December 19, 2013
Our small group received quizzed looks from the customers coming in and out of Sam Scan, a nondescript supermarket in Baluty, a working class neighborhood of Łódź, (pronounced Woodge) Poland’s third-largest city. Despite the cold, foggy air and the winter early dark, we were huddled around an open laptop near the store entrance, straining to hear the sounds of Schubert’s Great is Jehovah Our God. During the war, the grocery store had been the former cultural center of the Lodz Ghetto, where the city’s Jews, who made up a third of its prewar population, were forced to live. William Gilcher, a visiting American scholar and our tour guide, described a sold-out concert on July 2,1942, when a despairing audience listened raptly to the Austrian composer’s celebration of the greatness of God and then to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The musical respite served as a form of resistance to a daily existence filled with slave labor and death, gnawing hunger and the ever-present fear of deportation. One of the students in the group remembered the building from later, as the Halka cinema where he saw Return of the Jedi.
Walking further, we entered a large, indoor mall to warm up. The Bałucki Rynek had been an open market square at the time of the war, overlooked by the office of Chaim Rumkowski, appointed the “Eldest of the Jews” by the Nazis. Rumkowski’s Faustian bargain with evil gave him almost complete control of the ghetto, in return for organizing its approximately 200,000 Jewish residents into an efficient work force for the Nazi war effort. Perhaps thinking about the Nazi slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (Work makes one free) a sign that also hung over the main gate to Auschwitz, and taking it at its word, Rumkowski believed that “Work is our only way.” If he made the Jews indispensable, they would survive. To a limited extent, this proved to be true. More people survived the Lodz ghetto than any other during the war. On the other hand, the price was complete acquiescence to the rule of a Jewish leader who arranged for the deportation of any opposition. I wonder whether one reason why the Warsaw Ghetto came to symbolize Jewish life under Nazi occupation rather than its counterpart in Lodz is this history. While the former was the largest, and the latter the second largest concentration of Jewish population, the uprising led by young leftist activists in Warsaw also created a collective memory of heroic, although futile, resistance desperately needed after the war. Resistance in Lodz was of a kind represented by a concert that simply helped to sustain human dignity under inhuman circumstances.
After stopping at several other pertinent sites, we arrived at Bill’s apartment building, which also had a ghetto history. In the city for the semester, he had sought out and luckily found a flat in that particular location as he was researching a visual artist named Izrael Lejzerowicz who had lived in the same building and who had died probably in Auschwitz in 1944. Bill was also teaching a course on cultural life in the ghetto of Lodz to art history students at the university. They were the tour group, a few of whom ended up in his small pre-war flat afterwards for a glass of wine. He had asked them each to bring a poem to share, recalling the artistic salon that Lejzerowicz had hosted in his flat during the war. The young students were from Lodz; several had grown up in or near the former ghetto. One young woman had been taught about the area’s past by her parents. Another who went to high school there almost ten years ago had learned about it from her history and literature teachers. A few had heard about Lejzerowicz before as a Polish artist in the interwar period; others hadn’t. Before the war, Lodz had been an industrial city composed of German, Jewish, Polish and Russian cultures. A doctoral student named Alicja said she became conscious of this historical diversity through the Festival of Four Cultures, which began in 2002. Last year Steven Bernstein (JMF 2007), Raphael Roginski and Mikolaj Trzaska (JMF 2013) performed, among others. All the students also had seen the Krakow Festival of Jewish Culture, broadcast annually on national television.
After a night in the budget guest-house run by the local Jewish community, I made my way to the Jewish cemetery, founded in 1892. About 160,000 people are buried there, including more than forty thousand who died in the ghetto. The graves tell the story of the Jews from Lodz—from the mausoleum with its gold mosaic ceiling over the remains of the late nineteenth century textile magnate Izrael Poznanski and his wife, Eleonora Hertz, to anonymous grass covered mounds in the Ghetto Field. Hundreds of orderly rows of small black signs, most engraved with individual names, had been planted by groups of Israeli soldiers who have visited over the past twenty-five years. Two Israeli flags flapped in the wind near the boulder monument to the ghetto victims. Hebrew graffiti scrawled inside the blue star on one memorialized a Lodz survivor who died in the 1967 battle for Jerusalem.
For my final dinner I talked Bill into going to Anatewka, a restaurant in the magnificent Manufaktura mall. The brick buildings and plaza that once housed the sprawling mills of the Poznanski textile empire have become the new town square of post-Communist Lodz. Bill’s first reaction to the Jewish-themed restaurant was negative, like mine often is when confronted with an obviously commercial appeal to Jewish sentiment. But I was curious, he was willing, and we found ourselves at a table upstairs, by a small Christmas tree. A Santa Claus doll the size of a two year old vied for attention alongside a large menorah, and the walls were replete with realistic paintings of elderly, bearded Jews. We heard English at the neighboring tables; they seemed to be groups of Poles entertaining European guests. The meal was one of the best I’ve had in Poland: thick pieces of tender tongue under a delicate horseradish sauce. For dessert—plums marinated in Slivovitz plum liquor. Bill had the cheesecake.
Along with the bill, we each received a miniature, plastic Jewish figurine with an arm resting on a coin worth one grosz (100 grosz equals one zloty; a zloty is worth thirty cents.) The first one, eyes closed, wore a black hat and sported a bushy brown beard and thick payes or side curls. A black kaftan coat partly covered his talit katan, an undergarment that, unlike this one, is meant to hold four fringes on its corners, according to Biblical injunction. The second wore payes and kipa, but no beard or kaftan, and was smiling. Looking at them carefully now, I am surprised at their individuality, despite their caricature. I asked the waitress what the dolls were for. “Jews mean money,” she answered simply, in a tone that implied this was something everyone knew. She went on to explain that Jews knew how to make money. “They [the figurines] are for good luck. Be sure to put their backs toward the door so the money will come to you.”
For more information about Izrael Lajzerowicz, check out the website: www.Lejzerowicz.org