Poland – land of Jewish heritage, red bricks and goats

Israelis can fly direct to Poznan with Ryanair, while Lodz is just an hour from Warsaw airport.

 CROISSANT MAKING overlooking Poznan’s old town square. (photo credit: @MarkDavidPod   )
CROISSANT MAKING overlooking Poznan’s old town square.
(photo credit: @MarkDavidPod )

If we’d have made this trek 120 years ago, we’d have started in Prussia and finished in Russia. But this is 2023 Poland.

The route from Poznan to Lodz is like traveling through time, from historic city walls and impressive town squares, via flat, fertile agricultural land and Jewish heritage sites, arriving in a former bustling industrial city forging a new path in the 21st century.

While the sites are gorgeous, the museums beautifully laid out and the regional food surprisingly tasty, it’s the interactions with locals that bring this trip to life.

Younger, educated Polish people, say in their 20s to 40s, are a fascinating bunch. They are well aware of their country’s history – particularly from the 1900s – including both the tragedies of the Second World War and the subsequent Communist period. Across the board they seem very open about their feelings and their desire to build a different tomorrow.

This narrative peppers many of our meetings with tour guides, museum curators and their friends. It informs and provides background as we take in a magnificent but empty baroque church, look at an abandoned synagogue the Nazis turned into a swimming pool and breathe in the history and now clean air of a once gritty cotton mill turned into an entertainment center.

 AN ART GALLERY at Poznan’s Stary Browar old brewery. (credit: Poznan Stary Browar) AN ART GALLERY at Poznan’s Stary Browar old brewery. (credit: Poznan Stary Browar)

However, you don’t have to engage in deep, sometimes philosophical conversations to enjoy Poznan and Lodz, which are about two and a half hours apart by road and three hours by rail.

Israelis can fly direct to Poznan with Ryanair, while Lodz is just an hour from Warsaw airport. The journey from Poznan arrivals to the city center is quick with plenty of accommodation to choose from within walking distance of the old town. 

And at its very center, a pair of fighting goats.

In a centuries-old tradition, at 12 and temporarily at 3 p.m., crowds gather in the main square and gaze up at the old town hall tower to catch a glimpse of the two billies strutting their stuff. The current duo celebrated their 30th birthday in February – and before you get up in arms about the cruel way two animals are kept locked up in a tower, these kids are carved, mechanical and currently sporting the yellow and blue of neighboring Ukraine. 

The square, currently under renovation, hosts a terrific mix of bars and eateries in historic buildings. There are two museums well worth visiting in the square: the superb Museum of Musical Instruments and the Croissant Museum (the entrance to which is in a courtyard around the corner). The former includes instruments that date back hundreds of years, among them local bagpipes, a harpsichord played by Mozart and a collection of rare instruments from around the world. 

The Croissant Museum

The Croissant Museum is a bit of a misnomer. It’s a 60-minute interactive experience for kids and adults alike. When they ask for volunteers make sure you put up your hand – it’s a lot of fun and makes for great photographs. Make sure to book for the 2 p.m. show, which is in English. An added bonus: The museum has a great view of the goats for their current 3 p.m. appearance.

 AN EXHIBITION about Jewish burials housed in the Lodz Jewish Cemetery. (credit: @MarkDavidPod   ) AN EXHIBITION about Jewish burials housed in the Lodz Jewish Cemetery. (credit: @MarkDavidPod )

There’s much more to Poznan for the visitor. We’ll return to museums in a moment but first, what about some shopping with a lot of great art thrown in for good measure? With some 200 stores, great eateries, sculptures and galleries, The Old Brewery, or Stary Browar, is a must. This converted space is architecturally stunning and makes shopping a real pleasure. If you travel there in 2023, look out for the poster exhibition – it gives a real insight into what young Poles are thinking. And – you can arrange a guided tour of the whole complex.

OK, back to the museums. The Museum of Applied Art gives a terrific understanding into life in the Greater Poland region and includes Jewish artifacts, many of which were donated by Jewish communities and people to the museum 100 years ago.

Wander down Zydowska Street (Jewish Street) to get a feel for where Jews once lived, pass by the synagogue, which the current Jewish population is in the midst of selling (they have a separate community center), and head for the futuristic statue of the Golem of Poznan. Well, it’s really the Golem of Prague, but this David Cerny creation celebrates the golem in the birthplace of the monster’s creator, the Maharal.

The city castle, said to be the youngest in Europe, built by Wilhelm II, lies next to the impressive Enigma Cipher Center dedicated to the Enigma cipher machine and three Polish cryptologists. If you like escape rooms, this is most definitely going to be your cup of tea, with lots of problem solving corners to negotiate.

Konin lies halfway between Poznan and Lodz and makes for a great stop en route. The town’s synagogue stands close to the center of the old town, and the tourism officials provide a Jewish Konin map, which takes in a former yeshiva, the rabbi’s house and more. The town hosts the oldest milestone north of the Alps, and some local raconteurs suggest this rather phallic waymarker may have been the inspiration for the condom, invented by Konin-born Julius Fromm.

Poland’s largest church lies just outside town, as do myriad lakes and the Varta River, which together host a variety of watersports and boating vacations. A good place to see the church and water is from the porch of the excellent restaurant Marina Gaj. 

This is a real trip of contrasts. While Lodz (pronounced locally as Wooj) is 600 years old this year, it was a sleepy backwater until the industrial revolution put it front and center fewer than 200 years ago.

Known as the Manchester of Poland, Lodz is reinventing itself day by day and like the more famous English city, it has taken abandoned mills and factories associated with the cotton industry and turned them into great attractions for locals and tourists alike. 

Jewish industrialist Izrael Poznanski’s huge fabric-producing mill is now home to Manufaktura, a shopping and entertainment paradise. The 67-acre site offers a museum of art, a museum about the history of the factory, including working machinery, alongside a skatepark, bowling alley, climbing wall, movie theaters and everything to keep all the family happy. 

The city museum is next door in the former palatial home of the Poznanskis. It tells the story of the family, celebrates the life and times of Lodz-born pianist Arthur Rubinstein and includes recreations of typical pre-war Lodz homes, including that of a Jewish family.

Across town, the former home of rival tycoon Karl Wilhelm Scheibler’s now houses the first-rate Museum of Cinematography, with a lovely park nearby filled with kids’ rides.

Converting old factories spreads beyond the cotton industry. The city’s first commercial power plant is now the enthralling EC1. The huge main area is an engaging interactive explanation of how power is generated and distributed. There are also exhibits on space, with a planetarium a few yards away and a comics experience opening in 2023.

There’s great shopping on the main drag through Lodz, one of the longest downtown streets in Europe. Off Piotrkowska Street is the Jewish-themed Imber. Don’t think this is a kosher place – one glance at the menu will tell you otherwise but you can order some great-looking kreplach, cholent and herring.

For a fine-dining experience, try the family-run Restauracja Piwnica Lodzka. There’s a good chance the chef will bid you a good evening and join your table for a few moments. Watch out for the killer 70% alcohol Passover slivovitz but the 50% grapefruit vodka is excellent.

The Central Museum of Textiles is a very bright space for a converted factory. Its exhibits are varied and captivating, taking in modern fabric art, the history of clothing, the machines behind the garment industry and a mini working mill.

For many Jewish visitors, the main Lodz Jewish cemetery is the centerpiece of a visit to the city. It is the largest Jewish burial ground in Europe, and through its stones, it tells the story of Lodz’s Jews – the bombastic Poznanski mausoleum, the open field where Holocaust victims were buried in their thousands and the modern graves visited by family members of the 500-strong local community. Just across from the entrance to the cemetery are the graves of four members of the Bnei Akiva Zionist movement, murdered by bandits when on their way to a Mizrachi conference in 1946.

Like Poznan, Lodz is a place to engage, to discuss, to reflect. Many want to forget, while others strive to enshrine and guarantee those paths are never navigated again. Young, educated Poles are hopefully the future of this country. They want to be a part of Europe, of democracy, of freedom and equal rights for all. They hope this message filters around the world and in particular to Israeli and Jewish visitors, whom they welcome with open arms.

The writers were guests of the Poznan Tourism Organisation, Wielkopolska Tourism Organization, Lodz Tourism Organization and the Polish Tourism Organisation.

Mark and David host The JPost Podcast – Travel Edition available at https://www.jpost.com/podcast/travel-edition.