Andrew and I quietly sat on a bench by Track 5 of the Łodz station waiting for the last train to Warsaw. I was trying to digest the past few days. My notions of the city were deeply rooted in loose stereotypes of Communist decay and the hard memory of personal loss. I expected many of the sights of urban decline. I knew my experience would be infused with my family’s history and the disappearance of the Jewish community of Łodz. I wanted to leave the city at peace with my experience. I wanted to know that people like me had a future here. I hoped my return to this place with my brother would provide me with that personal closure I was looking for. It didn’t.

We arrived in the early evening — the fading light doing no favours to the drab buildings that lined our drive into town. The taxi pulled up to Piotrkowska 120. We checked into Stare Kino — a concept hotel with a film related theme for each room. My room was named Cudowne Dziecko — a 1987 film about a boy who didn’t fit in and turned to magic to cope. It was all too appropriate for my return to Łodz.

Piotrkowska Street

This city leaves me conflicted. On the one hand it is the place where I was born. I should be happy to be here. It should be about the life we led and the joys that come with that. I wanted to find some of that life on this trip. But to be honest, my expectations were misguided. I tried to find a part of me here in Łodz yet I kept my eyes closed and looked in the wrong places.

I started in my parents’ old neighbourhood. Like so many young people in the 1950s and 60s, they were building new lives. As we approached where they lived we saw that despite the new paint, the places look tired and worn. The expressions on peoples’ faces here reflected a sadness — with expectations delayed or diminished.

Buildings my parents grew up in — 6 Sierpnia 29 and 30

We walked through the neighbourhood trying to imagine what life would have been like. A nearby market — Zielony Rynek — was closing for the night. A few open flower shops brought a splash of colour to the rolled shutters of other stalls. I could picture our grandmothers here in the years after the war, living ordinary lives that would not be shared with their descendants. The truth is I felt uncomfortable here. It was too voyeuristic — peering into people’s lives with whom I share virtually nothing except a street address on a birth certificate.

I tried to find my place in this city through my father’s request. He wanted us to look at an old building on Piotrkowska Street. Mina Konstadt was my great-great grandmother’s sister. She was married to one of the city’s rich industrialists who lived in this building. Our family are likely the last of their living relatives. While notions of possible restitution of this property may have crossed the minds of some in my family, it made little sense. Still, seeing this place — speaking to my dad about it — connected it to our own narrative. It was a heavily guilded anchor tying us to Łodz. But much like my feelings for the city in general, it looked great from a distance but didn’t bear the scrutiny of closer examination.

I looked for answers at my grandfather Jozef’s grave. At the entrance to the cemetery where he is buried, we could see flower stalls and candle shops. It hasn’t been long since Easter and most graves were still decorated. Their candles and wreaths reflect a commitment to preserving memory. A community of people here in the city is dedicated to keeping the memory of their loved ones alive decades after they’ve gone.

My grandfather’s presence was felt across generations. His untimely death clearly had an effect on my father. It can’t be easy growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust in Poland in the mid-1950s without a father. My grandfather’s death explained much to me about my family and the dynamics that have enveloped it. But the difference between how this cemetery was kept and what remained of the Jewish cemetery in Łodz left me with a bitter taste of injustice. Not at the individual level. It wasn’t either personal or political. This was a cosmic injustice fed by the deep scar of genocide running through this city and country.

The old Jewish Cemetery of Łodz is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe. It served a large, diverse and thriving community. This comes as a surprise to most people. Friends outside of Poland have never heard of Łodz. I get blank stares from Canadians when I tell them where I was born. But Łodz was once a bustling thriving metropolis with a million people. It housed hundreds of textile factories employing thousands of workers. Its history is infused with the four cultures that inhabited the city — Polish, Jewish, German and Russian. Yet all of this came to an end with the march of Nazi Germany into Poland in 1939. Łodz is still sadly in decline with more and more people leaving the city for either Warsaw or abroad.

For me, the Jewish Cemetery in Łodz is the saddest place. It embodies the vibrancy of a community that once was and is now gone. Its broken stones — the memorials taken over by moss, ivy and trees— are testament to the cruel reality of time. It stands in stark contrast with the cemetery where my grandfather Jozef is buried. No one is here to tenderly care for each of the memorials great or small. Not at the personal level anyway. Yes, conservation activities are taking place here. Supported by Poland, Israel and European Union, there are efforts to maintain the hallow nature of this ground. But the ability of an active Jewish community in Łodz to preserve its own memory evaporated in the smoke of the Shoah and the dispersal of the Jewish community in 1968–69.

Broken tomb stone from the Jewish Cemetery in Łodz

Processing what the cemetery symbolizes is hard. It is at once beautiful and terrifying. What makes it so is its “magnificent desolation”. What is left for this place is time. Thinking about this leaves me emotionally drained. What is time without people to mark its passing? There is no reconciliation here for me. The experience leaves me too raw to think about what is possible here.

Ivy overgrowing the tombstones at the Jewish Cemetery in Łodz

The cemetery is only a few hundred meters from where I was born. I came back to that apartment block to see if I felt something — anything that would help me reconnect with the city of my birth. But this place also left me wanting. It reinforced that what has passed is past and that there is little future if all you look at are physical places. Time makes them cold and sterile.

In the same area of the city, I came to a new memorial to the history of Hitler’s Final Solution as it manifest in my own neighbourhood. It’s anchored by the old train station that served as the collection point for the liquidation of the Łodz ghetto. I stood at a train platform about a kilometer away from the Jewish cemetery. This is the place from which the Jews, Roma and Sinti, crowded together, were deported to their deaths. This is the place where my family came to and were then sent to their deaths in Chelmno.

The memorial is very moving. Here, as in Auschwitz and Krakow, a group of young Israelis gathered to remember what happened. They gathered to remember the past and sing about loss and rebirth. Walking the length of the memorial — a long concrete tunnel narrowing to a point where a symbolic smokestack of a crematorium sends the ashes of a people into the blue sky, I remain silent thinking about relatives who’s final train from Łodz left this platform.

Memorial to those who died and were deported from the Łodz Ghetto

One leaves this place drained. It’s unavoidable. Your humanity is challenged when confronted with the emotional space of the memorial, the cemeteries, the decay and sadness of the community. It all overwhelms. How does one have a rational conversation about anything related to history and identity in Łodz when the weight of its history has such consequence.

I came here looking for a positive future, yet I was fixated on staring at the physical spaces of the past. Spaces that were directly linked to the most painful history — both personal and national. How silly was I to think this was the path to reconciliation and closure. I want to know more about the life that is here — not just the pain that flows from so many shattered lives. I want to know if Poles and Jews have a future together.

My answers did not come from these places. They came with interactions with people. They came from friends and co-workers of my grandmother who took the time and showed us around Łodz. They came in the friendly faces of my mother’s classmates. These men and women welcomed my brother and I to their home in Warsaw with open arms. They reminisced about the days they spent with my mom and so desperately wanted to see her and my father in Poland again. These are the people who drove my family in 1969 to the train station for our final journey to Canada.

Answers came from their grandchildren. It is intoxicating to speak with an eager teenager who went to Stratford, Ontario to pay homage to Justin Bieber and wants to know everything there is about Canada. It breathes life into the possibility of dialogue. It is about the future and our relationships going forward.

Hope was being restored piece by piece, person by person. Conversations my brother and I had with historians and researchers at POLIN, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, about our family’s experience in 1969 were healing. Meeting with KPH, a national anti-Homophobia coalition in Poland focused on the future. Yes, our conversations were influenced by what had happened to all of us, because you cannot separate our experiences. They are forever intertwined by that shared history, yet these conversations were hopeful.

So this journey should never have been about connecting to places. That exercise was futile. This journey was never about Poland, or being a Jew or the Holocaust or even about our expulsion from here in 1969. It was about me. It was never about the place bringing closure. It was about me connecting to people who shared a vision for a common future based on respect, truth, memory and reconciliation for what happened to all of us. It will be a long journey with bumps along the way. We should even expect a derailment or two. But at least now I know the path. It’s a human one.

I’m now ready to board the last train from Łodz.

Life — My mom and her school friends in Poland

Married gay, Jewish former Ambassador interested in history, justice and the environment. Former Ambassador, and leader in Canada's intelligence community.

Married gay, Jewish former Ambassador interested in history, justice and the environment. Former Ambassador, and leader in Canada's intelligence community.