This week in my grandfather’s story I return to Europe. Before Christmas I wrote about the family’s trek to Poland from Ukraine. It was a long drawn out trip that took almost 3 months. To put it into context a train excursion from Zaporozhe to Lodz takes approx 16 hours of train travel. The biggest reason why it took so long, which I explained in the stories was because they were trying to avoid advancing Russian forces. They would flee to somewhere in former Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, into parts of Romania, then back into Ukraine until finally arriving in Poland.
So what happened once they got there?
First I should probably explain who was all there. First there was my grandfather and his mom and dad, his sister Lisa and her husband and daughter. There was my Uncle Han’s wife Maria (Hans was killed in Siberia years earlier). My Tante Elfrieda, who would actually end up staying in Lodz for a while after the rest of the family moved to Germany. She stayed behind to attend a ballet academy and from what my grandfather tells me, her accounts of what happened in Lodz is very detailed.
Initially in conversations with my grandfather about his arrival in German occupied Poland, Lodz was seen as a place of great wonderment. There were Christmas lights, warm beds, they got rid of the lice, they had running water and were seen as potential German citizens. But as the conversations evolved and my grandfather and I dove deeper into his time in Lodz I began to realize exactly what Lodz was like.
He began to mention check points, ‘German zones’, he began to talk about having his clothes, bag and hair checked. At first I didn’t understand what he was talking about.
During our discussions I was also studying at the University of Winnipeg. By joining my studies with my interviews I realized that he was telling me about the Lodz ghetto.
For those who dont know and in my upcoming scene I will explain, but Lodz was the site for the second largest ghetto in Europe.
For some reason this discovery bothered me. We had talked at length before about the Holocaust and his times back in Nikopol (the brutality- the murder of his benchmate Lisa), but it was the way it came up that I found surprising. If he had gone through check points, he had seen what had been going on, which meant he, like me was trying to process what he was experiencing. What he was seeing was viewed as everyday; part of normal day life. At the age of 16, he had seen the dead on the street corners, the starvation, and the sick. For some reason it was here that the brutality began to become real. What I mean is that I was hearing first hand what had been going on- I was able to hold out my hand and touch my grandfather; someone who was there to witness it. For some reason it was this realization that shocked me. It was a very humbling experience to share with my grandfather. I could see tension and pain that it caused him.
But I will say part of me liked it, in the fact that, like all his stories (his stories of his saving Tamara, his being beaten by guards) I was able to see my grandfather’s heart on his sleeve, which made him mortal to me. It reminded me that he was like me. Before I had put him on this great pedastal – he is my hero, my grandfather, the man who came to Canada with nothing and look what he had done and gone through.
So the following is a scene of a trip to Lodz- the conversation takes place between myself and Cait. The scene hopefully gives some background to the city of Lodz.
My Opa arrived in Lodz in December of 1943. The city, which was the arrival point for my grandfather, was also the transfer site for him and his family. After a couple of months they received their German citizenship and would move to Germany and settle in a small city called Aschaffenburg.
He stayed in Aschaffenburg until he was conscripted into the army and transferred to the SS. In the late weeks of February 1944, my grandfather shipped out to a small town in the Slovakian area of Czechoslovakia. His SS training camp was near a large hill that the Germans revered as sacred. They referred to it as ‘Amolholstein,’ or ‘Holy Mountain’.
Cait and I arrived late at night into Lodz, exhausted from the strenuous train travel and early in the morning we left our bags behind and went out to explore as much of the city as we could.
Until the end of the 17th century, Lodz was seen as a small agricultural town, but very quickly because of the numerous rivers, streams and waterways that flowed through it, it became a trade and craft town, where mills were built and numerous workshops of wheelwrights, coppers, shoemakers, carpenters and butchers were established.
When the Swedes invaded in the 1700s, the city was for the most part destroyed and deserted; however once the industrial revolution began and train tracks became the way of distribution and transportation, Lodz regained its importance as a trading hub. With all the economic attention of the nineteenth century the design of Lodz is quite pretty. Our hotel was two blocks from Piotrkowska Street, the longest pedestrian street in Europe, over four kilometers long. To me it is this street that is the pride of the city. It is what most visitors are looking for when they arrive here.
There are pubs, restaurants, and various shops, but again for me it wasn’t the shopping and numerous eateries that caught my attention. Piotrkowska Street owes its charm to its beautiful architecture – the palaces, residential buildings and city houses that once belonged to Polish aristocracy; it is what makes Lodz an Eastern European gem. We stopped at a small coffee shop, where the beans were roasted fresh, to get Cait her caffeine fix for the morning. While we sat on the patio, falling in love with the beautiful mosaic decorating of Juilisz Kindermann’s Palace that was just down the promenade, Cait and I both commented on how great of a walking city it was. After being overheard by a few locals who spoke English, we were told that the city’s charm is owed to its natural flow. The ‘flow’ which was the word they used, is from the city running on a downward slope, going north-east to south-west and continuously intersecting with the numerous rivers, streams and waterways that occupy the region.
With all this in mind however, the greatness of the ‘old city’ is overshadowed by the twentieth century version and what occurred here during the Second World War. Naturally, because of this and its importance to my Opa and his story, for the short while we were going to be there, we made our way from the awe inspiring architecture to observing the location for the second largest Jewish Ghetto during the war.
“For the Germans,” I told Cait, “Lodz was to be the central city for the Lebensborn (expansion- Hitler wanted have German citizens occupy this newly ‘claimed’ territory. The Germans compared the new frontier to the wild west frontier in the States during the 1800s).
The Germans renamed it Litzmannstat, in honor of Karl Litzmann, the General who conquered the city during the First World War. Lodz was one of many cities in Poland and the Baltic provinces to be renamed and resettled. During the war the city had a population much like Winnipeg just under 650,000. There was also a large Jewish population of a quarter million and in order to become the city the Germans envisioned, it had to undergo an ‘Aryanization’ process. The Ghetto was to be a temporary transition post for the Jews before being sent to the camps. But it soon became quite productive in its slave labor and the Germans exploited this for major industrial gains. The supplies that the ‘inhabitants’ produced were used in powering Nazi Germany and aiding the German War Machine.
“My God, they were building the very products that were killing them,” Cait said.
“Yeah and it was because of this success that the ghetto was ‘spared’ from the death camps until August of 1944. The Lodz ghetto was the last to be ‘liquidated’.” I said, using my fingers as quotation marks.
“At war’s end, why did the Germans not destroy the city like everything else?” Cait asked.
“Unlike Warsaw, there was no revolt in Lodz. There was no fighting when the Germans emptied the last of the 160,000 Jews from its walls and sent them to the chambers. This left the buildings intact at war’s end. I don’t know why they didn’t destroy it, perhaps to save bullets or supplies, but I am not sure. They left about 800 Jewish inhabitants to clean up the streets, and afterwards planned to send them to the camps, but the Germans retreated before doing so.” I responded.
“It doesn’t look anything like Piotrkowska Street.” Cait had added while we walked the area of the former ghetto. “It’s a pretty big contrast from the earlier restaurants, pubs, palaces and coffee shops,” she concluded.
It was true, the rundown district of four square kilometers located in the middle of the city is forgettable to the everyday person. Everything seemed neglected except for various commemorative plaques located throughout the neighborhood. If you weren’t looking for the plaques one could pass right through the ghetto and never know it existed. Once we entered the district the interview with my Grandfather and my classes and education became one.
I told Cait that “I could connect the dots.” ‘Seeing it, feeling and touching it,’ became a reality. “He would have walked through it many times…What is no longer here and what I imagined in my mind, he would have seen every day.” I said aloud.
“What would he have seen Mike?” Cait asked.
“He would have seen the signs, the barbed wire, brick walls and guarded gates. He would have had to pass through various checkpoints. He would have had his hair, clothes and shoes checked for contraband; weapons, excess money, food and illegal papers. He would have felt claustrophobic amid the crowds of people. With his own eyes he would have witnessed the persecution. He would have seen the begging children, the sick and the lame, the yellow star and the dead waiting to be removed from the street corners.”
After spending the day walking the streets we returned to our hotel. After discovering that our night invloved another overnighter on an Eastern European train, Cait went upstairs to shower. I sat in the lobby, where I listened to a past interview with my grandfather. Next up is a train to Bratislava and then on to Bystrica, Slovakia.