Marek KACPRZAK: The ballad about Łódź

The ballad about Łódź

Photo of Marek KACPRZAK


Ryc.: Fabien Clairefond

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Here you will settle, here you will take care of yourself. We will get on well together. No prince, no bishop, or other noble will track you here… I will give you work, even if arduous – the forest continued. – I won’t stint on wood for buildings nor on honey from wild beehives, and who knows, perhaps you will even come across a bison or a moose…(“The Legend of Łódź”)

.I am looking around hesitantly. With astonishment and disbelief. I am standing somewhat baffled. I am afraid of going outside. I feel uncertain. As if I had the wrong address. As if I missed my destination. Maybe it is a good thing. I realise that the place I found myself in has eternally been either the beginning or the end. Somewhere you can start the journey or finish it. Łodź Fabryczna – until not long ago a dilapidated railway station that travellers were doomed to use, preferably without looking at it, without inhaling its miasma, without any identification so as not to feel ashamed that something like that could be the focal point of the city. A remorse, an unwanted growth, a cancer on the urban tissue, which had to be either cut out or left as it was, slowly killing the body in suffering.

It is hard to believe in this metamorphosis. I keep wondering, as I look at these new walls, whether it is Łódź Fabryczna after chemotherapy, perhaps transplantation, or the old patient was allowed to die and replaced by someone new. That is why I am afraid to go on. I am afraid to step outside the station. And what if it is not any longer the city that I know and that blended in with the former station, this ruined symbol? I am standing and let my mind overlap images of the present time and of what belongs to the past and what caused Łódź to be as it is now, and not as it has always wanted to be. And yet, who knows what it has wanted to be like? After all, it was actually never able to decide itself what it wanted to be like. Because here, in the city, as at the station, people follow their own timetables, destinations and motivations. Ideas, needs and expectations mix up, just as languages, cultures and nations did over the years. The city resembles a busy train station, handling great masses of people who have nothing in common except standing in one line for tickets and jostling each other in their haste to get out the door. They might work in the same factory, go to the same school or share some projects, but eventually everyone moves off in their own directions.

Łódź takes in anyone: natives and strangers. It is like a train station. Without asking questions of who you are and why you came or where you want to leave for, it accepts under its roof a burgher and a peasant, a worker and an artist, a Pole, a Jew, and a German. And students from all over the world whose dormitory, meaningfully called the “Tower of Babel”, is a crossing of languages, cultures and ways of life. It provides shelter, even for a moment, to a Catholic and an Orthodox. And it has always been so.

.Łódź is the intersection of lifelines of redundant workers and seamstresses whom machines were taken away from, leaving their weary hands without occupation; a city where trails of filmmakers dreaming of winning the Oscar, following the example of Polański or Wajda, cross those of spinners who are short of work and had long ago abandoned any hope, losing somewhere along the way their smile that won’t reappear on their faces even as they pass by a brass piano, reminiscent of a certain Artur Rubinstein making here o long stopover in his life’s journey.

All of them, even if they did not believe it possible, could look for their promised land here. Once they followed smoke from the chimneys of the first factories powered by steam engines, escaping their countryside poverty and building their idea of happiness on urban workers’ poverty. Merchants, workers, industrialists, scholars, priests, actors, all of them sought their promised land … They were looking for what they promised themselves. They searched, but no one ever told them exactly what it was they were supposed to find. They were moving in the dark, believing that happiness was somewhere out there. After searching to no avail, they languished, only waiting with resignation to see if happiness itself should find them; to figure out how to build a coherent identity out of a multitude of needs, goals, emotions and desires.

How to define your being where factory brick neighbours Art Nouveau stucco? How to find your way round where colourful Orthodox churches contrast with monumental grim Protestant ones, with a neo-Gothic cathedral looming somewhere nearby. Here, even history began suddenly, with no anchorage in Middle Ages. It had to be caught up with and imitated. Anyway, everything here appeared suddenly and disappeared suddenly. Like trains at Łódź Fabryczna: arriving, standing a while and setting off again. I am standing here. People pass by me and I realise that Łódź is a city of travellers, a transient city that wants to finally get to know how to become a destination rather than just a stop on the way to …

Years ago, peasants flocked here changing reapers to machines, never fully becoming workers, entrenching themselves in the working-class housing enclaves, cutting themselves off from strangers, dooming themselves to eternal alienation. The city, which once formed the largest industrial area, failed to develop urban culture. A peasant culture somewhat evolved into a working-class culture and so remained, whereas urban culture was somewhere aside, created by others: industrial magnates.

.Dissonance became a symbol. A hope and a curse; a fulfillment and a desire at the same time. The post-war Warsaw, Poland’s capital city, chose Łódź to be the country’s light industry hub, giving virtually nothing in return when this industry collapsed. Thousands of female and male workers and had to start afresh and rethink their professional future. These people had not even had enough time to earn themselves a new identity before it was taken away from them. There was no one to help them define it. This struggling was discreetly watched by those who set off from here to the capital of Poland and the capital of the cinema. Wajda, Polański, Kieślowski, Munk, Zanussi, Sobociński, Starski, Kutz took with them the restless spirit of the restless city, that of troubled and Hamletian people. Those who stayed longer, making alternative and underground art, tell about Łódź in their own language, incomprehensible to others. Again, living in parallel and distant worlds that meet every day and at every step. And dreaming that one day they all will come together as one.

This desire speaks out from time to time because of a subconsciously awaited coming of the Messiah who will show the way and whom all will follow, as opposed to scampering in different directions. Sometimes hope comes with a wanderer who has gone astray in here, like David Lynch, who promised to create here, in decaying and useless factories, a branch of Hollywood, claiming that “ugly can be beautiful.” Another time, hope revivers are those who believe they can build here, with young fashion designers, the second Paris or Milan, reaching out for the world’s most beautiful models who will show that needlewomen of Łódź are able to create miracles from the locally produced fabrics. Even the highways that cross almost inside the city give cause to believe that now it will be easier to set the azimuth, the North Star, because, for the first time in history, a city situated away from trade routes and rivers has, for some reason, found itself at a crossing point of trajectories of those who move around the country and Europe. Those who have lost hope are quick to leave the city. Others are still waiting, believing that those newly arriving will bring new hope. After all, they have so much to offer.

Over the years, Łódź has built around itself nameless blocks of flats which, with the passing of time, surrounded it with a concrete slab, closed it in a concrete ring. As if hoping that thus no one will get out. Neither does this stop people, nor does it give a deep breath. That is probably why I am afraid to get out of the now brand new train station: for fear that outside there is no working-class and Art Nouveau landscape any longer, but quite a new one, recalling Żeromski’s “houses of glass”.

.If I can be assured that in searching for a new identity, a new idea of itself Łódź will not lose what constitutes it, I will step outside in the direction of Piotrkowska, Kościuszki, Kilińskiego, Bałuty. Perhaps I will even sit on Tuwim’s bench to plunge into his poetry and tell myself that the city will eventually find its identity and will finally be proud of what it has given the world – people, art, work ethic, and the belief that you should always fight for yourself and never doubt it makes sense.

Marek Kacprzak

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