My maternal grandmother, Sarah Ludski, was born in Lodz, Poland. Her mother died young and her father could not take care of his large brood alone. So she was sent to England at the age of 13 to live with an aunt and uncle who had emigrated. Imagine a young, innocent girl boarding a ship and sailing into the unknown without a word of English.
Sarah not surprisingly, was extremely anti-Polish, having witnessed first-hand some extremely nasty anti-Semitic incidents. I was therefore brought up with the idea that "the only good Poles are the north and south poles". I soon realised that these feelings were based on old prejudices hardly relevant for today's world. So when my brother suggested a trip to grandma's birthplace, I took up his offer with enthusiasm and a great deal of curiosity.
Lodz has not undergone the same renovation as Warsaw or Krakow and still shows signs of its dreary Communist past. There are plenty of derelict and abandoned buildings. But being an EU member has certainly paid off and many parts of the city have had a much-need facelift. But Lodz is still a "work in progress".
Even so, it is a young, lively city with many western business headquarters and modern shopping malls. The university is also expanding rapidly. Although this is of course heartening, our main focus was to look into Lodz's tragic Jewish past.
We forget that for centuries Jews found more freedom and security in the Polish lands than elsewhere in Europe. On the eve of World War II, Poland was home to about 3.5 million Jews. The Shoah put an end to the lives of some three million Polish Jews. It was the end of Jewish life that had thrived there for almost a millennium.
With these sad statistics in mind, we visited the Jewish community centre to see if they could find any trace of our great Uncle Shimon Ludski. Grandma had managed to persuade all her siblings to move to England, all except one. Her brother had a thriving wig-making business and was relatively wealthy. Those with nothing to lose left, those with something to lose did not survive. This was the case with Uncle Shimon and his wife.
The young girl in charge of the centre showed us registers kept in the ghetto of who had died there. Sure enough, Shimon had died at the age of 58. Even the number of his grave was listed.
So our next stop was the Jewish graveyard – the largest in Poland and one of the largest in Europe. What is known as the Ghetto Field stretches endlessly containing the unmarked remains of some 45,000 people. A brick wall runs along the cemetery and it is here that many memorial plaques have been placed by survivors and family members. Along this wall are the remnants of pits intended as mass graves. 800 prisoners were ordered to dig their own mass graves but the Nazis fled as Soviet forces approached. The pits were never filled in but left as a grim reminder.
Many Jews of Polish origin have visited Lodz in recent years. We were among those visitors – greatly saddened but also enlightened about what had once been a vibrant and living Jewish community.