Łódź: A City Built on Peaceful Co-Existence
In the 19th-century the Polish city of Łódź grew from a tiny farming town into a bustling textile industry metropolis at a rate unseen anywhere else in Europe at the time. The cosmopolitan city was raised by Poles, Jews, Germans, Russians and others, who peacefully co-existed there for many years. Here we explore the golden age of Łódź up until its end that came with World War II.
Living in a boat
According to legend Łódź, a large city lying in the middle of today’s Poland, was founded by Janusz, a man travelling by boat on a brook in the woods. When setting up camp for the night it started to rain causing him to use his boat, dragged onto shore and turned upside down, as shelter. In the morning he grew so fond of his remote but beautiful rest stop and decided to stay there for good. His decision eventually brought about the creation of a whole town, as others came and joined him. On account of these events the town was given the name of Łódź, which means ‘boat’ in Polish.
The first historical mentions of Łódź date back to the 14th century, however it only became a city in 1423, by the edict of King Władysław Jagiełło. The term ‘city’ in this context refers to the legal status of the community (free from certain otherwise mandatory obligations, e.g. work for noblemen) rather than its size or development. For centuries to come, Łódź was to be a quiet, provincial town whose population wouldn’t exceed a thousand souls. Its citizens worked predominantly as farmers and generally made no forays into the field of commercial textile manufacturing. All of this started to change dramatically in 1820, when Łódź, then part of the Russian partition of Poland, was given the status of a ‘factory town’.
The Promised Land
A factory town could count on governmental money for development and provide investment allowances to draw business. Łódź owed its promising new position to Rajmund Rembieliński, a Pole and state official keen on economic and urban growth. He was also responsible for the original layout of the new town, the carefully thought-out design included greenery and transportion arteries. Another Pole that laid ground for the upcoming development of Łódź was the philosopher and economist Stanisław Staszic, who came there in 1825 to determine the city’s industrial potential. After his visit he wrote that ‘it is a place naturally predisposed for broadcloth factories but even more so to all kinds of linen and cotton manufactories.’ His verdict was linked to the abundance of water in the area, in the form of numerous streams. The nearby forests on the other hand held a hefty deposit of timber.
History proved the two gentlemen more than right – before the century was out, Łódź, which in 1820 had 767 citizens, turned into a major European textile production centre and a bustling metropolis with over 300 thousand inhabitants. The rate at which the city’s population grew was unseen anywhere else in Europe as it was almost 4 times higher than the rate of such rapidly expanding cities as Manchester or Hamburg. Toward the end of the 19th century Łódź was strong enough to compete with Moscow for the vast markets of the Russian Empire. At the onset of World War I, its population totalled nearly half a million.
This galloping growth was the result of a cycle: economic opportunities attracted people whose increasing number meant more economic opportunities and so on. This process was, of course, catalysed by the historical context favouring it: e.g. the abolition of customs between the Polish partition and the rest of the Russian Empire, relieving peasants from mandatory work for the nobility. The latter meant that country folk could suddenly choose where to work and a great many of them came to Łódź seeking a better life. Some of them believed the city to be ‘the Promised Land’ of freedom and money and that’s how the city got its biblical nickname. However, when the peasants arrived at this Promised Land they seldom found it flowing with milk and honey. They made up the bulk of the city’s labourers who didn’t necessarily earn very much money. Still, many preferred it to working on the farm.
An ethnic mosaic
The incoming peasants were usually Polish. The technical know-how on the other hand was brought to the town mostly by German immigrants. They were the first weavers to come to Łódź and managed to establish an influential community including owners and qualified workers that ran many of the city’s factories. Łódź’s symbolic, first chimney stack was raised in 1838 by Ludwik Geyer, a manufacturer of German origin. Jews were another group crucial to the development of the city. Among them were masses of poorly paid, unqualified labourers, but also numerous factory owners as well as doctors and tradesmen. Jewish manufacturers, like the famous Izrael Poznański, were responsible for much of the city’s business. Until the inter-war period, Polish Jews also made up most of the town’s cultural intelligentsia, a very narrow group in a city that was generally focussed on making money (the noted Polish-Jewish poet Julian Tuwim was born in Łódź). The whole scene was governed by Russians, occupiers of this part of Poland, who acted as state officials and military men. They were the least numerous of the most important groups in town. It was on their watch that the city got a railway connection in 1866 allowing for the transportation of goods and resources in bulk, which facilitated economic growth. The ethnic mosaic also included smaller contributions from places like Czechia (as the Czech Republic was known at the time), England or France.
In 1914, before the outbreak of World War I, Łódź’s population of almost half million was 50% Polish, 30% Jewish and included 70 thousand Germans and 6,5 thousand Russians. Throughout the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th, the groups generally co-existed peacefully. Łódź was what you call a melting pot – on its streets different languages could be heard (Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Polish, Russian), one could bump into people returning from churches of several denominations or synagogues, observing both Jewish and Christian holidays.
That, of course, does not mean that there were no conflicts. In 1892, the city was the arena of Poland’s first general strike and other similar events, sometimes even involving bloodshed. Additionally, Łódź was involved in the failed 19th century Polish uprisings against Russian rule, which prompted a response in the form of the russification of the city. But overall, looking at the bigger picture, Łódź’s golden age was a time of long-lasting harmony. Some point to the collective interest as a strong foundation of that order. From the average worker to the wealthy owner, the majority believed conflicts would simply be bad for business. The notion was correct – the peaceful co-existence of the ‘four elements’ was one of the most important reasons behind Łódź’s spectacular development.
The big three
Some of the factory owners made enormous fortunes in Łódź. It wasn’t uncommon for them to build entire palaces, which still stand in today’s Łódź. For example, among the richest was the German Karol Scheibler, who was so influential that at a certain point he owned almost 15% of the city’s land. He was known for his uncompromising work ethic involving coming to work at the same time as the labourers (5 in the morning) and staying until late in the evening. His great rival was the aforementioned Jewish manufacturer Izrael Poznański. A number of the representative structures this extremely wealthy businessman had built house important institutions in today’s Łódź. His monumental, neo-baroque palace is where the Musuem of the City of Łódź operates, the neo-renaissance residence he gave his daughter as a wedding gift accommodates the rectorate of the Medical University. The two gentlemen, along with Ludwik Geyer, made up the so-called ‘big three’ of Łódź’s textile industry.
The tycoons of Łódź would even build entire private neighbourhoods consisting of worker’s houses, industrial facilities and impressive residences. Księży Młyn, the area created by Scheibler, boasted a massive spinning mill, a hospital, a school, shops and even a fire station. The numerous industrial complexes spread throughout the city included bleaching and weaving plants, dyeworks, textile printing shops and subsidiary facilities like gasworks and brickyards. The many streams provided water power and fed the steam machines.
The persistent flow of great numbers of people to the city resulted in chaotic urban development, which was visible especially in the suburbs – the authorities didn’t cope with planning well enough. But despite that, the golden age left behind plenty of extraordinary architecture. Apart from the residences of the manufactureres, some of which were designed very tastefully, and the industrial buildings that from today’s perspective are valuable historical monuments, Łódź also gained a number of beautiful tenement houses. The Art Nouveau ones along the city’s most famous street Piotrkowska are surely noteworthy.
The horror of war
World War I affected Łódź on many levels, the most important one being that after the conflict, the city became the capital of one of the main administrative regions of the reborn, independent Poland. That meant that Łódź, up until then more or less limited to its industrial function, now became the seat of various state institutions (e.g. of justice), which brought about a certain refinement, as their employees often expanded the small local group of intelligentsia. That in turn stimulated e.g. theatre and artistic life. Also, a radio station appeared in town, broadcasting in a 200 km radius. Nevertheless, throughout the inter-war period the town remained what it had been for the past century – a textile hub with most of its citizens employed as labourers in factories. The severing from the Russian markets resulted in economic difficulties but despite that Łódź kept its position as a leading Polish industrial city. It also remained a cosmopolitan place until World War II – in 1939 Łódź had 670 thousand inhabitants, over half of which were Polish, 35% Jewish and 10% German.
The harmony that had lasted for so long was disrupted by the horror of World War II. Even before its outbreak nationalist tensions were becoming apparent in town, and the War itself brought an end to the multi-ethnic character of Łódź. The German armed forces were responsible for the liquidation of the Jewish community and for harm inflicted on the Polish population. After the war, there was no return to what was before.
Today Łódź is a city that is looking for a new identity. What was once the ‘Polish Manchester’, a thriving centre of production, nowadays, after the collapse of the textile industry caused by political changes and globalisation, is more of a ‘Polish Detroit’, a city with a decreasing population and unemployment issues. Nevertheless, its unique heritage of various ethnic groups co-existing for mutual benefit gives it a special character – seen, for example, in its post-industrial buildings that today, after revitalisation, serve as spaces for chic shops, apartment buildings or museums.