A pilgrimage to Lodz, and a glimpse of the ghetto
I am not a Jew, but I went to Lodz on pilgrimage, just to walk around the old Jewish ghetto in the snow and to watch the full moon rise on a Friday evening in January, and to realise that nothing much on the moon has changed and nothing much on Earth.
So I saw it, pallid above the blackened trees, and then I went back to my hotel.
The Grand Hotel on Piotrkowska Street is a world of old carpets, art deco, high ceilings and the hush of musty grandeur that has remained unchanged since 1900; a hotel that has kept the hot water running and the doors open continuously since then, though I didn’t notice any other guests and in the dining room the waiter spoke in whispers.
I was once ordained a priest and when I was passing the red-bricked church near where the ghetto used to be, I felt a lump of shame in my chest and found it hard not to judge my own crowd.
Yet I had felt like a pilgrim as the plane landed in Warsaw, and on the train as it ploughed through windy snow towards Lodz on the eve of the Sabbath, and I felt like a pilgrim as I walked the derelict streets that were once a hill of skulls.
After the walk I took a hot bath, and after the bath I watched from my window as men on a cherry picker cleared ice from the roof. Then I downloaded images of the moon and the sour dark alleyways and backstreets, which I had taken with my phone; young boys with earrings selling onions from the back of a white van, an old man pulling two bags of coal on a buggy as his wife lit a cigarette and held it to his lips in the freezing fog, and a hatless woman who dropped her bag of McDonald’s burgers in the snow.
I could smell the chips as she sighed and I wanted to hug her, to say I know how it feels to lose something. But neither she nor I know what it’s like to lose everything, yet.
And neither of us is a Jew. At least it’s not likely that she is part of that tiny remnant that is left from a population of almost 700,000 that lived here 70 years ago.
On Saturday I went to a Jewish restaurant and devoured a bowl of chicken soup, but when I asked the girl who served me if it was owned by a Jewish family she smiled sadly and said no.
Then I headed for the Teatr Wielki on Jaracza Street where Madame Butterfly was playing. I stood on the steps outside the glass doors, beside a scarcely human goose of a woman in middle age with a long neck who was smoking and staring at me. I stared back. Behind the glass I saw another hundred women, all alarmingly identical beneath their furry hats, squashed together and chattering, as if they had just landed from the sky. They were crowded around the box office so I abandoned any hope of getting a ticket and returned instead to my hotel.
I left for Warsaw on Sunday. From the train I saw a man on the railway tracks in a yellow jacket chatting on his mobile. I suppose he was talking to his wife about what to get in Tesco on his way home, because they have a Tesco in Lodz now.
Snow always amazes me; the heaps of it stacked up and the salty falling of it, and the cloudy fog of it, and the very stillness in the middle of it; a whorl of whiteness where the railway worker disappeared and re-appeared, and made me wonder who checked those lines when the trains were going east in 1943.
At the central station in Warsaw the platform was frozen and crowded with young women in such tight jeans and high boots that I thought I was back in Mullingar. But I couldn’t open the carriage door. It was jammed, until an elderly woman snapped it open with one flick of her wrist; a slim orchid of a lady in fur.
We chatted briefly on the platform. I said I was from Ireland. She said her name was Martha. “Martha,” I whispered, as she disappeared into Warsaw, uncaged and infinitely more beautiful than any Madame Butterfly, and I realised that I had completed my pilgrimage.