The Mansions

“It is no matter. They all build palaces, so I had one
built. They have grand rooms; so have I. People
ought to know that Müller has a palace of his own.”
—Reymont, The Promised Land

They lived well back then, the owners. You can tell that just by walking past their mansions, many of which still stand, scattered around Łódź. The façades may be darkened with pollution, cement ornamentation may be chipped or weathered, the buildings themselves may have been converted to schools, museums, or municipal administration, but these are unmistakably the abodes of former owners. “Let me tell you about the very rich,” Fitzgerald once wrote; “they are different from you and me.”

Yeah—they have more money and they live better.

Two mansions stand out as models of robber-baron luxury: Poznański’s palace on the corner of Zachodnia and Ogrodowa, across the street from the relocated Łódź town church, and the palace Scheibler built on Przędzalniana for his daughter. Both are restored and open to the public; either will give a middle-class visitor a painfully acute sense of life in a two-class society.

Poznański’s huge residence on Ogrodowa is worthy of a nobleman… a rank to which Izrael Kalmanowicz Poznański, “The Cotton King,” clearly aspired. The gray neo-baroque palace, designed in 1888 by Hilary Majewski (the man responsible for many Łódź collages of neo-This and neo-That) and enlarged in 1902 by Adolf Selighson, contrasts sharply with the red brick wall around the adjacent red brick factory—now “Poltex”—a contrast not lost, I am sure, on the masses who plodded each day to work beneath the red brick gate crowned with the clock which regulated their lives, who must have thought this mansion, constructed long after the factory was fully operational, at a time when Poznański already owned two other very impressive mansions elsewhere in Łódź, a daily personal affront to their lives. Who must have yearned in every fiber of their being to burn the place down, and blame the disaster on the “lightning” that struck so regularly in nineteenth century Łódź. Who must have rejoiced in secret when Israel’s heirs found the place too expensive to live in, and converted at least part of it into office space.

From the roof rise two gray tin mansard roofs, from which rise two flagpoles each. Around the perimeter of the third story, silhouetted against the gray sky, obelisks and statutes of men and women in various stages of undress. The elaborate wrought iron gates of the factory entrance could compete in Belgravia, London, or in New Orleans. Built originally in the shape of an L, then renovated, elaborated and extended, this building is a veritable icon of vulgar wealth: dining hall with elaborate ceiling and more semi-nudes celebrating the initial P, heavy bronze chandeliers, elaborately carved walnut paneling, art nouveau peacock above the dining hall fireplace (again the initial P), inlaid wood floor, bronze figure of allegorized Industry cast by Mathurin Moreau of France, marble entrance hall, dark wooden staircase, large Rubens-like oil depicting Perseus and Andromeda, ornate exterior staircase leading to formal gardens… and various other interior rooms in a hodgepodge of styles, pre-Raphaelite, neoclassical, the ballroom a goofy, gaudy collage of neoclassical and early modern, in turquoise and white and gold. Poznański lived in eclectic elegance, all right.

Poznański Palace, Łódź

This palace has had a checkered history. Nazi occupational forces made it their administrative seat; photographs displayed in the City Museum show their renovations, now entirely undone. The palace today is used for concerts and receptions—Michelle and I attended an Italian classical guitarist’s Łódź concert in the ballroom, and several Institute students, acting as translators, wheedled invitations to the cocktail parties held in the dining hall during the spring textile and fashion show. The palace also now houses the Museum of the History of Łódź (Poznański’s other residence, a neo-Renaissance magnificence on Więckowskiego, now houses the City Art Museum), including several second-story rooms celebrating the city’s most famous native son, pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Although the rooms themselves are elegant, Rubinstein steals the show, especially the photographs of the pianist with presidents, celebrities, and world leaders, and a French order that came with medal, uniform, and ceremonial sword. And the hands, Rubinstein’s hands, cast in bronze. A fellow can do okay for himself playing the piano. Or running a textile mill.

The City Museum in the basement of the Poznański Palace, is again several rooms, not all of them open all the time. Most interesting to me are the hall containing invoice heads, stationery, and notes from various old Łódź textile factories, the rooms filled with photographs and artifacts from the Nazi occupation and the Łódź ghetto (including the battered sign, yellow paint on sheet metal, that marked the home of the Eldest of the Jews in the Litzmanstadt Ghetto), and a display of paintings of old Bałuty by Jan Filipski. The palace-museum thus embodies that odd fellowship common between robber-baron industrialists—the very rich—and artists, writers, and musicians. Whether the robber-barons are Italian Popes, German-American beer magnates, or Jewish textile manufacturers in Łódź; the two poles of this relationship always seem to find each other. Hard-working rich hire often disreputable and indigent artists to play tunes in their palaces, paint pictures for their walls, and chronicle their histories; even as they accept their patronage, bohemian artists despise these patrons (who never seem to quite understand art and are not always pleased with what their money buys). Yet a grudging mutual respect prevails (the fraternity of excellence?), and the odd fellowship sustains itself. Whatever defilement time and the Nazis worked on Poznański’s palaces and graves, he has, in the end, Rubinstein, Reymont (The Promised Land is the story of Poznański’s Łódź, his friends and enemies, their palaces and businesses), Filipski, and all the artists of the Museum of Art. Not a bad end for an old cloth peddler.

Poznański Palace, Łódź

The Herbst Palace, built by Scheibler as a wedding present for his daughter, seems warmer, less ostentatious than the Poznański Palace, but that judgement may reflect my own stylistic preference. A marble staircase leads from the entrance hall, past a richly colored stained glass window, to a series of second-story rooms, including Herbst’s office, his wife’s dressing room, his mother-in-law’s dressing room, a library, a sitting room, a dining room… each rich with carved wood desks and cabinets, porcelain figurines, art nouveau fixtures, oil paintings, gilded mirrors, oriental objects d’art. The ballroom is a harmony of dark, carved wood and glass, a bust of Scheibler presiding over all. The grounds are pleasant: enclosed park, functioning greenhouse, stables with horses’ heads peering out from the peak of each roof, fountains and pathways, a lovely view of the pond. And of the factory, all five stories of it, which must have created an incessant racket when going full blast. The dominant impression here is Old Money And Plenty Of It, which was Scheibler to a T.

Like Poznański, Scheibler owned several mansions in and around Łódź, one of which now houses the Museum of Cinema. These and other palaces are used by Polish film-makers (many affiliated with the Łódź film school) whenever they need a turn-of-the-century interior set; sit through half a dozen Polish movies, and you’ll get a good sense of Łódź owners’ mansions. The 1991 map of central Łódź, with all the new street names, is bordered by drawings of some of the finer mansions; it makes a good introduction to the styles and grandeur of the owner’s mansions. A very handsome book, The City of Palatial Residences and of One Street, contains numerous four-color photographs, interior and exterior of the mansions of Łódź industrialists: Herbst, Poznański, Scheibler, Geyer, Grohman, Heinzl, Biderman, Kinderman. Another small publication, Łódzkie Witraże, the Stained Glass Windows of Łódź, reproduces windows from mansions owned by Scheibler, Poznański, Kern, Kinderman, Steiner, and the banker Maximilian Goldfeder. From the color photographs, from the drawings on the map, from a first-hand examination of interiors and exteriors of those buildings still standing, from the photos and the museum displays, from the tombs in the cemeteries, one develops a picture of the life of an owner in turn-of-the-century Łódź.

And from Reymont’s novel, which photographed their life as clearly as any camera:

Piles of silken cushions, with crude Chinese hues, lay on the sofa and on the milk-white carpet, which they seemed to tinge like great blots of split colour. The fragrance of burnt amber and of violettes de Perse, mingled with the odour of roses, floated about the room. On one of the walls there glittered a collection of most costly Oriental weapons, grouped round a large circular shield of Saracenic steel inlaid with gold, and so brightly burnished that the golden tracery and the edgings of pale amethysts shone and sparkled in the dusky boudoir with a variegated display of light. In one corner a huge fan of peacock’s feathers formed the background to a large statue of Buddha, cross-legged and gilt all over. In another there stood a Japanese flower-stand, borne by golden dragons and filled with snow-white azaleas in full bloom.

“Why, this is a millionaire’s lumber-room!” Charles said to himself.

Moniuszki St., Łódź, 1990

A walk down Piotrkowska, beginning at Plac Wolności (Freedom Square; note the memorial, pulled down by the Nazis and restored after the war by Poles, commemorating General Tadeusz Kościuszko, with a bronze relief on its base depicting Kościuszko and George Washington shaking hands) will take you past the façades of other residences, factories, and businesses: number 10 Piotrkowska, Moorish façade, Gothic gargoyle downspouts, Romanesque colonnade, peeling pink paint revealing lime green undercoat, the wet dream of some half-drugged, newly rich owner brought garishly into being by some equally demented architect. Number 43, a gorgeous art nouveau façade, its balconies a filigree of graceful curves reminiscent of the ironwork of some stations of the Paris Metro. 86 Piotrkowska, the house of Jan Petersilge (publisher of the Lodzer Zeitung), a cement German hunting lodge five stories high, with genuine marble pillars flanking its Gothic portal on the ground floor, gryphones flanking the central tower at the second story, the statue of some Teutonic knight in a recessed niche on the upper fourth floor, medallions featuring the heads of famous Germans below the windows of the fourth floor, an assortment of other decorative balconies, shields, gargoyles, and whatnot on the façade and across the roof. Growing from the left turret five stories above street level, a small poplar tree. Ulica Moniuszki, once the private street of industrialist Ludwig Geyer, with gates at either end and porters to bar the riffraff, a quiet enclave in a hectic city, a small avenue of mansions designed by Hilary Majewski largely unchanged from a century ago (although in the New Poland even some of these buildings have begun to sprout advertisements), a street brought easily back to turn-of-the-century life and shot from a dozen angles to give it the appearance of many different streets. It is one of the most filmed streets in Poland, thanks in no small part to the Łódź Film Institute.

Piotrkowska 77, Maximilian Goldfeder’s bank, now Student Club 77. Walk up one flight to a typical second-story reception room now a jazz club: hardwood floor, ornate plaster ceiling, high folding doors, elaborate brass door knobs, quarter paneling—you’d think you were in some English pub.

Credit Society of Łódź, 21 Pomorska St., 1990

137 Piotrkowska: the old Kinderman palace, now office of the Association of Polish Teachers: enter the side door, usually open, and you will confront a bizarre mosaic of tile and sea shells, mostly green and blue and gold, in a clearly Moorish style. In a recessed niche in the middle of the mosaic, the pedestal for a now-lost statue. Overhead, more mosaics. Sneaking up the marble staircase to more Byzantine splendor on the second floor, you will pass a splendiferous art nouveau glass window, all in pre-Raphaelite blues and greens.

On your way away from this building, cross the street and notice its third-story façade: a glittering mosaic illustrating the production process of cotton fabric.

My own reaction to the homes of the very rich—whether they are castles in Germany or England, Gilded Age mansions of Newport, Rhode Island or Summit Avenue in Saint Paul, Minnesota—is always ambivalent, a combination of anger and desire, a forked wish to buy the place and blow it up, a respect for the taste and elegance of which civilization is built, and sympathy for workers short-changed by those who amassed the fortunes which built these palaces. The contrasting drab of Workers’ Paradise Łódź, even the modern high-rise blocs of the “Manhattan” complex on Piotrkowska, is enough to tip my sympathies toward the owners, but a good deal of judgment jealousy remains. I would probably sleep better believing that all robber barons got, finally, their just deserts, but I don’t believe that for a moment. Some went bust and stayed or left. Many escaped clean to the immortality of death, died wealthy, in Łódź, surrounded to the end by family, friends, and sycophants. Others escaped, with their wealth, to places far away. It’s the usual, on-going story of the very rich.

In Łódź, however, in at least one case, it is a story with a twist. This story was told to me in the textile museum by a guide who spoke only imperfect German; since my German is none too good either, it may be flawed in details, correct only in outlines. It is the tale of an owner who stayed, Grohman I believe, Scheibler’s partner and one of the Old Ones, one of the Germans. And when the Nazis began their ethnic sort, Grohman qualified as pure Aryan, to be registered in the A-1 German log, while others were registered as German-2, Polish, or Jewish. Even at the beginning of the War, people knew, or thought they knew, what it meant to have one’s name in the proper book… but when the SS officer approached Grohman to register him among the first-class German citizens of the Reich, with all attendant rights, honors, and privileges, Grohman declined the registration everyone sought, the registration which would save a man’s life from the barbarisms to come.

Politely but firmly he declared, “My name is German, but my family has lived here many years. I am no longer German. Now I am Polish.”

And the SS officer shot him in the head.