Piotr SEMKA: Why I support Łódź in its run to host the EXPO 2022

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Why I support Łódź in its run to host the EXPO 2022

Piotr SEMKA

Polish publicist and journalist.

Fot. Mateusz Matuszak

other articles by this author

It is with great pleasure that I accepted the invitation of Łódź to watch the presentation of its candidacy at the session of the Bureau of International Expositions in Paris. The BIE is to decide whether Łódź should be granted the right to organise the EXPO 2022 devoted to urban revitalisation in Europe. I honestly support the city’s efforts

.What inspires my respect for Łódź – a city on the Łódka River – is its persistent struggle to create a new, attractive image that would erase the dark legend of “Evil Town”, a collection of hard-hitting reports of 1911 by Zygmunt Bartkiewicz. The city’s negative image was fostered on the pages of “The Promised Land”, a literary masterpiece written in 1897-1898 by Władysław Reymont. Finally, after World War II, adding to bad publicity was the communist-era dullness and pseudo-modernisation.

As a native of Gdańsk, I got to know and like Łódź with its rough beauty back in the 1980s, as I would often drop by to see my colleagues from Gdańsk who studied at the Film School. It was then that I realised the problems local people have in determining their historical identity. No wonder: during almost a century of rapid development between 1820-1918 the textile industry was built chiefly by Germans and Jews under the rule of tsarist Russians.

In the following years, Łódź became one of the biggest metropolis of the Second Republic of Poland. With a population of 606,467 in 1931, Łódź was Poland’s second largest city, behind Warsaw and ahead of Lviv, Poznań, Kraków, Katowice and Vilnius. Today, according to the census of 2015, Łódź has fallen to third place with 700,982 inhabitants (outdistanced by Kraków since the interwar period). In the communist era, the city’s revolutionary traditions were obtrusively demonstrated through celebration of subsequent anniversaries of the Revolution of 1905 and the Liberation by the Red Army. Then, already under the Third Republic, on the wave of fascination with multiculturalism, the city council put a lot of effort to promote Łódź under two banners: as a city of “four cultures” (Polish, Jewish, German and Russian), and as a city of tradition, innovation and modern design, something that was facilitated by the revival of the avant-garde associated with Władysław Strzemiński and Katarzyna Kobro. The city built its identity around figures such as Władysław Reymont, Julian Tuwim, Stefan Jaracz, Leon Schiller, Jan Karski, Saint Faustyna Kowalska and Artur Rubinstein. The martyrdom of the Łódź ghetto was made an essential element of the city’s memory. That’s much, but still not enough.

Have all the available sources been exhausted of building historical image of Łódź? I am sure that not, and when visiting Łódź, I see how many traditions are still left unexploited.

.The first example: as I strolled down Piotrkowska Street, I took a turn into a side street named after Romuald Traugutt, right next to the famous and capitalising on its film legend Grand Hotel, and discovered Savoy Hotel, whose name was used by the renowned Austrian-Jewish writer Josef Roth as a title of one of his novels. Roth could supposedly stay there on his way from Russian captivity back to his beloved Vienna (as might suggest the book), or in the 1920s when he was writing for Berlin’s newspapers. Savoy’s décor is reminiscent of Orbis-like hotels from the 1980s, and one can hardly find any references to the author who introduced the old-fashioned hotel to world literature.

If my visits to Łódź in the 1980s stuck in my memory, it is also due to two extremely colourful figures of the anti-communist opposition. The first is Marek Edelman – one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising who also fought in the Warsaw Uprising, a medical doctor by training and an active member of “Solidarity” in Łódź. True, there is a Centre for Dialogue named after Marek Edelman in the Łódź Park of Survivors, but it is far from the city centre. This begs for one of the city’s main streets to bear his name or for a monument to be erected in his memory. Commemoration is also owed to another prominent figure of anti-communist opposition in Łódź, namely Andrzej Ostoja-Owsiany, a Home Army (AK) liaison officer, soldier of “Warszyca” [Stanisław Sojczyński “Warszyca” was an emblematic figure of Cursed Soldiers, founder and leader of the Underground Polish Army], engaged in the Movement of Defense of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (ROBCiO), and in the Confederation of Independent Poland (KPN). After 1989, Andrzej Ostoja-Owsiany was a tireless promoter of the tradition of Polish Legions in Łódź.

.It is in Łódź that Józef Piłsudski was arrested in 1900, as he clandestinely edited “Robotnik”, a bulletin of PPS, in an apartment at Wschodnia Street No. 19. True, the one-hundredth anniversary of 17 October 1914, the day when Polish Legions entered the city, was duly celebrated with a military reconstruction and a picnic at Schiller’s Passage. But why not to forge the tradition of Polish Legions into the city’s identification mark? Then, in 1914, in response to the call from Józef Piłsudski, as many as 800 inhabitants of Łódź joined the Polish Legions. Why not to create a national museum of Polish Legions in the building of the Tadeusz Kościuszko High School No. 3, which was home to the Polish Army Command in 1914, or on the premises of the Tax Office Łódź-Polesie, at 6 Sierpnia Street No. 84/86, which was a military recruitment base? Since no special museum dedicated to the Polish Legions exists in Warsaw nor in Kraków (while there are the Polish Army Museum, the Museum of Independence, or the Museum of Struggle for Independence), why shouldn’t it be created in the city on the Łódka River?

Łódź could also think of a German occupation museum (complementary to the Museum of Independence Traditions which commemorates the martyrdom of prisoners of Radogoszcz). During the wartime, the Nazi renamed Łódź as Litzmannstadt and tried to turn it into a purely Germanic city, experimenting with resettling of the Baltic German population, while exterminating Jews from the local ghetto at the same time. Yes, I know, it is a gloomy story, but it can be told in such a way as to allow understanding of Nazi social engineering. If Berlin knows today to wisely speak of its dark past, why would the descendants of the Third Reich’s victims not be able to talk about it?

Then, there is the tradition of anti-communist resistance – still faintly visible in the construction of the city’s identity. It is in Łódź that students took to streets in November 1945 following the murder of a woman student by the drunken Soviet soldiers, and then to riots on 3 May 1946. It is here that workers went on strike a number of times in 1945-1946. Who knows that the only successful attempt to blow up the Monument of Gratitude to the Red Army occurred in Łódź in 1946, and its perpetrators – a group of young people – remained undetected until 1953? It is also here that Bolesław Ścibiorek, a PSL activist, was killed in what proved to be a starting point of SB’s [state security service in communist Poland] complicated intrigue that renders the horror of those times. Finally, in the 1960s Łódź was an important agent of the anti-communist organisation “Ruch”, and later in Ruch Młodej Polski [The Young Poland Movement].

It is high time to think of a museum of Łódź “Solidarity” both that of the years 1980-1981 and one that came underground after Wojciech Jeruzelski declared the Martial Law. A few years more, and there will hardly be anyone to ask for reports and exhibits. Is the clearly underinvested Museum of Independence Traditions supposed to deal with all this?

.Łódź strives to attract tourists. For this, a good story about the city’s past it is not enough. It must be very good; much better than in other Polish cities: in Kraków with its Wawel Castle will always be a tourist magnet, or in Wroclaw whose old town captivates with its beauty. Łódź owns an extremely interesting story to be told with unwavering passion.

Piotr Semka

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