Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Heart of Lodz, or how a Jew, a German, a Russian and a Pole got along without a punchline

We've kept to the Lodz voivodship for the first few posts, and that's because I live there, but we'll set out exploring the rest of Poland soon. Today, we're still in Lodz herself, and this post will tell a story which is  a particularly good example of the city's multi-cultural background.

Our story begins in 1909, a good way South of Lodz, in the sanctuary of the Black Madonna in Częstochowa. The icon of Mary, a sacred image revered for centuries as the Queen of Poland, had just been robbed of its ceremonial crown.  It was the tsar of Russia who offered to pay for the replacement. Wasn't that nice of him?

No. It wasn't. Think about it. The Tsar of Russia would effectively crown the Queen of Poland.  To accept this would be nothing short of accepting Russia as our supreme ruler! You see, back in 1815 when our neighbours played tug-of-war with our borders again, the city of Lodz was included in the so-called Congress Kingdom of Poland, a theoretically autonomous state which was in fact subordinate to the Russian Tsar. With the shreds of our country already suffering under the Empire's heel, letting the Tsar raise himself above Mary Mother of God was unthinkable. A plea was sent to Rome, and in the end it was Pope Pius X who funded the crowns. 

The crisis averted and the coronation performed, a pilgrimage of tradesmen returned to Lodz, thinking of a way to honour the event. 

They decided to found a bell for the newly constructed Catholic Archcathedral in Lodz.

The Sigismund bell of 1911

One might have expected this to remain an entirely Catholic event, but in fact, mindful of the symbolism surrounding the crowning of Mary's icon, most of the citizens, regardless of religion, came together to fund the bell. It was to be named Zygmunt (Sigismund), after the famous cathedral bell in the royal castle in Cracow.

The multi-cultural founders' committee chose the factory of Lutheran, German industrialist Adolf John as the casting site. John had offerred to produce the bell free of charge, though he had to go to considerable trouble to acquire the necessary technology and machines. His factory had its own iron foundry, but had never produced anything as big as the six tonne bell.

J is for John- this is the gate to the former foundry

While Adolf John's men traveled to France, Italy and Switzerland to learn the secrets of bell-founding, the citizens of Lodz began to collect money for the cause. The amount gathered came to 4,620 rubles and 41 kopecks (remember, we were under Russian rule), plus a significant amount of jewellery. 

It is fair to say that the people of Lodz bought their bell, but what is exceptional is that they were also allowed to witness the founding process. A special platform was erected, which any curious citizen could climb to watch the founders at their dangerous task. To add to this unlikely display of equality between classes, two individuals were chosen to throw the collected jewellery into the alloy: Adolf John's wife and a line worker from his factory.

On June 25th, 1911, the bell was taken from the factory to the nearby cathedral, with sixty thousand people following (the population of Lodz at the time was around 300, 000 ). The bell itself weighed over ten thousand pounds, its heart adding another three hundred, and the counterweight five thousand. 15,452 lbs in total. Its height was 170 centimetres, and the circumference of the lip a full 2 metres. 

Big, big bell. It was placed on a temporary scaffolding, and moved to the completed cathedral tower in 1927.

The Archcathedral tower

Good story, huh? Not over yet. You see, while in 1911 we were under Russian rule, in 1914, World War I broke out. It was not long before Lodz was occupied by the Germans. The bell, still on its temporary scaffolding, was immediately recognised as an excellent resource- after all, it was made of a bronze alloy commonly called gunmetal!

Planning to melt the bell down for weapons, the occupants attempted to confiscate it. They were met with an armed resistance. The citizens of Lodz would not give up Sigismund!

Bloodshed seemed inevitable. But the invaders had to recognise one unsettling fact: there was a large number of Germans among the people protecting the bell. These Germans considered Lodz to be their home, and the bell to be its unquestionable treasure- they risked life and limb to protect it.

Not wanting to open fire on their kinsmen, the German forces agreed not to take the bell. The condition was a ransom- the people of Lodz had to bring in the equivalent weight in precious metals that would serve to make a new alloy. 

So, only four years after the first collection to fund the bell, a second one had to save it. And once again, the people of Lodz came through, bringing 400 kilograms of precious metals in excess. To save the bell, they robbed their own homes of anything suitable- platters, candlesticks, even brass doorknobs.  To this day, some of the older apartments in Lodz open with wooden handles.

The bell was saved. The war ended, Poland regained independence, and held it for a brief twenty years. 

And just as the country lost its freedom, Lodz finally lost its bell. 

During World War Two, the German occupation returned, and this time the presence of other Germans in Lodz could not soften their hearts. The Lodz Germans were required to sign the volksliste; those who refused were executed. This was the fate of many, rich and poor alike. John's complex was taken over and transformed into a weapons factory, and around 1941, the Nazis stole the bell out of the cathedral tower. It was never seen again.

Until this year...

The new bell is placed on its temporary scaffolding.

In a moving ceremony on September 18th, 2011, a newly founded bell, once again paid for by donations from the citizens of Lodz and the city itself, was triumphantly transported from Adolf John's old factory to the Lodz Archcathedral.

Preschool children ring little bells as they wait to escort the heart of the bell (in the background)

The city guard looking dashing on their horses.

Though it was in premise a laic parade and not a church procession, members of several laymens' convents
carried their standards to the beat of the marching band. Here they are getting ready to set out.

In accordance with the citizen's vote, the bell was christened with the name Serce Łodzi- The Heart of Lodz. The service was Catholic but to underline the unity of Lodz now as it was one hundred years ago, its godparents were selected from the four faiths that have always made up the city: not only Catholic, but Jewish, Lutheran, and Orthodox as well.

Symcha Keller, the head of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, and
 Zbigniew Felczyński, the bell-maker whose foundry crafted the Heart of Lodz.

Archbishop Władysław Ziółek blesses the bell

As the new bell had been founded in the year of John Paul II's beatification, its first chime rang at 9:37 pm, the hour of the late pope's death. To make it ring, all of its godfathers gripped the ropes and pulled in unison.
The proceeds from the following festivities, as well as the donations collected during the service went to the cardio wing of a local hospital specialising in pre-natal and pediatric care.

I would be lying if I said that Lodz was a utopia of tolerance- that it was a perfect example of multi-ethnic co-existence. However, it was a place where, once, Poles, Jews, Russians and Germans all had to find a way to make it work. They all had an equal part in building this city. They permeated all social classes and worked alongside each other, keeping their own faiths but knowing to respect those of their neighbours. But with the ever-changing political situation, the partitions, the struggles for independence which could not possibly unite four different nationalities, and finally World War Two which robbed us of our Jewish population, Lodz was struck from its path and could not evolve further in this direction.

It's a great pity. That's why I cherish events like these, where we all come together, and modern Lodz can be reminded of how diverse it once was.

As a delightful bonus, the whole process was extremely well documented. Most of it is in Polish, but if you skip over the commentary in this video from the foundry you can see the actual Heart of Lodz bell being made.

Meta info:

Image of original Zygmunt bell taken from official Heart of Lodz website:

PDF of a comic book about the Heart of Lodz (in Polish):

Serce Łodzi-komiks

1 comment:

  1. Aha! I wondered what this bell thing was about when I was browsing Flickr.