Radegast; a casual coexistence.

A few years ago, I wrote in a roundabout sort of way, as is my wont, about the time I went to the 2019 Marillion Weekend in Łódź. You can read about it, eventually, here: Marillion, not everybody’s cup of tea.

“What’s this?” I hear you say, “A Marillion Weekend? Surely that’s too much of a good thing?”
Well, I think on the whole I’d have to agree with you. Don’t get me wrong, I like Marillion and have done since the early days of Neo-Prog.
“Neo-Prog?” I hear you say,
Neo-Prog, it’s a sub-genre of Progressive Rock, an explanation can be found here, you know, if you really want one……

Anyhoo, it was 2019 and I’d attended the 2019 Marillion Weekend which was held over the weekend of Friday 12th to Sunday 14th April. I’d flown into Łódź on the Friday and after dropping my bag at the hotel, I’d gone to a restaurant to have a meal and then later on I’d gone to a bar to meet a small group of friends who were all also going to the concert, and after pre gig drinkies, we all, you know, went to the concert.

Totally Marilioned out, on Monday 15th I’d arranged to meet a friend, Marzena, who was also one of the weekend concert goers, and we’d decided to spend the day sightseeing in Łódź. It was a bright sunny day, and I rather fancied a visit to Radegast railway station.
No, not just because it was a railway station, Radegast has a deeper, darker meaning in Łódź.

Łódź (and stop trying to say “Lods” or “Lodge” and think “Woudge”) is the third largest city in Poland and in the 19th century was a powerhouse of industrialised textile manufacturing, I’ve seen it referred to as the Polish version of Manchester. Łódź at that time though wasn’t part of Poland, in fact Poland as a sovereign nation had been wiped from the map. The subject of the partitions of Poland is both a very interesting and, in its complexities, mildly vexing subject. Save to say that at this time Łódź was a city in the Kingdom of Prussia and then, after 1871 in the Free State of Prussia in the German Empire. I think that’s correct, by all means feel free to pick me up on that though, as I inferred, it’s a sometimes-bewildering subject.

After the Great War of 1914 – 1918 Poland as a nation was reconstituted, albeit as a somewhat smaller country than it had been, by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. And again, I’m simplifying here but the new resurgent nation of Poland knitted together territories that had been divided under Prussia, Austria and Russia into a Polish whole.

Łódź was well known for being a multicultural city, before that became hip and trendy, the population was made up of Poles, those of German ancestry, Jews and to a lesser extent, ethnic Russians. Whatever was going on in Łódź, it worked, the city was prosperous. In 1939 the Jewish population of Łódź exceeded 200,000 and it was the Jews who had built many of the factories, houses, hospitals and other essentials that make up a city.

On the first of September 1939 Nazi forces began the invasion of Poland, heralded by the Battle of Westerplatte when the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein which was supposedly on a diplomatic visit to the Free City of Danzig, opened fire on the Polish manned shore batteries.

The Free City of Danzig (today’s Gdańsk) was a semi-autonomous region also established by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, it was sandwiched between (but part of neither) Germany and Poland and was created to give Poland access to a sizable seaport as what is now the Baltic coast of Poland, was then part of Germany. The territory of Poland was to the west and that of Germany was to the east, a small ‘finger’ of Polish territory extending up to the coast at Gdynia and the Hel Peninsula.

On the 8th of September 1939, after three days of fighting, Nazi forces marched into Łódź. The Nazis renamed the city to Litzmannstadt after a German General, Karl Litzmann who had fought in the first world war.

An area of the city was partitioned with barbed wire fences and the many Jews in the city, those who could not escape, were rounded up and detained in that area in what became known as the Litzmannstadt Ghetto.

The Nazis though didn’t just turn their attentions to the Jews, Members of the Polish intelligentsia and clergy were detained, symbols of Poland and Polish patriotism were destroyed. The factories of Łódź were put to work supplying the Nazi war effort, Jews and others seen as undesirable by the occupying forces were forced to work as slaves.

Jews and others seen as dispensable by the Nazi regime began to be shipped into the Litzmannstadt Ghetto from further afield. The ghetto was used as a holding place until in 1942 the Nazis began to ship the ghetto inhabitants to the village of Chelmno about 30 miles north and west of Łódź. It was here that the Nazis had constructed a ‘killing centre’, not a euphemistically named ‘concentration camp’, but a facility designed specifically for the murder and disposal of human beings.

Concentration camps though were nothing new at this time, having been ‘invented’ by the British during the Boer War in the late 1890s and by the Spanish in their colonial exploits in Cuba also in the late 1890s. Those concentration camps were used to isolate and demoralise those who were deemed as enemies or simply as undesirable. Inmates would often be pressed into hard labour with no reward and only very basic amenities. Inevitably, being concentrated in such a camp and subject to the depravations therein led to many people dying and this was exactly what the occupying forces wanted.

In Łódź in the early 1940s, people arrived at the Litzmannstadt Ghetto and later were sent off from the ghetto to Chelmno, from the nearby railway station of Radogoszcz. That station survives today as a museum under the German name it was given by the Nazis; Radegast.

I think Łódź is a very down-to-earth sort of place, not a chocolate box postcard city like some places are, Kraków Wrocław and Poznań spring to mind. Łódź has a more, dare I say, utilitarian feel to it but I like it for all that, maybe because of that. The name means “boat” in Polish and many years ago the town was at the confluence of a number of rivers and trade was conducted using these rivers.

So, there we were on a sunny Monday after a weekend of concert going and late night/early morning vodka drinking and we are going to visit a site dedicated to the memory of many thousands who died at the hands of the Nazis.

This fascinates me, the casual coexistence of the day-to-day and the horrific. On earlier visits to Łódź I’d seen bricks set into pathways in one of the local parks that was on the edge of the Litzmannstadt Ghetto, simple inscriptions stating that this was the boundary of the Ghetto. Memories of the unthinkable in the day-to-day.

I met Marzena on Piotrakowska Street and we walked to the nearest tram stop on Tadeusza Kościuszki Avenue. I’d done my homework and found the right tram to get on that would take us to within a 10-minute walk of Radegast Museum.

As I said earlier, it was a sunny day, the sky was deep blue and cloudless, there was a certain chill in the air though, two days earlier on the Saturday I had awoken to a snow shower. This day was however quite beautiful. We trundled through the streets of Łódź in the April sunshine heading roughly northeast until we reached the end of the line, a loop where the trams run around and then return the way they came. We got off the tram and walked a short distance along Strykowska street to the intersection with Inflancka street, a busy ‘T’ junction, where we crossed Inflancka and bore left, passing the modern railway station of Łódź Marysin towards the site of the museum.

The railway here is in a small cutting and the museum site is approached along a footpath which makes a shallow decent along the side of the cutting to the rear of a small industrial estate, the museum site being between the industrial estate and the railway. The first of the museum you see is what looks like a row of giant tombstones, the footpath continues between the boundary fence of the industrial estate and a concrete slab wall marking the boundary of the museum until an opening which is the entrance to the site.

Turning into the museum site, what you see is very sparse. To the right is part of the original station platform and a wooden station building, behind the building can be seen a rail wagon, further right there are those tombstones and now it can be seen that that’s exactly what they are for each one carries an inscription, the names of Nazi death camps, below those names each monument has a relief depicting crowds of people, their arms in the air. The impression I got was that the tombstones were windows and those arms were clawing at the glass, a bit unsettling but then that’s exactly what this place is supposed to be. Behind the station building on a short length of railway track are a few more wagons, of the sort used to transport livestock, making a short train coupled to a steam locomotive of the type that would have been in service in the 1940s.

The train is quite chilling, an empty train, ready for its next journey but to the left is something even more chilling. A simple concrete structure about 150 metres long, a tunnel. The railway track extends for several metres into the tunnel and then stops. The tunnel itself is wider at this end than at the other end and slightly curved so that as you enter it you can’t quite see the far end.

The sides of the tunnel are lined with dates ranging from 1939 to 1945 and inscriptions in Hebrew, Polish, and English chronicling the events in Łódź during that period. Also affixed to the walls are displays with documents listing the names of many of the people who were deported from here. It’s easy to take a cheap shot here about German efficiency but in the beginning, everything was documented by the Nazis, that is until it was seen that maybe the Third Reich wasn’t going to prevail and the record keeping became seen as a liability and later efforts were made to destroy this archive, but much survived.

By the time you get to 1945 the tunnel is noticeably narrower and then it opens out into a square space, the ‘Hall of Cities’, the walls of which are inscribed with the names of towns and cities from which people were deported to the Litzmannstadt Ghetto. The roof however has a square framed, circular opening in the centre, reminiscent of a chimney, you can see that there is a ‘tube’ above the roof and the sky is visible at the top. You exit this chamber via an opening to the side, above which is inscribed on the outside, again in Hebrew, Polish and English:

לא תרצח

From the outside, the chimney connection was even more apparent to my untutored eyes, the ‘chimney’ rises above this square chamber, it has fluted sides and the top looks broken, damaged. I have since learned that this is an allusion to ‘broken column’ memorials in Jewish cemeteries, not something that I was aware of but, every day is a school day and the broken column signifies a life cut short. I have to say that walking the length of this tunnel, reading the inscriptions and looking at the names of those who had passed through this place was quite emotional, especially ending up under a chimney.

Outside the sun was still shining, there was even a little warmth in the air as we walked back to the wooden station building. The building here is apparently a renovated original structure and inside there is a visitors’ centre and there are further displays of paperwork, cataloguing people’s names, places of origin and years of birth. There is also a large model showing the extents of the Ghetto. And then there are the tombstones again, making their silent but very powerful presence felt.

I’ve had some great times in Łódź, it’s a city I have a great affection for, as I’ve written elsewhere in this blog. I’d known about the Litzmannstadt Ghetto and it’s a sad episode in the city’s history but then there are so many sad episodes connected with the Second World War, not just in Łódź or Poland but in the whole of this part of Europe.

Somewhat sobered by our visit we walked back to the tram stop and caught a tram back into the city centre. It was a lovely spring afternoon but I certainly now held a different perspective of the day. I wasn’t sad exactly; I was more appreciative of what had happened here all those years ago. It’s important to remember these things. There are other memorials in Łódź and some day I may get to see those too because I fully intend to be in Łódź again before too long because in spite of some dark episodes in its history, it’s a good place to be.

I’ve written a fair bit about history above, not all from my own fair hand, most of it cadged from other sources and all of it subject to my interpretation of those other sources so inevitably I’ll have to add the caveat, E&OE.

There is a very good site here: http://www.lodz-ghetto.com
if you want to read more about the Litzmannstadt Ghetto.

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