To the Lodz Station
Jakubowicz, Ph D
all of us who were there in August found it quite so unambiguous; my feelings
about the day follow:
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 fulfill 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" traveler, 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: "Undoubtedly, 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.
We head 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 tragic.
An oratorio 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.
In 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.
I didn't 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 yahrzeit 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 acapella 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.
© Andrew Jakubowicz 2005
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