Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Manny Kolski's (and our) Visit to Lodz

Day Two: What an emotional day. We spent the day in Lodz, an old industrial town southwest of Warsaw. There are not a lot of nice things to say about Lodz. It is grey, poor, in many areas poorly maintained. And we were there to hear Manny Kolski’s memories of growing up in pre-war Lodz and life in the ghetto. Hearing a first-person account of these experiences is powerful; hearing them in the shadow of the event is overwhelming.

Our day began with us getting on the bus to head to Lodz. Manny told us about his young life in Lodz and through a period of service in the Polish army, including being a POW after the collapse of the Polish army. I could not do justice to any of Manny’s stories though. All I can do is provide a sample of the stories context. What was fascinating was the range of emotion that these stories took us through from sadness to tears to laughter. And this could be in one story! And as Manny spoke, all I could think of was the inner-strength he must have had to survive the experiences in a POW camp and the Lodz Ghetto.

And in the midst of this history of loss we meet with Rabbi Simcha Keller, the only Rabbi in Lodz, at the Jewish Center. Rabbi Keller talked about the growing Jewish community in Lodz — that people are discovering that they have a Jewish heritage and want to discover it. The Rabbi sees his role as providing people an opportunity to discover their Jewish roots through a variety of programs. There is a Jewish Day School in Lodz with 25 students. They hold services on Shabbat and all services, as well as other services. What I still am trying to understand is why would Jews want to live in this country after all that was done in the aftermath of the war? Some would say why should we ignore the more than 800 years of history? Aren’t Jews an integral part of the country? And I think, is there really a future for Jews, aside from the nostalgia?

As we walked through parts of the Lodz Ghetto, Manny told us specific stories related to the locations. In front of this building, a former parsonage that was converted into a prison by the Nazis, Manny related being called in to the office to divulge where people had hidden their valuables, which might have been a problem except that one of the officials recognized him and said that they had the wrong “last name” and that his family were worker and not rich (which was true). The church was converted into a storage barn. 

Here is the Church: 


We also made a trip to the Lodz cemetery, but those thoughts and photos will have to wait for another posting.

There is too much to tell on a trip like today as we followed Manny's memories. What was most moving to me was the trip to the Radegast train station that was used to deport Jews to the death camps. To say that it was moving would be to trivialize the event. To compare it to another moving event would be to belittle the experience. 

What I can say is that I approached today with several minds. First is with the mind of a teacher. How can I turn these personal and intimate experiences into teachable moments for my students who in all likelihood will not experience a trip like this? What can I say to them that will not trivialize my experience and not make the moment appear as if it should be in a Hollywood film?

In addition, I looked at this through the eyes of an American Jew whose immediate family did not experience the horrors of the Holocaust, but who did have extended family that did survive the Shoah. And listening to Manny tell us his memories at the places as we stood at those locations made me think of the stories that I never heard. The stories that survivors did NOT tell because that was not what people did in the late 1960s and 1970s. 

Images of the train station monument:


And with all of this, I have not even begun to express the sites, sounds, and emotions. 

Bon Nuit.


Saulman said...

The survivors are lions! Nobody could keep up with Manny today. His walking pace makes the rest of us run. He's 92!! He jumped off the bus and took off like a 10-year old boy looking for his uncle's business in Liberty Square in Lodz (pronounced "Wudge.")

Manny told us about Rumkowski, the "King of the Jews," the leader of the Judenrat in Lodz. He said, "If the Nazis asked for 500 Jews, Rumkowski gave 1000." Apparently not a great guy.

The story that really hit me today was when Rumkowski stood on the bridge that linked the ghettos and told the mothers in the ghetto to give up their children. He said that they had to sacrifice an arm to save the body, meaning if mothers didn't give up their children, the whole ghetto would die.
Rumkowski ran an orphanage before the war. He must have been the head of an orphanage like the one Oliver Twist was in. We saw pictures of small children walking toward the train, carefully prepared, wearing hoods and jackets, like they were going on a trip. Rumkowski knew where they were going.

Manny cried when he recounted the story of trying to stay alive in the ghetto, but not about his own suffering. He cried about the suffering of other people.

When we got to the station where they were all taken away, he led us in Kaddish, then told us to sing Hatikvah. Then he said, "Chazak, chazak..." and we took strength from this 92-year old man.

terminaltoy said...

Rumkowski was a monstrous character. He ran the ghetto ("Litzmannstadt") as his own private fiefdom, was carried around by bearers, printed ghetto money with his own likeness upon it etcetera.
You speculate on the future for the jews in Poland? In my experience I have run up against an ingrained (and atavistic... there are no jews anymore) antisemitism that no-one has ever tried to dismantle (certainly not the communists). Schade.