“We came from Lodz,” my father’s family used to say, with a hint of gruff pride when talking of their Polish antecedents.
There was none of this “Paris of the East” stuff you hear from those who wax lyrical about turn-of-the-century Warsaw — and when you get to Poland’s third largest city, you can see why.
The “city of a thousand chimneys”, as it was nicknamed, rose overnight to become the country’s Manchester, little more than a shtetl before the Industrial Revolution turned it into Poland’s textile powerhouse, a magnet for tailors like my grandfather and thousands like him.
The 19th century factory of Izrael Poznanski still towers over the town, as do the giant mills of his chief rival Karl Scheibler, but in post-industrial Lodz, the Jewish plant has become the focus of a bold urban reinvention.
Manufaktura they call it now, with sleek boutique hotel rooms and restaurants occupying former sweatshops, museums, shops and cafes in the factory grounds while an entertainment complex in the middle boasts a carousel, zip line and even bungee jumping.
Although its gentrification is ongoing, today’s Lodz is well worth a visit, especially for those Brits whose history lies in the city their grandparents called “Lodge” — the proper Polish pronunciation is “Woodge”.
From the exquisite new station concourse which has a diamond-patterned ceiling that throws fantastic shadows onto the floor, to the futuristic science and technology centre, EC1, due to open in November, this is a town bent on transforming itself to 21st century prosperity, as an alternative city break with culture and entertainment.
Motivated by the desire to see addresses where my great-grandmother lived and the plot where my great-grandfather is buried — all traced from impeccable century-old records — I joined a trip based at the Poznanski factory itself, now the smart Vienna House Andel’s hotel.
It is virtually on the edge of Baluty, the slum into which poor country-dwellers poured in the 1880s, drawn by what Nobel prize-winning author Wladyslaw Reymont called The Promised Land.
Apart from the opportunity to slave for minimal pay it was no such thing; the workers’ tenements were the diametric opposite of Poznanski’s palace overlooking the factory, where Izrael spared no expense on fabulous rooms with gilded ceilings for his family.
Until it’s cleaned up, Baluty — into which I ventured to check out my ancestors’ addresses — is unlikely to be on any visitor map, although it’s surely not long before the city’s determined reinvention means it boasts the kind of vintage shops and cool nightlife found in Berlin and Budapest’s ruin bars.
For now, its pride and joy is a beautiful, broad 19th century boulevard over three miles long. Part-pedestrianised., Piotrkowska is the focus of city dining and nightlife, packed on both sides with restaurants, bars and cafes spilling on to the pavements in summer.
The kosher soup kitchens of old may have gone but you can get an excellent bowl of borscht and decent fillet of carp, bream or herring pretty well anywhere.
There is even a restaurant called Anatewka just off the main drag serving non-kosher “Jewish” food, although nearly every menu here offers items familiar to Ashkenazis.
Piotrkowska is a visual joy too, handsome buildings lining pavements punctuated by bronze statues of the city’s good and great. They include virtuoso pianist Artur Rubinstein at a winged piano, writer-philosopher Julian Tuwim and Reymont himself, whose book about Lodz was based on gossip picked up from factory workers.
Street art is huge too; the city has invited the genre’s top exponents to create spectacular murals everywhere including Baluty.
One of the most striking stands opposite OFF Piotrkowska, a shopping and dining complex inside an industrial shell and courtyard rather less Disneyfied than Manufaktura, with just the right dose of Shoreditch grunge.
Great salads, including a signature beetroot tartare, are served at indoor-outdoor restaurant Mitmi, which has made it into the critical pages of the Gault Millau food bible.
Further afield lie the science and technology centre, which has an opening exhibition on Leonardo da Vinci that’s set to be a big draw, and the Scheibler factory where Poznanski learned his trade, including its own worker’s houses, lower-rise and leafier than the tenements of the factory Jews.
Poznanski’s outrageously Baroque palace, set in its own park at the end of the factory block, is now the Museum of the City of Lodz, with separate rooms dedicated to the city’s famous sons — including Resistance fighter Jan Karski, who discovered the first wave of Nazi extermination in the Warsaw Ghetto but whose grim news of what was befalling Poland’s Jews was not believed in London and Washington.
Karski’s own monument sits on a low hill overlooking Survivors’ Park, a 2004 commemoration site with trees planted by those few Jews of Lodz who survived, unlike most of the residents of the ghetto.
There is also a Dialogue Centre serving today’s small community and a monument to several thousand citizens who risked death to save their neighbours and are recognised as Righteous Among Nations.
Two wagons still stand by the darkest place in Lodz, Radegast wooden station house where Jews were transported to first nearby Chelmno, later south to Auschwitz.
Original transportation lists line display cabinets in the station house, along with poignant remnants of china, keys, buttons and other items found in victims’ possessions.
Jewish heritage tours of the city visit both monuments and also the Jewish Cemetery, with both its magnificent mausoleums and simple markers indicating where hundreds of ghetto victims were laid to rest daily.
Venturing through the trees, I discovered the maps which indicate plots so precisely on the cemetery website did not lead quite so instantly to ancestors’ graves.
It’s often necessary to pay the cemetery-keeper to do some detective work, in my case hacking through impenetrable undergrowth only to find the only gravestone of the shape in my photo was for a different Goldberg than my great-grandfather Gierszon. But at least I had visited the grounds to pay respects.