From Mournful To Cool

Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Travel Writer

Lodz, Poland’s third-largest city, has long held a special resonance for Jewish visitors.

This onetime outpost of the Russian and German Empires was among the world’s most Jewish cities before the Holocaust, with a quarter-million Jews, a good third of the city’s total. Every year, thousands of heritage travelers come to bear witness to Lodz’s wartime ghetto and the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe.

So fixed is that mournful image that it takes a mental leap to consider what Europeans already know: Lodz is suddenly the coolest place in Poland.

“It’s where all the hipsters and artists are going,” said my Polish friend Piotr. “They are in Warsaw for the jobs, in Krakow for the universities. But they come to Lodz for the scene.”

While the central Polish burg is still unknown to most Westerners, Lodz has a youth scene in full bloom and a cosmopolitanism born of its longtime diversity.

This so-called “City of Four Cultures” (Polish, Jewish, German and Russian) is polyglot and full of surprises. There are 19th-century Orthodox churches, baroque Teutonic mansions, Soviet housing blocks with underground cafes. Though Jews are few today, Jewishness continues to pervade the city — a subtle but persistent overlay of nostalgia, and a belatedly appreciated cultural influence.

With some of the coolest new art and design spaces in Europe, Lodz could easily be the newest “New Prague” — except that its look is less fairy-tale than post-modern industrial. Lodz’s last golden age was during its 19th-century manufacturing boom, when the Eastern European textile industry was based here. The mansions of those wealthy factory owners — many of them Jewish — still dot the city, often right alongside the brick factory buildings that form a sort of urban wallpaper.

For every Art Nouveau mansion, there are dozens of worn-down, graying industrial buildings. The cityscape specializes in dingy shades of gray, a kind of bleak palette that recalls Chagall’s Vitebsk paintings.

Still, there’s a singular charm in this gritty tableau. For the first time since before World War II, foreigners flock to Lodz not just to mourn what was lost, but also to savor the city’s digital-age vitality. A film culture that spawned Kieslowski and Polanski will draw hundreds of connoisseurs next month to the Music and World Documentary Film Festival, and Jewish hipsters flock later in the year to the Yiddish Film and Cultural Festival.

You can feel the new energy in Manufaktura, a massive culture, entertainment and shopping complex in a converted warehouse area that many consider the ultimate symbol of 21st-century Lodz.

Manufaktura’s setting itself is a sort of metaphor for the postwar city. Industrial-era brick factory buildings have been repurposed and joined with newer wings of glittering glass to house cinemas, galleries, shops and restaurants. Several historical museums provide depth into Lodz’s manufacturing heritage, including the Factory Museum and the City Museum — the latter housed in the restored baroque palace of the most famous of Lodz’s fin-de-siecle Jewish industrialists, Izrael Poznanski.

Sprawling across the center is a plaza where the line between sculpture and function blurs: fountains spring not from the mouth of a marble lion or a decorous spigot, but from glowing metal grates on the ground, and light fixtures swoop in angles reminiscent of Brancusi. It’s a contemporary twist on the grand old European plazas found in every well-preserved capital — with the same pigeons, but without the moldering bell tower.

The cutting-edge aesthetic is perhaps best savored at MS2, a popular spinoff of the Lodz Art Museum. Housed in a 19th-century weaving plant in the Manufaktura complex, MS2 is a constantly changing exhibition space where art is arranged thematically, rather than by movement or medium.

A block away is the original MS (for Museum Sztuki/ Lodz Museum of Art), which grounds the recent art revival in a 20th-century historical context. Highlights are works of the European avant-garde from the 1920s-‘50s, including big names like Max Ernst and Marc Chagall. Like a good wurst, there’s plenty of filler holding it all together — but you’re left wholly satisfied nonetheless.

Round the corner, and you find yourself in one of Europe’s liveliest street scenes: Ulitsa Piotrkowska, which is Lodz’s Fifth Avenue, Broadway and the East Village all rolled into one.

Piotrowska is alive with people — old and young, locals and visitors — at nearly every hour. The two-and-a-half-mile boulevard, a kind of (mostly) pedestrian mall, is a buzzing scene of cafés, boutiques, strolling families and architectural landmarks.

Amid all the novelty, vestiges of prewar Jewish presence are woven between the shined-up facades. Here is the old Silverstein textile factory; there is the Landau bank building; another plaque identifies the house where pianist Artur Rubinstein, Lodz’s native son, once practiced scales. Local Jewish preservationists are restoring an 1899 kosher slaughterhouse and former Beit Midrash.

What’s left of the wartime Jewish ghetto, in contrast, feels vague and a bit neglected. It takes a sharp eye and careful attention to the tourist office map to pick out landmarks along the streets north of the city center.

Happily, one shul — the privately built Reicher Synagogue — survived the war. Tucked onto quiet Rewolucji Street, its Eastern-style arches were recently restored in mauve and terracotta. Services still take place here occasionally; the nexus of contemporary Jewish life, however, is the Lodz Jewish Community Center (en.jewishlodz.org.pl).

The center operates a kosher restaurant, and throughout the year, American Jewish visitors stay at its guesthouse. Centrally located but peaceful, it’s an oasis of Lodz Jewish tradition amid this bracingly modern scene.
 

Lodz’s Manukaftura entertainment and shopping complex, above.

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