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Journey to a Land Where Jews Are Wax and Anti-Semitism Is Kitsch

Upon entering the restaurant that the charming concierge at the Hotel Grand Lodz had recommended, we froze. Not that I had imagined a deli or South Williamsburg hole-in-the-wall I always wonder if I have the right to wander into, but I was thoroughly unprepared for what awaited us. Outside, the font on the sign over the door was Hebraic; the “w” in Anatewka looked like the Hebrew letter shin. The windows were decorated with Jewish memorabilia — innocuous enough. But then we opened the door: in the entryway, a life-size wax figure of an Orthodox rabbi, with a sickly purple pallor and cartoonishly large nose, hunched over an ancient cash register that overflowed with coins.

A hallucination wouldn’t have been out of the question — we had been en route for over 30 hours: flights from Kansas City to Dallas, and from Dallas to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Wroclaw, Poland, followed by a three-hour drive to Lodz. After dropping off our stuff at the hotel, we walked down Ulica Piotrkoswka to glimpse the apartment where Grandma Eva was born.

Lanky men with mohawks, and women with sharp Slavic cheekbones and kohl-lined eyes, passed us on the sidewalk as Dad, my sister Phoebe, Grandma Eva and I peered through the boarded-up window of the apartment that once housed our family. Walking down this artery of Lodz, Poland, had a surreal quality, the prewar buildings next to a cold communist aesthetic, and everything drenched in the reason we were there — the Holocaust. When we pulled up to the hotel, ours was the only car on the street, and several cafes spilled out onto the cobblestones. We didn’t even know if we were supposed to be driving on that street or not. And then there was the androgynous duo sawing away at a cello and fiddle on the corner, playing a rather hypnotic version of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.”

But I had not imagined the lobby’s decor. Phoebe, in her typical fashion, reached out and touched the rabbi’s dusty synthetic tresses.

“Oh my God,” Grandma Eva murmured. “Look at what that’s supposed to be. I can’t believe it.” Her tone was more one of bemusement than of revulsion, as if the rabbi couldn’t possibly be what we thought it was, what we knew it was.

“Sophie, stand next to it. I have to take a picture,” Phoebe said.

And so I slung my arm around its prayer shawl-covered shoulder and smiled. The waitress seemed puzzled that we were so enamored of the decorations, and led us to our table. We walked through the restaurant, which was crammed with all sorts of Jewish paraphernalia — menorahs, yarmulkes, Sabbath candlesticks in tarnished holders, schlocky art depicting rabbis and biblical figures. It was, in short, a kind of Jewish Rainforest Café.

In an almost empty adjacent room draped with ritual prayer shawls, we sat down.

“What should we order? I’m starving,” Grandma Eva said. She opened the menu and began pointing out dishes she hadn’t tasted since she was 7.

I was still too busy ogling the décor to think about food, but then I looked at the menu, which listed appetizers like “Milkman Tevye’s cheese platter (for 2 persons),” “Mrs. Golde’s spicy kidneys” and “Jewish caviar,” and main dishes like “Goose filet in Jewish sauce,” and my personal favorite, “Jewish style fried salmon.” Haroset was on the dessert menu.

An eerie, faint sound leaked from the speakers, a recording of children singing Sabbath prayers. We left the ordering to Grandma Eva and Dad, who got too much food. The waitress had to make a few trips and then cram all the plates, puzzle style, onto the table around our wine glasses. The “Jewish-style fried salmon” was neither fried nor “Jewish” (smoked?), but I was hungry. Grandma Eva proposed a toast: “How weird is it to be in my hometown? Can you imagine? The four of us in Lodz, my God.”

A muted, preadolescent rendition of “Hatikvah” got louder on the speakers. “L’chaim!” Phoebe said, with an upward thrust of her glass.

Phoebe and Dad and I kept trying to talk about the weirdness of our surroundings while we ate, but Grandma Eva was excited that she was back in Poland and we were all here together as a family. I had received a grant from my college to travel with her to Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany in order to research for my undergraduate senior honors thesis, an account of her story of surviving the Holocaust as a child. Phoebe and Dad had decided to come along, too, in the months before the trip. We had planned for weeks, mapped out routes that traced her journey from Lodz through three concentration camps, the Dresden munitions factory in which she had been assigned to work, and Prague, where she ended up after liberation. Although for the three of us the trip seemed overshadowed by the Holocaust, we forgot that for Grandma Eva, Lodz was also her hometown, the place where she had spent a bit of childhood before hers prematurely ended.

The three of us stopped trying to get her back on track to talk about how creepy this place was — the “Fiddler on the Roof” playbills and tangled prayer shawls tacked to the walls, the Seder plates and menorahs displayed on high shelves. Grandma wanted to reminisce about Lodz, and I took out my pen so I wouldn’t miss anything.

With the check, the waitress gave us each a keepsake of the meal, a tiny modeling clay rabbi clutching a real Polish coin. Mine had red side curls, and Phoebe’s had a face completely obscured by a bushy black beard.

“Anyone want mine?” Dad said, holding it by its little black hat.

“I will,” Grandma Eva said. “These are so cute!”

“Jesus, Grandma, look what it’s holding,” Phoebe said.

“I know,” she said, looking at hers, which had tiny wire spectacles. “Creepy, isn’t it? But still, it’s sort of cute.”

We walked out past the rabbi, our stomachs full of root vegetables and greasy fish, debating whether the people who founded this place meant it as a tribute, as kitsch, or if they were aware of the comically overt anti-Semitism. Phoebe, Dad and I were completely at ease admitting that the place was anti-Semitic and gauche, but Grandma Eva was oddly defensive about her hometown and its eating establishments, lobby rabbi or not. She was disturbed by the décor, sure, but she was not as quick to run it down as the three of us were. “What were they thinking?” we lamented. “What tone were they going for, and did they see how miserably they had failed?” Instead, she talked about how long it had been since she had eaten a pierogi and how all these potatoes reminded her of her childhood.

She was exhausted and headed straight for bed. Dad, Phoebe and I grabbed a drink from one of the many outdoor bars lining Piotrkowska. We were tired, too, but we also needed beer and to digest what we’d just seen (and eaten) at Anatewka. We picked a bar with an open table and ordered three Tyskies, the name printed on the red umbrellas over the tables. The three pints cost a total of about $2. People streamed not only down the sidewalk, but also down the street now, as well, men in dark, tight jeans and women teetering by on tall heels, short black skirts pulsing with each step.

Anatewka owner Pavel Zyner claims on the English version of the restaurant website that he drew inspiration for Anatewka from the fact that there was no existing “good eatery serving good Jewish delicacies,” a need he hoped to fill with the opening of Anatewka, “a magical venue where time [comes] to a standstill in the Lodz of the industrial barons.”

I wish I could see the most influential industrial baron in Lodz, a Jew named Izrael Poznanski, sit down at a table at Anatewka. He hailed not from Lodz, but from Kowal. Born in 1833, the son of a merchant and the youngest in a huge religious family, Poznanski wanted from an early age to escape. Unlike his brothers and sisters, who attended religious school, he insisted on a public education, the first step in shedding his Orthodox Jewish identity. He arrived in Lodz a young man with an eye for business and progress. He built a huge textile factory and tidy brick apartments next door for his workers, constructed a palace right across the street for himself and his family. Textile workers came from Silesia and Germany, many of them Jews. In 1861 the Czar of Russia allowed Jews to settle in Lodz. The city’s population swelled, and the new textile business grew. Apartment buildings sprang up, and schools and shops for the new workers popped up all over the Old City. Lodz became the textile capital of Poland, thanks in a large part to a Jew from Kowal.

In 1900, when Poznanski died, the city was still considered the “Manchester of Poland.” The factories were thriving, and people had money. “Lodz” is Polish for “boat,” and there is no large body of water in the city, no river slicing the city in two, or lake framed by castles. Instead, the main artery is bustling Ulica Piotrkowska. This commercial boulevard was upscale. Elegant hotels and apartment buildings alternated with storefronts advertising the latest fashions from Warsaw and Paris. Droshkes and carts cluttered the cobblestone road.

Even the Jews, who had many laws imposed against them, had money. Some of them had a lot of it. They lived in posh apartments on Piotrkowska and sent their children to the Hebrew Gymnasium when it opened in 1912. A third of the city’s factories were now owned by Jews, Jews who expanded their textile expertise to wool and cotton and beyond. A young Artur Rubinstein left Lodz to study at conservatory in Warsaw. He, the world famous piano virtuoso, was from Lodz, Grandma Eva reminded me as we wandered through Poznanski’s house, now a museum. The city was a cultural center, the third-largest city in Poland, and housed a huge and growing Jewish population — almost one out of every three residents of Lodz was Jewish.

On our third day in Lodz we finally made it to the ghetto, to the building where Grandma Eva lived with her parents and two grandmothers for three years. We explored the site — the building grounds (we couldn’t go inside); the back courtyard that had been overflowing outhouses in the 1940s but was now a row of dilapidated garages; the cemented-over well where she had hidden when the soldiers rounded up children. Then we found the graffiti.

The building adjacent to 47 Franciskanska was located across a muddy vacant lot. One of its walls was entirely covered by the word Widzew. Polish graffiti lacked the swirly 3-D letters that graced abandoned buildings at home. Poles wrote in neat, blocky European print, and their graffiti letters were uncannily precise. Widzew was all straight, clean black lines, in a capitalized sans-serif font.

“Sophie, can you write that word down?” Grandma Eva asked. “‘Widzew.’”

“I’ll remember it,” I said. Although I was intrigued by the graffiti as well, I wanted her to tell me more memories from the ghetto.

“How can you remember that?” she asked.

“It’s just one word, Grandma,” I said, knowing I sounded irritated, and feeling bad about it. “I’ll look it up later.”

But when we walked all the way around the building, we found that word printed again and again. In another style were the words or acronyms LKS and ZKS. Occasionally a Star of David, usually yellow, had been spray-painted over either word. We had seen this particular style, the words within the Star of David, on the little cement bus stops that dotted the Polish countryside.

“What’s the star supposed to mean, you think?” Phoebe asked, clicking away.

“I don’t know what either of those words means,” Grandma Eva said, “but maybe it has something to do with Jews? That’s so weird it’s a Star of David. You know what that is, right?”

“Of course we do, Grandma.”

“Maybe it is anti-Semitic,” she said, “but I don’t know. I can’t assume.”

“Judging from the general atmosphere, I suspect it may have something to do with anti-Semitism,” Dad said. “Just a hunch.”

Back at the hotel, Grandma Eva headed straight upstairs to lie down. But Phoebe, Dad and I needed to get to the bottom of that graffiti star business. The Hotel Grand Lodz concierge, our expert, was at the front desk. I explained what we had seen in the ghetto and asked him what it meant, the Widzew and the LKS and the Stars of David.

“Well, first the words,” he said. “Widzew and LKS are the two football teams of Lodz. Soccer, I guess you would say. Soccer is very big here.”

“But what about the Stars of David?” Dad asked. “How they would be spray-painted over the team names. I thought maybe it was anti-Semitic.”

“No, not anti-Semitic,” the concierge said. “An LKS fan will draw that over the word Widzew, and a Widzew fan will do the same to LKS. It is like a sign that you support the other team, like a, how do you say ?”

“So like a ‘f—k you?’ ” Phoebe suggested.

“Yes,” he said, smiling at her word choice. “Exactly. Like a ‘f—k you.’ ”

“So it’s not anti-Semitic to draw a Star of David — the symbol just holds the equivalence of ‘f—k you,’” I said.

“Exactly,” he said. Then he doubled back, absorbing my irony. “You have to understand that Polish people do not know what a Star of David means,” he said. “They don’t know what a Jew is. They have never met one. They don’t mean any harm in this.”

I left Lodz, still skeptical about Polish attitudes toward Judaism. We continued on to the next part of our Poland road trip, the camps. At Stutthof, near the Baltic Sea, a plaque in the flimsy museum exhibit explained that few photographs exist from the camp, so they feature re-enactment photos instead. Sepia-toned pictures of actors, faces smudged with ashes and expressions exaggeratedly mournful, gaze up at the sky with hands gripping barbed wire.

Something told me that there was another way to go about this. Maybe the curator who came up with the idea genuinely thought that these photos would be a legitimate replacement for real ones and not tasteless snapshots. And maybe the guy at Anatewka who cooked up the idea of the lobby rabbi genuinely thought he was paying tribute to the Jewish people.

Our last stop in Poland was Auschwitz, after which we spent a couple nights in Krakow. One afternoon we wandered through the old Jewish Quarter, a touristy amalgam of plaques explaining what life was like pre-1939 and of faux-Jewish shops and eateries. Grandma was searching for a specific synagogue she had heard about that we couldn’t seem to find, and Dad, Phoebe and I were making sarcastic comments about the Disney-like surroundings to avoid processing what we had seen and felt at Auschwitz. We were ambling down one of the streets when Phoebe pulled me aside.

“You’ll never believe this,” she said. She pointed to a notice on an empty storefront, a sign announcing that something had closed. I recognized the Hebraic font, the familiar name. They were very sorry, but the Krakow location was closing — visitors would have to go to the Lodz restaurant. “Looks like Anatewka is a chain.”

This essay was adapted from the author’s work-in-progress, an essay collection titled “Geltungsjuden.”

Sophia Marie Untermann’s previous Forward articles have chronicled her search for the perfect male shiksa and the origins of a Jewish shoemaker who could have joined the Ku Klux Klan.

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