Lodz is in today’s central Poland and its name means “boat”. The name is written Łódź in Polish and is pronounced “woo-j(i)” – the “j” soft like in “jeans”. An old city that was first heard of in 1332.
I was born in Lodz in a military hospital, on Żeromskiego Street, on October 16, 1946. One year after the end of World War II, the political and economic situation in Lodz was certainly unstable. While the Communists were already in power, the right-wing rebel factions were still roaming in the dense forests of the countryside. The population of the city was slowly recovering from the harsh, brutal Nazi occupation. At the end of the war, my father, Warrant Officer (Chorąży) Adam Motyl-Szary, was assigned as the supply officer at the large military hospital in Lodz. It is today called the Veterans Hospital and is still a working hospital as well as a medical school. Read my father’s detailed life history in Part III of this book. He ended up in Lodz, after pursuing the Germans from Moscow to Berlin.
The military hospital now teaching hospital and VA medical center
In those days, Adam was a 35-year-old Jewish, integrated, assimilated, urban Pole. He looked Russian with his black hair, straight nose and Mongol eyes. My mother, Józefa Potocka, was a 25-year-old Catholic, beautiful blond, modern woman. She worked as a bookkeeper at one of the many world-famous textile factories that over the last hundred years gave Lodz the nickname of the “Manchester of the East”. My dad met her at the factory. He and his friends from the hospital, mostly young physicians and surgeons, performed in front of the workers. They for the love of music and out of necessity because the hospital was plundered, first by the retreating Germans and then by the Russian Red Army “liberators”. Singing and playing various instruments, the band earned the gratitude of the staff and received much-needed blankets, sheets, towels and other textile products for the wounded and sick in the hospital.
The handsome couple on their wedding day.
Potocki is an old and famous name in Poland. The House of Count Potocki is one of the wealthiest and most powerful aristocratic families in Poland. The family is renowned for numerous Polish political leaders, diplomats, military leaders, and cultural activists. My mother’s family branch was not rich – one of her male ancestors married a commoner and was disinherited. Oh well, what don’t they do for love…
I don’t remember anything about the life in the hospital because a few months after my arrival, Adam decided to leave the military and settle into civilian life, with his beautiful new bride and me – Marek – the number two son. He lost his first son Alexander (Sender) and his first wife Yohevet to the Nazi murderers during the war. Again, see the details of that story in Part III.
We moved to the apartment on Narutowicza Street, number 18, in the center of Lodz. We had two large, high ceiling rooms – a living room and a bedroom – a kitchen that extended into a bathroom, with a large bathtub, and a long, dark hallway to the entrance door. I slept on a large, wide sofa, in the living room. The parents’ bedroom doubled as a formal dining room because of the large, fancy table and chairs near the window. The toilet was next to the apartment entrance, at the beginning of a long hallway. The entrance and the toilet were shared with another family, the Grosman’s, who lived in a similar two-room apartment, at the beginning of the hallway. The apartment was on the fourth (top) floor, no elevator.
My father got up early every morning, at about 5:30, to go to work, as the director of a large sawmill, in Zgierz, north of the city. Before leaving for the day, he filled and lit the wood-and-coal heating furnace. This very efficient large contraption, very common then in Poland, was built into the wall between the kitchen and the living room, where I slept. It was covered with white ceramic tiles on both sides, was about 4ft to 5ft wide and floor to ceiling, which was over 12 feet high. Pages of newspaper and pieces of wood went in first, chunks of coal next, through a small access door on the kitchen side. As needed, more coal chunks, adult fist-sized, were added in, later during the day. The furnace kept the whole apartment toasty-warm all day and night, even in the dead of the harsh polish winters.
On top of the roomy stairs’ landing on the fourth floor, outside of the apartment, on the wide windowsill was my mother’s fish and chicken workshop, set up on layers of old newspapers. You have to realize that the fish were typically alive, even swimming in the bathtub for a day. The chickens (or other poultry) were dead but “unprocessed” – with feathers, heads, and innards. My mother ripped off the feathers, burned off the remaining stubble, and expertly butchered and cut it all up for cooking. She did not like to eat fish herself but scrubbed of the scales and cut the fish in filets or slices, depending on the recipe. My father really liked to eat well and my mother was a very good cook. I loved pretty much everything she cooked, and even more when I became an adult. There was one exception: I did not like (or like a lot less) any boiled meat and I can tell you — Poles love boiled everything. It does make sense, as the by-product is always a rich soup; a very efficient way to squeeze all the proteins and fat out of meat. My mother also prepared a lot of breaded anything: slices of chicken and turkey breast, slices of veal, and slices of several different fish. I still love schnitzel and my daughter-in-law Sarah makes it as well as my mother.
The bathroom with a sink and a big old bathtub, on cast iron claw feet, was at the end of the kitchen/bathroom. The outside wall of next to the bathtub was abutting the Lodz Philharmonic Orchestra Hall, and the largest (for a while) movie theater in Lodz – the Baltic. We often heard the orchestra practicing while in the bath – the walls in those 100-year old European buildings were so thick that the music just seeped in. There was no running hot water in these apartments and the water for a bath had to be boiled in a very large pot, on the large cast iron coal-and-wood stove of the kitchen, and added as needed. The bathtub, as I said, also served as a temporary holding tank for the live, large fish (carp, pike, and other) that my mother used to buy for our dinners.
My mother ironed the clothes after the laundry, performed in the bathtub on a washboard, using an old-fashioned iron: the outside shape resembled modern irons but the heat came from a block of iron that would be laid on the coals in the kitchen stove until red hot, lifted out with a poker and inserted into the iron. When needed, my mother sprayed the water from her mouth; who needed spray bottles?
Life in Communist Poland was tough for the adults but as a child, I never knew any hardships. I do remember standing in line for staples like ham because the shelves in all the stores were most often empty, most of the time, and you could never find what you wanted. Standing in line for ham had its advantages as my mother always treated me to a fresh, crusty bun with ham and butter for my efforts, and for saving her time. The Communist Party made sure that the children were happy and ready to be indoctrinated.