The rebirth of Lodz draws Poland's young emigrants back

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The Independent Online

On a dusty building site in the heart of Poland's unheralded second city, the skeletal remains of what were once the region's famous redbrick textile factories are being brought back to life as fashionable apartments.

These sleek modern dwellings are the latest sign that Lodz - or Wodz as it is pronounced - is giving the lie to scare stories suggesting eastern Europe is going west and staying there.

The gentrified flats are being snapped up by Polish immigrants from Britain and Ireland, people who left their country two years ago when Poland joined the European Union and now want to return home and start a new life, thanks to the higher wages they earned abroad.

"Poles in London, Berlin or Dublin are buying these flats in Lodz because they know something is happening in this city," says Dorota Uravska, who works with the Australian company developing the derelict factories.

Cities like Lodz are undergoing an economic recovery, thanks to the huge amounts of cash and foreign investment opened up by Poland's entry in the EU. Structural funds from the EU alone are worth a staggering $60bn (£31.6bn) until 2013 and Poland's economic growth remains a healthy 5 per cent. All along the two and a half miles of the recently renovated Piotrkowska Street, Europe's longest high street, the fashionable boutiques, bars and restaurants are bustling with locals as they savour the transformation of a city where half the work force was out of a job as recently as the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The present unemployment is 14 per cent and set to keep falling. Three thousand jobs were created last year alone as international companies including Gillette, Indesit and Dell moved in to take advantage of low wages and a willing workforce.

Pawel is typical of the twenty-somethings of Lodz in having worked abroad, in Scotland and Holland, but deciding to come back. "This city is definitely going places now," he said. "There was no way I could stay away for ever."

For the 800,000 inhabitants, the city's turnaround is a fitting comeback for a town that was once nicknamed Ziemia Obiecana, the Promised Land. In the latter half of the 19th century, it was the second-largest city in the Russian empire and one of central Europe's largest textile manufacturers. Almost a third of the population was Jewish, and German, Russian and even Lancashire cotton workers flocked to its booming mills.

The Second World War destroyed any hopes of Lodz retaining its multicultural heritage. As few as 4,000 of the city's 300,000 Jews survived the extermination camps, and nearly all the German families fled the Soviet army as it advanced on Berlin. Remarkably, Lodz managed to avoid bombs and shells and, with Krakow, remains one of the few major Polish cities to survive the war architecturally.

But Lodz's tragic history has also provided the city with a second valuable job-creating asset: tourism. Two hours' west of Warsaw and economically run down, for years Lodz remained far from the tourist trail. Now it is the third most visited city after Warsaw and Krakow.

The Mayor, Jerzy Kropiwnicki, believes recognising Lodz's past is the key to securing the city's future. In 2004, the city marked the 60th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto by opening a giant memorial commemorating those who died.

"For the past 60 years, these commemorations had been rather timid," he said. "The unexpected result of [the 2004] commemorations was that visits from Germans and Jews skyrocketed. We decided the city's past was its best asset and that we must promote Lodz as a city with roots in four cultures, German, Jewish, Polish and Russian."

Asked what he would say to people in Lodz thinking of leaving for western Europe to seek higher wages, the Mayor said: "I would say learn what you can learn in the place you are and once you have learned what you can, come back."