Long-forgotten Jewish prayer house reveals a ‘world stuck in time’
Forgotten for over 25-years, but still filled with artefacts relating to its past, a Jewish prayer house in Łódź that served the city’s post-Holocaust population has been dramatically rediscovered.
Abandoned since 1997, the building faces demolition as part of the city’s aggressive redevelopment. Tipped off by a friend, it was this that prompted urbex photographer Radosław ‘Redman’ Stępień and Jewish community activist Dawid Gurfinkiel to explore it.
Having climbed in via a broken window, what they discovered was a world stuck in time.
Speaking to TFN, Gurfinkiel said: “It was as if the doors had been locked just five minutes previously.”
For Gurfinkiel, it was a moment of poignant reconnection. “As an infant my father used to take me to the prayer house and Jewish Community Centre that was here – it was where I took my first steps as a Jew.”
The youngest in the entire congregation, Gurfinkiel was surrounded by aging Holocaust survivors.
With their number shrinking, when the Jewish Community Centre was moved elsewhere in 1997, the one at Zachodnia 78 was simply forgotten.
Moreover, having had its front knocked-down during a road-widening project, it had been assumed that everything of value had also disappeared.
“I thought that the community would have taken everything when they moved, but that turned out to be far from the case,” says Gurfinkiel.
Having accessed the interiors, Gurfinkiel and Stępień found a horde of relics – frayed prayer shawls, dusty Tefillin prayer boxes, yellowing Jewish newspapers, skullcaps and letters from Rabbi Zew Wawa Morejna.
Often seen as a radical, firebrand Rabbi, it was Morejna that founded the shul that could once be found at Zachodnia 78.
Surviving a spell in the concentration camps, and later reputedly hiding out in the forests, Morejna settled in Łódź after the war along with around 50,000 Jewish ‘returnees’.
Known for his strict observance of Jewish customs, he frequently fell foul of the community. Nonetheless, he was elected not just as the Rabbi of Łódź, but later to serve as the Chief Rabbi of Poland.
Zachodnia 78 was his base, and among the discoveries have been a bounty of possessions belonging to Morejna, including correspondence with Prime Minister Józef Cyrankiewicz.
“As a rabbi many found him hard to handle,” says Gurfinkiel, “and it could be said he didn’t entirely fit the post-war reality.”
Following waves of migration, in 1966 Morejna found himself the only Rabbi left in Poland. Increasingly, he was targeted by the authorities on the wave of anti-Semitism that swept the nation’s political landscape.
Finally, in 1973, the last Rabbi in Poland accepted defeated and left for New York.
“The building might not look like it has any value,” says Gurfinkiel, “but this was a unique place of post-war Jewish life. In the context of the city’s history, this is a hugely important space.”
Decorated with Stars of David and Jewish inscriptions, it is unlikely that the building will be saved from demolition, however, says Gurfinkiel, hopes are high that at least the discoveries that have been made will somehow be preserved.
“My intuition says that the building will still be levelled,” he says, “but I’m hopeful that many of the things that have been found will be rescued – the people that once worshipped here deserve that.
“This should become more than just a footnote on Wikipedia.”