When last in Lodz, the weather had been sullen and cold, snow
still in the April streets, its whiteness a subtle blanket over
the mucky remains below. In high summer the sky is brilliant
blue, and my feet are shod in sandals rather than boots. Which
is to say, the earth rotates and the seasons follow on, and
memory is layered by experience, reflection and fantasy.
Conversations shape this memory of the summer rituals of
forgetful remembrance, which had drawn me to the city.
Over the last weekend in August 2004 the Lodz City Council, and
its Mayor Jerzy Kropiwnicki in particular, organised a
commemoration of the liquidation of the Ghetto in 1944 – sixty
years since the last train left for Auschwitz and the last few
hundred Ghetto survivors burrowed into its hidden spaces to
escape the vengeful and guilty fury of the departing Nazis. It
was an event for a Poland now part of Europe (from May 1); it
was a punctuation point in an unfinished debate about the
relations between Polish Catholics and Jews. The commemorations
were a major event for the City, mobilising its funds,
administrators, police, fire brigades, ambulances and scouts.
Multimedia performances, orchestras, cantors, Jewish ceremonies
of mourning, Catholic ceremonies of remembrance, wall to wall TV
coverage, and the streets and bus shelters hung with posters of
the memorial. Given that the overwhelming mass of current Lodz
citizenry had never met a Jew, and most had little if any
knowledge that there had been a vibrant Jewish community in the
city, the commemorations created a new dimension for the city’s
own identity. It was now a city where there had once been Jews,
something more than the whitewashed-over anti-Semitic graffiti
that had defaced its city walls for years.
My weekend there had its own purpose – the installation of a
memorial plaque in the Jewish cemetery for my grandparents. My
father’s last wish had been to say Kaddish for the parents he
had left in the first few days of September 1939, and I wanted
to fulfil that request. Also I wanted to try to understand how
the Poles and Jews I would meet might interpret the public
events, and in particular, the memorial museum of Radegast.
But before this event, it is later on a Friday afternoon, and I
am the lone tourist presenting myself for a tour of the Lodz
ghetto (west) organised by a local tourist bureau to address the
expected desire of the visitors to the Commemoration of the
Liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto, to see where “it” all happened
sixty years ago. But there is only me, an “independent”
traveller, not good with groups, led by Maria, a school teacher
being a guide after school hours. We walk together, she tells me
that here was the fence, and here the wall, and here buildings
now pulled down, and there the river, now covered over. We
pause in the sun by a statue of Moses, looking out over the
leafy park, and the old square empty now of the bustling life
that used to be there. In Nobel laureate Wladyslaw Reymont’s
1899 novel, Lodz becomes “The Promised Land”, a label chosen by
the author for its irony rather than its accuracy; most recently
it’s a label that has been used unselfconsciously by the City
Council to celebrate the city’s past and to predict its future:
it may again become the Promised Land, whose mirages would
attract all Europeans”, its website declares. Is “mirage” the
word they wanted?
As we pace
the streets the story builds. In a corner was the old Jewish
cemetery, only a commemorative stone left. I kneel and pick up a
pebble, the first of many that I will collect. On the edge of
the ghetto there is a triangular park, an open space, from which
buses leave now for other towns. We find the street sign,
Basarowa (market) street, and determine that no.8 should be that
four storey block with the entrance to the courtyard. Maria
whispers that this used to be the execution place, where the
Jews were brought to be hung for transgressions such as seeking
food. One could imagine the months of living in apartments and
trying never to look out the windows to see what was happening
in the square. My father’s parents lived there until 1942, and
their deaths, his from starvation, and hers by gassing truck at
Chelmno, an overnight train ride away from the Radogoscz siding.
towards the old market square; here was the building where the
Jewish police were based, with its own fetid and miserable
basements. Then along the street between the ghetto halves,
where the “free” trams used to run. Jewish ghetto chief
Rumkowski had his statistics and housing division on that
corner, the one that meticulously recorded the allocations of
square meters and scraps to those chosen to be allowed to live
slightly longer, thereby enabling us sixty years later to
discover to which hovels our families were consigned, and in
which rooms they spent their last days and with whom.
It faced St
Mary’s Church, built by Jewish entrepreneur Poznanski for his
Christian workers, the metal lids to the water pipes marked with
a star of David before such symbols were the mark of Cain. The
church had been where the belongings taken on arrival from the
wealthy Jews of western Europe were stacked and sorted for sale
in the Reich homeland. Behind the church in similar red brick,
the headquarters of the ghetto’s Nazi police, now once more the
home of priests.
As the sun
sets redly over the city, I thank Maria, buy a ghetto map, and
stroll through the park with its chess players and couples
drinking from brown paper bags, towards the oratorio to be
enacted within the stark red brick walls of Poznanski’s
factory. Up an ancient staircase past muscled-up blond security
guards in black flak-vests and riot sticks, into a large
low-ceilinged space with regular narrow columns. Here there were
once machines spinning cotton; now one wall is hung with modern
photos of buildings in the ghetto area I have just left, their
windows filled with shadowy images drawn from the hundreds of
photos now available from discovered caches, of the ghetto days.
Hanging from the ceiling on battens photos of ghetto children
and excerpts of their poetry and diaries, painfully simple and
is performed, sung in Polish, wistful and haunting, a sort of
Gorecki of the ghetto. Then we disperse into the night.
It is the
morning of my trip to Chelmno, my first ever death camp, where
my grandmother perished. It is a difficult time, the
apprehension of the unknown. I am not well briefed and do not
know much about what lies ahead, other than which road to take
north, and then not to miss the side road through the
countryside to the Ner river.
September 1942 my grandmother caught the train – or is that a
bad-taste comment? She with thousands of others, was driven into
the cattle cars at Radogoscz, and then sent north to Kolo, then
transshipped into a smaller train and packed for the night into
an old “palace” at Chelmno, a small town with a church (used to
store their meager belongings). In the morning, the starving,
broken mass of the elderly, the sick, children and other
unproductive workers were stripped of their clothes and hounded
through the basement corridor of the building until they were
jammed into a waiting truck. A pipe was connected from the
engine to the box, and the engine revved up. They were dead,
hopefully, very soon. After five minutes, the pipe was
disconnected. (This was a lesson learned from a similar process
at Sobibor – there, the trucks drove off with the hoses still in
place, and the passengers ran inside to the back of the trucks
which often would tip over, spilling their contents dead or
gasping onto the road). The truck drove a few miles to the
forest where the crematoria worked ceaselessly. The ashes went
into pits or into the river.
know these details in the morning breakfast room, which was
littered with Holocaust survivors munching herring and curd
cheese with rye bread, on package tours from Israel or the USA
or England. Feisty eighty year olds who had forgotten nothing of
their Polish years, and who ranged the spectrum from fearful to
delighted – one couple having returned every summer for ten
years to the new Poland.
The Jewish Cemetery in Lodz sits just inside the Ghetto
boundary, and was used throughout the war. The ‘ghetto field’
holds more than 40,000 remains, now being marked out by
charitable foundations, and rescued from the high grass, trees
and brush that has spread throughout the huge necropolis. Along
the main wall inside the gate are dozens of memorial tablets.
Shallow pits along the base of the wall are the remnants of the
burial holes into which the last Jews of Lodz were to tumble in
a Nazi fusillade – the Nazis fled, the Jews survived. The holes
had been ‘freshened up’ – then someone must have thought better
of the cosmetics and covered them with brush.
Jews from throughout the Diaspora arrived for the Sunday
ceremonies. One clan had T-shirts: Nirnberg, Lodz 2004. Many
were frail survivors, suddenly the most sought after people,
shepherded by scouts in Polish forage caps to the front seats.
It was a hot day and for an hour speeches rumbled on – Poles as
witnesses, bearing witness, mourning friends, neighbours, always
though as witnesses, never perpetrators, sometimes victims.
Messages from Israel, and then the kaddish. The words rolled out
from the lips that knew them. Much of the audience sat or stood
mutely, gazing at this strange apparition of Jews praying once
more in the heart of the Ghetto.
From the memorial outside the inner gate, the crowd rose, and
began the silent march of memory towards the Radegast station.
Thousands of people by now, Jews and Poles, walked behind the
flags of Lodz and Poland carried by an honour guard around the
long walls of the cemetery. Traffic was halted as the slow
procession made its way towards the railway siding.
One sees the chimney first, a concrete tube with a shattered
top, then the brickwork of the base room and the admonition “Do
not kill!” in Polish, Yiddish and English. It is not finished,
yet the plan is clear in one’s mind’s eye, but with months
still to build the long concrete gas-chamber like corridor that
will be lined with the lists of Transports. The corridor will
stretch maybe two hundred meters – there were many people on the
lists – its entrance at the refurbished goods station with the
German name in Gothic lettering. Standing at the platform –
level for easier access for the frail – a few goods wagons,
originals from the time, their dirt encrusted insides still
saturated with the silent screams of victims, and the infinitely
echoing slamming of the steel bars across the doors. Survivors
stand in tears, describing to the video cameras of friends or
film makers, their emotions and memories of being in this place,
in these things, once more.
Inside the platform shed, now an exhibition hall, old photos of
Jewish families, their Polishness emphasised, enlarged to banner
size hang from the rafters. Candles burn here and there on the
inscriptions, as we kneel to light a yarzeit for whomever we
want to recall. Then around one such hanging image, a crowd
jostles for a better sight. Along one wall a dozen or so pages
of the thousands, originals of the transport lists, names,
addresses, ages. I find one unknown – a 29 year old woman with
my family name, who had shared my grandparents’ crowded final
days at Basarowa 8.
At the exit across an open space they have erected giant
tombstones with the names in Gothic German of the death camps
which this station fed. Candles lie flickering at their bases,
the wind catching the flames and guttering them. In the cement
faces are sculpted hand-holds, the signs of dying fingers
scraping for life against the gas.
During the ceremony here – now more political speeches than
religious – Poles re-attest to their benign witness status. Jews
mourn again their losses. Germans and Austrians mourn their lost
citizens and dedicate themselves to liberty. An American gives a
George Bush speech on terrorism, and an Israeli says never again
– no Jews as victims, no Poles as bystanders, no Germans as
perpetrators. As the formal proceedings break up a small group
of Israelis start an a cappella Hatikvah, almost drowned out in
the vast murmuring of voices around them.
While there never was a gas chamber or crematorium in Lodz, now
there is. I am left perturbed, wondering at the multiple and
confused interpretations this memorial will extract from future
visitors. Is it for the Germans as if to say “Look, we had Jews
here before; they are no more; this is how we (you) did it!”? Or
is it, “we shall never forget the horrors this place saw, and
the ends to which it condemned its transients”? Or is it, “have
a mini-holocaust experience here”, a weird tourist attraction?
Each visitor will bring their own prejudices and their own
interpretations, to this place of memory and sad reflection.