hotel. You will find many statues of eminent citizens on Piotrkowska, and one of my favorites was of Julian Tuwim. As Ms. Paulina Machalowska of the Lodz Tourist organization explained, “Many students before their exams come here and rub the nose for good luck to get good grades.”
Beyond textiles, Lodz has a second industry that is active and doing rather well — filmmaking. Nicknamed Hollywoodge, Lodz has long been accredited as the center of Polish movie making. The city was home to several renowned Polish directors, include Roman Polanski, Andrzej Wajda, and Krzysztof Kieslowski. The city even has its own Walk of Fame located outside the Grand Hotel on Piotrkowska Street, where you will see plenty of bronze stars honoring famous names from the Polish film industry – it is Lodz’s own version of Hollywood Boulevard! The most famous yard can be found at Piotrkowska 138/140. That’s where OFF Piotrkowska is located – a cultural and creative center of Lodz. Thisformer spinning and weaving factory was transformed in 2011 to serve the tourists. There are around 50 small businesses operating: designers, architects, restaurants, clubs, galleries and concept stores. In 2014 it even won the title of the new wonder of Poland in a contest organized by National Geographic.
One attraction that should not be missed is MANUFAKTURA – a place mixed with traditional and modern elements. Manufaktura Shopping Center is considered the largest shopping, service and entertainment center in Poland and one of the largest in Europe. It is located on the site of the former Izrael Poznanski factory. The Center’s slogan is “Manufaktura drives Łódź” – and there is a lot of truth in it, because today, hardly anyone can imagine Łódź without this attractive site full of historical references. In Manufaktura there are, among other highlights, a four-star Andel’s hotel, an almost 3.5-hectare market where cyclical concerts, parties, shows and events are held to attract guests from all over Poland and beyond, a branch of the Museum of Art, an Experymentarium (science center), about 60 eateries, supermarkets and over 260 stores and salons, a movie theatre, bowling alley, fitness club and has the longest fountain in Europe, 300 meters long.
You can stop to visit the Historical Museum of Lodz (also known as the City Museum of Lodz and the Izrael K. Poznanski Palace). Built at the turn of the 20th century for the textile magnate and philanthropist, Baron Izrael K. Poznanski, it really is a glorious-looking, neo-Baroque style building. In my opinion, however, the facade and the view from the back garden are more impressive than the contents within.
In the afternoon, visit one of the most popular museums in Lodz like the Museum of the Factory. Located in the Manufaktura, the Factory Museum tells about the history of textile factories in Lodz in the 19th century. Another museum, the Herbst Palace and Museum, is the former residence of the Herbst Family. Don’t miss the OFF Piotrkowska,a former cotton mill that has been transformed into a bohemian-esque playground that is full of bars, restaurants, galleries and quirky shops. OFF Piotrkowska is a great to place to end a walking tour of Lodz.
For more information, visit:
To travel via train, contact Rail Europe or log on to: https://www.raileurope.com/
Story & photography by Meyer Harroch -New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide.com
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Polish Tourism Board