If one of your reasons for visiting Poland is to trace Jewish heritage, then you'll certainly want to explore what remains of the Lódz ghetto (often called by its German name, Litzmannstadt), once the second-biggest urban concentration of Jews in Europe after the Warsaw ghetto. But be forewarned: Although spending time here is highly worthwhile, not all of the former ghetto survived World War II, and some of the area has been rebuilt with mostly prefab Communist housing blocks and shops. Much of the walking tour of the ghetto consists of weaving through drab and depressed streets, looking for hard-to-find memorial plaques and trying to imagine what life must have been like during what was a much different era.
The Litzmannstadt ghetto is one of the saddest and least-well-known stories of the war. The Germans first formed the ghetto in 1940, after invading Poland and incorporating the Lódz area into the German Reich. In all, some 200,000 Jews from Lódz and around Europe were moved here to live in cramped, appalling conditions. Next to the Jewish ghetto, the Nazis formed a second camp for several thousand Gypsies (Roma) brought here from Austria's Burgenland province. High fences and a system of heavily guarded steps and pathways allowed the detainees to move between various parts of the ghetto, but prevented anyone from entering or leaving. For a time, the ghetto functioned as a quasi-normal city, with the Jews more or less allowed to administer their own affairs in exchange for forced labor that contributed to the Nazi war effort. In 1944, with the coming of the end of the war, the Nazis stepped up their extermination campaign and began regular large-scale transports to death camps at Chelmno and Auschwitz. By the end of the war, there were just a handful of survivors left.
Begin the tour by picking up a copy of the brochure Jewish Landmarks in Lódz, available at the tourist information office on Piotrkowska (you can also find an abridged version of the tour in the publication Lódz In Your Pocket, usually available at large hotel reception desks). The walk starts north of the city center at the Baucki Rynek, once the city's main market and the site of the German administration of the ghetto. You can find it by walking north along Piotrkowska, crossing the Plac Wolnosci, and continuing on through the park. From here the trail snakes along about 10km (6 1/4 miles), ending at the Jewish Cemetery (Cmentarz Zydowski), the largest of its kind in Europe, and the Radegast train station, from where the transports to the extermination camps departed. (If you want to skip the trail, you can go directly to the cemetery and the Radegast station.) The cemetery is open Sunday to Friday and has a small exhibition of photographs of Jewish life in Lódz and the ghetto. The Radegast station (about a 15-min. walk north of the Jewish cemetery) has been restored to its appearance during the war, with three Deutsche Reichsbahn transport railcars ominously left standing on the tracks, the doors wide open.
After the war, a scattering of Jews returned to the city to try to rebuild a fraction of what they lost. Today, the Jewish population numbers just a few hundred from a pre-World War II population of nearly a quarter million.