Lodz Remembers Its 200,000 Holocaust Victims

LODZ, Poland - Net-like sheets of fabric hang from the ceiling of the Radegast train station on the outskirts of Lodz in central Poland. The fabric depicts black-and-white pictures of Jews who were once residents of the city - random photographs of youths, couples, families, and people in the streets.

Before the Holocaust, these individuals made up around one-third of the city's population - or, more precisely, 231,000 people. For 200,000 individuals - some of them residents of the Lodz Ghetto, and some of them Jews brought here from other places - Radegast was the last station on the way to their death.

On Sunday last week, a number of Polish families, some with young children, wandered through the Holocaust memorial established this year at the station. They walked silently through what remains of the original station building, looked at the transport car on the tracks that led to the Auschwitz and Chelmno death camps, and walked slowly through the 140-meter tunnel, at the end of which stands a 25-meter-high column, resembling the chimney of a crematorium - a symbolic representation of the Jews' final destination.

For 60 years, no one in Poland spoke about the eradication of the Jews of Lodz - until this site was established.

For the Poles, this is not only a journey to the past of the Jews who were exterminated on their soil; for many, it is also a journey through time to their own past. Following years of German occupation, plus another 40 years of what many see as Soviet occupation, they now have a chance to face their history for the first time.

The idea of setting up the memorial came from Lodz Mayor Jerzy Kropiwnicki, a Catholic nationalist, and was supported by the Polish government and outgoing President Aleksander Kwasniewski. The residents of Lodz, a poor and unemployment-stricken city until recently, did not oppose the investment of funds in the nonprofit enterprise. Criticism came, here and there, from an odd coalition of post-Communists and nationalists, who were unable to sabotage the project.

The authentic location adds a palpable dimension of horror to the site, a dimension that is sometimes lacking from other memorials and monuments. "This is exactly what I wanted to achieve," says Polish Jewish architect Czeslaw Bielecki. "From the first time I went there, it was clear to me that I wanted to plant the monument in the local industrial landscape. ... By means of the long tunnel and the crematorium column at its end, I wanted to show the destination to which the Jews were led, without them even knowing exactly where they were going. Primarily, it was important to illustrate the extent of the destruction, the inconceivable number of people who left from here on their final journey."

Bielecki also made a point of perpetuating the identity of the criminals: Gothic letters spell out the name of the station in German. This is a matter of much importance in Poland - "not Polish concentration camps, but German camps on Polish soil," they make sure to emphasize all the time.