Jewish Lodz – Past and Present

It’s never easy to see memorials and Lodz (pronounced Wootch) pays homage to its more than 223,000 (34 percent) Jews before the war. Now there are about 300 Jews scattered throughout the city. There are records that show that Jews settled in this city in the late 1700s and before World War II, Lodz had the second largest Jewish Population in Europe.

Because of the great textile industry, it was called the Manchester of Poland and one of the two textile magnates, I.K. Posnanski, was Jewish. He owned a huge amount of property and built mansions and factories that today are museums. Lodz also produced the genius, pianist Arthur Rubinstein, whose memory is preserved on Piotrkowska, the main street, represented by a huge bronze sculpture of the maestro sitting in front of the piano.

By 1940, Lodz had been renamed Litzmannstadt after a top German official. But in November 1939, four square kilometers were portioned and walled off from the rest of the city for the more than 200,000 Jews who were forced to live in the Litzmannstadt Ghetto. Cramped, devoid of food and proper sanitary conditions, it became a forced labour camp. More than 43,000 starved to death or died from disease or cold. To make sure there was no contact with non-Jews, two German police units were designated to patrol the perimeter. Now, there are memorials of these stations every 100 metres on a few of the city blocks that were once the ghetto and now middle class apartment buildings.

The first deportation was of 55,000 who were sent to extermination camps. To exacerbate the horrific conditions, deportation of 40,000 Jew from other countries were sent into the already congested ghetto. The Jews who lived through this ‘genocide’ numbered only about 5,000 to 7,000.

My guide Renata, knowing that I’d be upset, forewarned me about our next destination. One of the most sinister monuments is the deportation, Radegast, a train station and platform, not destroyed and from where thousands were deported. Now several original freight cars are permanently placed as a memorial in front of this Art Deco building. We went into a haunting ‘tunnel’ built in 1988, which was filled with blown up photographs of many of the horrors and was built to replicate the walk to the gas chambers. Standing on the platform was as difficult as my visit to Auschwitz.

In 1939, thousands of workers in Lodz were employed by Posnanski’s textile factories. Although many of the 100 workshops were owned by other proprietors, he was one of the two largest magnates, the other a non-Jew, Karl Scheibler. Now, on an enormous parcel of land where Posnanski’s factory once produced fabrics for the large European cities, is Manufactura, newly opened and the only shopping mail in Lodz. It’s one of the small pockets that is attractive in this otherwise planned and plain city.

Here I met with the marketing manager of the complex where there are expensive restaurants, an IMAX theatre, bowling lanes fountains and of course a plethora of smart newly decorated shops. “We’re doing extremely well considering that we’ve only been opened for a short time.” ( I was there at the end of 2006)

Lodz one boasted six great synagogues. All were destroyed except for the once privately owned non-active small “shul” on 28 Rewolucji Street which had been built by the Reicher family in the early 1900s. Renata and I walked down a dark narrow alley with rubbish was strewn here and there. It’s now an unsavoury part of the city. But to my surprise, the usually padlocked synagogue had been opened for us and has been renovated to perfection with the financial assistance of The Lauder Foundation.

At the Jewish Community Centre, 18 Pomorska Street, I unexpectedly was given an appointment to speak with the chairman/deputy rabbi, Lodz-born, Symcha Keller, about the on- property ‘small ‘synagogue, the kosher Café Tuwin, a small hotel and official administration offices. He had originally turned down my interview request but suddenly appeared and spent more than an hour in discussion.

Each morning, he told me, in a special room, not at the synagogue, there is a daily minyan and also where High Holidays and Shabbat celebrations are held.

“Step by step, Jews will move back,” he said in a positive mind set.. “Now we have thousands of visitors. The optimistic Keller, 43 years old, bearded and an Orthodox Jew, talked about the Russian Jews and the second generation who have moved or returned to learn about their Jewish roots and heritage which was disturbed by the Communist regime after WWII.

There are no Jewish schools but there are small classes for Jewish education. “Only three daughters were born this year so we don’t have too many bar mitzvahs or weddings,” Keller laughs.

On the outskirts of Lodz is a 40 hectare Jewish cemetery with more than 160,000 graves. Now the property of the Jewish Community, it is well maintained and as much as possible, is being brought back to the original state although many headstones have been destroyed or badly damaged. The only huge mausoleum with an intricate mosaic dome was built for the Posnanski family where workmen were painting, fixing the bricks and attending to the interior dome.

The earliest grave is dated the end of the 17th century and after decades, it is again used for the few Jewish funeral’s. Financial assistance for the maintenance of both the cemetery and the building has come from many foreign philanthropists and former Lodz residents.

The Ghetto Field has 43,527 unmarked graves, symbolic since no one really knows the identity.

While I was in Lodz, there was the unexpected, Festival of Four Cultures, representing Germans, Poles, Jews ad Russians. Along with the food and the music venues, I kept seeing posters of a Star of David, one side snow white, the other blood red. The exhibit was at the Kinematografil, the international cinema school housed in Karl Scheibler’s former palace. It’s from where Roman Polanski graduated. The school is rated highly and about 40 film students graduate annually. On the top floor were three rooms filled with paintings by Jewish children from Czestochowa, part of the “From the Inspiration of Jewish Culture” segment.

Renata, a warm sympathetic woman with whom I became quite friendly, ended the few days together by inviting me to her home – a gesture that meant a lot to me.