Inside the Synagogue before Shabbat begins
Left: Synagogue at 28 Rewolucji 1905 Street,
once privately owned
On Shabbat I walked to the Museum of the History of Lodz, at the Poznanski Palace, to see the exhibitions of distinguished Jewish artists and an exhibition of Ghetto photographs discovered after the war. It seemed every institution, theater, and museum this week was dedicated to remembering the history of the Lodz Ghetto and the contribution of the Jewish citizens. There were photo exhibitions of the Lodz Cemetery, of Hasidim from Lelow, and of the Ghetto today; art exhibitions in memory of artists who were exterminated; displays of original texts written by young ghetto inmates; multimedia presentations, and outdoor workshops and games for children presenting the traditions of Purim, Chanukah, and Shavuot.
The walk back to the hotel along Piotrkowska Street revealed the new Lodz. Because Lodz was not destroyed during the war, many of the old and dark buildings from the textile days still remain. By contrast, Piotrkowska Street is a wide, cobblestone promenade starting at Liberty Square at one end with monuments, hotels, restaurants, pubs, outdoor cafes, attractive shops and the Lodz Walk of Fame featuring film- star plaques. Retro trams and bicycle-powered rickshaws are available when one gets tired of walking, or just for the fun of it. After Havdalah services marked the end of Shabbat, a multimedia concert "Children of the Lodz Ghetto" took place. This was dedicated to the children who perished in the Lodz Ghetto, at Chelmno, in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and in other horrific places during the war. As a 100-member children’s choir and a symphony orchestra performed, children read excerpts from diaries found in the ghetto. In the background, old photos of the children of Lodz were displayed on a screen, deeply affecting the survivors, families, and all those watching in the audience.
Memorial service at the Jewish
Cemetery with Kaddish, Psalms, and memorial prayers recited.
(Press Office City of Lodz)
One of the high points of the commemoration was the memorial service held at the Jewish Cemetery on August 29. After a morning prayer service for ghetto victims held at St Mary’s Assumption Church, which is in an area of the former ghetto, people entered the cemetery. This cemetery was within the ghetto boundaries and is the burial place for many of the Jews who died there. Many of the graves in the southern part of the cemetery are part of the "ghetto field" where unmarked plots remain. Established on Bracka Street in 1892, it is the largest Jewish Cemetery in Europe, containing close to 180,000 matzevot (tombstones). Visitors arrived early to look for their families’ burial sites. For many it was the first time in sixty years that they said kaddish at their parents’ gravesites. Those who spoke related messages of a more religious nature than a political one. Rabbi Michael Schudrich offered words of comfort. Psalms, prayers, el Mole Rachamin (prayer for the dead) were recited to remember the more than 200,000 Jews from this city who were killed by the Nazis. Cantor Benzion Miller and choir chanted Hebrew prayers to the packed crowd. Guests heard poignant speeches given by Jehuda Widawski, a survivor and member of the Organization of Former Residents of Lodz in Israel, and Eliezer Zyzkind, chairman member of the Organization of Former Residents of Brzeziny in Israel. Speeches were offered in the speakers’ native languages without translation, which was frustrating for many of the listeners. One woman in the audience called out asking why they did not also speak in Yiddish, a language the survivors in attendance could understand. Before closing this ceremony, Lodz Major Kropiwnicki laid a wreath on the podium, and several dignitaries followed by adding flowers, lighting candles, and placing memorial stones.
Memorial March from the
cemetery to the Radegast (Radogoszcz) Station
along Bracka, Zgajnikowa, and Stalowa Streets.
A few weeks after my second trip to Poland in 2002, it was announced that the "Umschlagplatz" (original train depot, station building, and landings, where Jews of Lodz and elsewhere were taken to be deported to labor/death camps) was "discovered." Since then work has been done to preserve the site. It is to this location, Radegast (Radogoszcz) Station, on this incredibly hot day, that people participated in the one mile memorial march after leaving the cemetery. Families and survivors walked the route along Bracka, Zagajnikowa, and Stalowa streets to the "Umschlagplatz." Imagine the mass of people walking along these streets to the station. For many of the survivors it was the second time they took this walk, only this time they were not starving, sick, weak, cold, or despondent. This time they were being honored by their families, fellow Jews, officials of Poland, and the Polish people. Local Poles watched from the sidelines, frequently waving, and a few could be seen speaking with their guests. For those of us who never saw this place before, the first glimpse was riveting. The train tracks are still there with a few cattle-cars, small windows covered with barbed wire, perched on the tracks next to the depot. On this beautiful, sunny day it was hard to imagine the horrors that took place here. The photos of starving people being herded into the cattle cars at this station, pushed in when no more room existed, in all kinds of weather, wearing scant clothing, are well known. Today on this site, survivors, families, and guests listened to messages presented by Jerzy Kropiwnicki, Mayor of Lodz; Marek Belka, Prime Minister of the republic of Poland; Abraham Zelig, Chairman of the Organization of Former Residents of Lodz in Israel; and many other ambassadors and dignitaries from Israel, Austria, the United States, Germany, European Union, and the Czech Republic. All vowed to remember the past and make every effort possible to see it never happens again. This was followed by a concert of the Arthur Rubinstein Lodz Philharmonic Orchestra at the site.
Radegast Station with
the station building ahead,
Part of the Radegast
Visitors got their first look at the new monument to the victims. Inside the station are the renovated white walls with the original brick floor. Today there was an exhibition in the station of large photos (8x7 foot banners actually) of Jewish inhabitants of pre-war Lodz, and a few samples of transport lists that are in the Lodz archives. On one side of the station are 26-feet high Jewish tombstones displaying etched names of death camps. Visiting the monument is "directed" in a way that makes the visitor identify with the deportees. After seeing the station, and then the railway and cattle cars, one is directed to The Tunnel of Deportees. It is eighty percent complete and will be done this Spring. This is a dark, 460-feet long, bare concrete tunnel. The only light comes from showcases that display original deportation lists. The tunnel ends in a small room with an eternal torch, The Hall of Towns. On the walls are the names of all the cities in the world from which the Lodz Ghetto Jews came. Transport lists will be on display there. An 82-feet high Column of Remembrance soars into the air. The symbolically broken column is reminiscent of the crematoria, where many Jews ended up after being taken from the station.
Hall of Towns
Later this same afternoon, ceremonies took place at the Poznanski Palace, which houses the City of Lodz History Museum. Polish medals were presented for Polish-Jewish Dialogue to Tova Ben Zvi and Abraham Zelig and to Eugene J. Ribakoff for the 90th year anniversary of the American Joint Distribution Committee. This was followed by the signing of the "Milestones for Peace" – small solid pieces of Jerusalem marble signed by attending world dignitaries as a symbol of peace.
This emotional and event-packed day came to a rousing close with a Gala Concert at the Grand Theater in Lodz. Following speeches by Mayors of Lodz, Tel Aviv, and others, three cantors performed along with the Choir of the Great Jerusalem Synagogue.
Halina Elczewska, a ghetto
survivor, speaks at the Tree Planting Ceremony, an event she initiated.
On the right is Jehuda Widawski, ghetto survivor from Israel, and special sponsor of the Jewish Cemetery in Lodz.
Halina Elczewska, a ghetto survivor, initiated an event of planting trees, symbolizing the gift of life, existence, and immortality. This ceremony took place on the morning of August 30, in a newly named Park of Survivors, placed in the neighborhood of the former ghetto (at Wojska Polskiego 83) and covering an area of almost fifteen acres. On that day, 363 survivors planted their trees: birches, oaks, larches, maples, and ashes. Each tree was numbered and registered under the name of the survivor who planted it. Survivors who visit Lodz in the future are invited to continue this ceremony and plant a tree in his or her honor. A monument was dedicated, ribbons cut, and speeches presented by Mayor Kropiwnicki, Halina Elczewska, and Jehuda Widawski.
An event was held also to commemorate the Gypsy Camp where over 5000 Gypsies – Roma and Sinti – were brought in 1941 from Austria and forced to live. This was a camp within the Lodz Ghetto, covering less than half a square mile. Those who did not die in the ghetto were executed at Chelmno.
A Reunion of Survivors was held before noon at the Museum of the History of the City of Lodz in the Poznanski Palace. Representatives from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum participated. For many survivors, it was the first occasion since the end of the war for them to come together and share memories in an "official" setting. "We survived, we outlived, we speak" became the motto of the meeting, also initiated by Halina Elczewska.
Later in the afternoon, a Reunion of the 1968 emigration generation took place. This included a reunion of the former students of Perec Jewish secondary school which closed in 1968.
|Over 5000 people traveled to Lodz for this Commemoration, including 363 survivors of the Ghetto who planted trees in the Park of Survivors. Over 300 journalists went to Lodz to report about the events, and thousands of Lodz inhabitants participated in the preparations. Before going to Lodz for the Commemoration, I spoke with many survivors. Two traveled with me – those involved in the Ahlem Documentary– and we were fortunate enough to meet two other survivors of the Lodz Ghetto who were sent to Auschwitz, and then to Ahlem. However, other survivors I spoke with prior to the trip felt they could never return to this country, a place of unbearable anguish and loss, where suffering and despicable acts continued even after the war. One Ahlem survivor responded that he would attend, but weeks later his wife called and, full of emotion, said he just could not confront the past. He was getting physically ill as the date of departure approached. Facing these demons once in a lifetime is more than anyone should have to bear. Asking someone to relive it again is inhuman. Then there were the cynics and doubters who felt this event was all about politics, tourism, and publicity. To be sure, anti-Semitism still exists as evidenced in graffiti on walls of buildings and slurs made in smaller towns heard during my previous trips to Poland. However, there is also a flourishing of interest in Jewish history, the initiation of exchange programs with Israel, the occurrence of Jewish festivals, and an increase in Jewish studies. Being active in the indexing of Jewish vital records in Poland (through Jewish Records Indexing-Poland1), I am aware many young Poles are searching their Jewish roots. Instead of hiding their Jewish heritage, many are embracing it.
Planting of the Trees in the newly-named Survivors’ Park:
"… – No, and I did not know something else, which is worse. About a year ago, I was speaking to a representative of the Jewish Community and I learnt from him that Lodz is deemed to be the most anti-Semitic city globally. The walls here are smeared with anti-Semitic graffiti. I have seen such slogans in Paris, in Strasbourg and in various German towns, but that justifies nothing. At one time the City Council maintained that these acts of hooliganism were the outcome of social conditions. It is the City Council’s role to condemn and fight such attitudes. The Jews are aware that there is a change. They noticed that I took part in scrubbing the walls clean…."
Mayor Kropinicki was the driving force that initiated this Commemoration. The city put a great deal of energy and heart into making amends. They are honoring the victims and remembering those who perished. The younger generation is apologizing for those citizens a generation ago who perpetrated the crimes or let them happen by keeping silent. They are honoring those who hid their Jewish neighbors at great risk to their lives and the lives of their families.
The city of Lodz plans to continue efforts and activities they undertook at the Commemoration. They established "The Project of the Institute of the Jews of Lodz" together with the Mayor; the President of the University of Lodz; Ambassador of Israel in Poland, David Pereg; Professor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, co-founder of "Zegota"2 Symcha Keller, president of the Jewish Community in Lodz; Uri Wizenber from the Organization of Former Residents of Lodz in Israel; and other distinguished representatives of institutions that helped organize the commemoration. They unanimously agreed that this institution is very much needed and will be established as soon as possible. It will be founded as a university center for research, education, and promotion of Jewish history and culture. Talk has already started about pilot educational programs for high school teachers.
Part of my time in Poland was spent visiting Auschwitz-Birkineau and Chelmno with survivors. Seeing these places and hearing the stories told by people who experienced such unspeakable atrocities in those very places is something I will have with me forever. But I also saw in those men and in other survivors and families who attended the Commemoration, a zest for life and hope for the future that people will come together to prevent this from ever happening again –anywhere in the world, to any people. We have not learned the lesson well given what is going on in today’s world, but if we do not make that our goal to strive towards, we are doomed. In Poland, the time is right, the place is perfect, and the atmosphere in Lodz is favorable.
Many thanks to Malgorzata Andrzejewska-Psarska, a member of the Organizing Committee of the Commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the Liquidation of the Litzmannstadt Ghetto, who provided information about events I could not attend, checked names, and shared photographs taken by the City of Lodz. She is also actively involved with The Institute of the Jews of Lodz, and she and the Committee recently visited Israel to plan the project.
[The above article originally was published in The Voice of Piotrkow Survivors, No. 39 (138), May-June 2005, and in Dorot, the Journal of the Jewish Genealogical Society (NY), Vol. 26, Nos. 1-2, Fall-Winter 2004-2005.]
© 2005 Roni Seibel Liebowitz