Hotel Savoy in Łódź: Labyrinth of History & Exile
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default, Hotel Savoy in Łódź:
Labyrinth of History & Exile, Hotel Savoy, circa 1912-16, photo: Biblioteka Narodowa / Polona.pl, center, lodz-gostinica-savoj-lodz-hotel-savoy-_1912-16_polona.jpg
The tales of this storied, century-old institution are closely intertwined with the history of its home city.
Before the outbreak of World War I, Łódź morphed from a backwater town into a dynamically developing city, with a flourishing textile industry. Yet, it was a place full of contrasts, where the ostentatiously opulent palaces of factory owners stood next to workers’ barracks and manufacturing plants.
The realities of Łódź of that time were perfectly depicted by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Władysław Reymont in The Promised Land, as well as by the film director Andrzej Wajda, who adapted the novel for the screen in 1975. The story follows in the footsteps of three friends – a Pole, a Jew and a German, all ruthless young industrialists determined to strike it rich no matter what.
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Tracing their story, one of a dream of a great fortune coming true, Reymont painted a detailed view of ‘Lodzermensch’ (the men of Łódź) and industrialism from all angles:
Łódź was waking up.
The first shrill factory whistle rendered the silence of early morning. In its wake, others, from all parts of town, began screaming hoarsely, ever more clamorous – with unruly voices, like a chorus of monstrous roosters crowing, through their metal throats, the call to work. The gigantic factories – whose long, black sprawling bodies and slim neck-like chimneys loomed in the night, fog and rain – woke slowly, gushed flames from their stoked fires, exhaled billowing smoke and began to come alive and move in the darkness which still enveloped the land
'The Promised Land', trans. M.H. Dziewicki
This rapidly growing industrial city was in need of more luxurious establishments – and so, the Savoy was built to fill this void. The hotel was founded by a Vienna tycoon, Salomon Ringer, in 1911. It was built in just two years on Krótka Street (today's Traugutta Street) near Piotrkowska Street, the main artery of Łódź. At one time, Ringer's hotel, at its 35 metres, was one of the highest buildings in the city centre, earning the nickname of ‘skyscraper’.
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The designer of the Hotel Savoy was the local architect Stefan Lemmene. The building was meant to be simultaneously modern and luxurious, and it merged modernist and art nouveau elements, both popular at the time. The seven-storey building’s most distinctive feature is its original window design. The hotel windows vary, from impressive shop windows at the ground floor to circular side bay windows, large square windows at the first floor and one round window, ornamented with peacocks, above the entrance.
Back in the day, the Savoy was furnished according to the latest technological trends, with its electric lamps, plumbing, elevators, phones and sewer system. A journalist from the daily newspaper Świat (World) called the Hotel Savoy ‘Europe in Łódź’.
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The gates of Europe
Thanks to the haunting portrayals of Reymont and Wajda, Łódź clearly has its own mythos as a rapidly expanding industrial city. Another portrayal of Łódź, which presents the city in a more melancholic way, is Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy. The author became one of the most famous German-speaking authors of the 20th century, and the Hotel Savoy is a key symbolic force in his debut novel.
The action of Hotel Savoy takes place in the aftermath of the World War, ‘at the gates of Europe’ – in Łódź. On the one hand, the city is described as a provincial Eastern European town. On the other, people from Berlin come there to secure business deals, as one could easily make conversation in German, and there were also opulent hotels such as the Savoy or the Grand.
Roth’s novel seems to suggest that Łódź was not only torn between the East and the West, but also between the epochs before and after the ‘Great War’. Thus, it became a transit city, where victims, speculators, war profiteers, veterans and those who had lost their homeland gathered.
The novel’s protagonist, the soldier Gabriel Dan, is one of those people without a home. He returns from Russia and waits at the Hotel Savoy to be reunited with his family. At that time, in the midst of the post-war chaos, Gabriel is just looking for simple comforts – clean soap and running water. The Savoy seems to be exactly what he needs. He describes it as:
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The outstanding hotel, with a liveried doorman, golden sign, elevators and clean chambermaids in starched white caps, seems to be more European than any other inn in the East.
Instead of simple comforts and a place to rest, however, he finds seven floors inhabited by bizarre characters: idealists, failed revolutionaries, clowns, people down on their luck barely able to settle their bills and those who are extravagantly rich. The hotel’s vertical structure reflects the social hierarchy; the more comfortable rooms at the ground floor belong to the rich, while the poor live upstairs. Moreover, dancers, strippers and actors from the upper levels often catered to the needs of the wealthy below.
Gabriel lived in one of the cheap rooms on the sixth floor, mingling mostly with the underprivileged. But the seemingly unshakable order of things gradually begins to change – there is talk of revolution in the air, as the factory workers begin their strike. The revolution doesn’t take off, though, and in the end, Roth’s narrator leaves Łodź, dreaming about the new promised land – California. The story's last word is ‘America’.
Gabriel Dan’s story is obviously a romanticized version of Joseph Roth’s own past. The author would claim that he fought in the war, even though he probably never ever held a gun in his hand. When World War I started, Joseph Roth was a second-year student, and at that time, he spoke out against war effort and declared himself a pacifist. Yet, around 1916, his seemingly unshakable resolve began to crack, due to some of his classmates, young women who saw him as a scaredy-cat and goldbrick.
Together with a friend – the novelist and poet Józef Wittlin – Roth tried to get admitted into the army and fight, but without much success, due to poor health. Instead, what truly connected the author to Gabriel Dan was a room at one of the upper floors of Savoy, where Roth began writing his debut novel. While Joseph Roth lived till the end of his life in various hotels, the Savoy is the only one he decided to immortalise.
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Another factor adding to the Hotel Savoy’s fame is the fact that it functioned as a haven for free spirits. In comparison to the nearby Grand Hotel, which primarily hosted industrialists and factory workers, the bohemians of Łódź, along with actors and writers from Warsaw and Galicia, flocked to the Hotel Savoy.
The first cabaret spectacle that took place at the Savoy was Reduta Śmiechu (The Masked Ball of Laughs), which debuted on 24th January 1914 with the motto ‘in vino veritas’. Reduta Śmiechu was meant to serve as a contrast the unrefined humour of other Łódź cabarets. The concept of the performance was based on the recitals of the Warsaw satirical cabaret Momus, whose artist moved to Łódź in 1911. Reduta Śmiechu didn’t disappoint and gained many splendid reviews from critics. It was a signal that Łódź was ready for a new literary cabaret.
Then, just two months later, the literary cabaret Bi-Ba-Bo began performances at the Hotel Savoy. Among the cabaret’s most famous collaborators were the illustrator Artur Szyk, as well as poet and writer Julian Tuwim, who was still in high school at the time. It is worth mentioning that Tuwim probably knew Joseph Roth, due to their mutual friend Józef Wittlin.
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Writer's Congress in Pławowice. Józef Wittlin (standing, the first person on the left), Julian Tuwim (the third person on the right), 1928, photo: audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
The cabaret Bi-Ba-Bo members were connected to newspapers like Gazeta Łódzka (The Łódź Newspaper) and Śmiech (Laugh), as often, the texts of cabaret revues and couplets were published there. Performing at the cabaret were, among others: the singer Józefa Borowska (known as the ‘Polish Ivette Gilbert’), Czesław Caden and Carmen de Roche. The cabaret texts were created by writers from Łódź who were previously associated with Cabaret Momus, such as Konrad Tom (Runowiecki) and Eliasz From (also known as Andrzej Nullus). The actor and singer Józef Urstein debuted at Bi-Ba-Bo, where he became extremely popular due to his singing and so-called ‘Pikuś’ monologues.
Bi-Ba-Bo’s satirical revues often poked fun at Łódź’s particularities. The cabaret sketches were intertwined with dialogues, where actors made fun of local customs and ‘Lodzermensch’ vices. The cabaret existed until 1915, when it closed down due to the wartime censorship.
After the end of World War II, the Hotel Savoy became state property, which entailed stylistic changes. What remained were elements of bathrooms, some tiles, doors and the skewed walls of the seventh floor. But even then, it continued to attract artists. The actors of the Syrena Theatre, established by the satirist Jerzy Jurandot, have lived there since 1945.
Julian Tuwim returned to the Savoy once again due to the literary society of the Pickwick Club. Among the other prominent members of this group were Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński, Józef Węgrzyn and Leon Schiller.
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In the 1990s, the Hotel Savoy went through renovations yet again. The hectic years after the transformation and stylistic particularities involved slightly changed the hotel interior. At the time, ‘pasteloza’ – an uncanny love for pastels in architecture and interior design – was in vogue. Hence, pale yellows and blue hues adorned the walls and hotel knick-knacks. Keeping up with the spirit of the times, the Hotel Savoy also offered a permanent apartment to the king of 1990s hit comedies – Juliusz Machulski.
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In 2012, the Hotel Savoy became a time machine of sorts, bringing back the past from Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy – as Michał Zadara directed a play titled after the hotel and based on the novel. The performance was presented in collaboration with Teatr Nowy and the Four Cultures Festival in Łódź.
The site-specific play offered audiences the chance to see parts of the hotel that are normally closed to the public. The spectators could explore the whole building, from backyards through kitchens, garrets and upper floors. The play had a non-linear structure, with scenes from the book recreated simultaneously in various places of the hotel. This gave the spectators opportunity to develop their own experience of the story.
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the promised land
art of the interwar period
Currently, the Polish visual artist Anna Maria Łuczak is working on a project connected to Roth’s novel.
Written by Olga Tyszkiewicz, Jul 2019
Sources: ‘The Promised Land’ by Władysław Reymont (New York, 1927); ‘Hotel Savoy’ by Joseph Roth (New York, 2003); ‘Spacerownik: Śladami Juliana Tuwima’ by Joanna Podolska and Igor Rakowski-Kłos (Łódź, 2013); ‘Minionych Zabaw Czar Czyli Czas Wolny i Rozrywka W Dawnej Łodzi’ by Wacław Pawlak (Łódź, 2001).
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