Bałuty: the largest hamlet in Europe
On the eve of World War II Łódź was home to a vibrant Jewish community, the second largest in Poland. The Jewish intelligentsia and the well-off middle and upper classes lived in the city’s center, but the less affluent and the poor were crowded around the Old Town market and in the northern district of Bałuty.
At first Jews had to settle in the Old Town and the neighboring village of Bałuty there because of legal restrictions on Jews living elsewhere in town. These were lifted after 1862, but Jews continued to settle in the Jewish district no longer because of legal constraints, but for social and economic reasons. With time, “Bałuty” became a synonym for “Jewish quarter of Łódź.” Thus in its strict sense, the name Bałuty designates a specific village that later became a district of Łódź, and its broader meaning refers to the area inhabited by working-class Lodzer Jews.
In 1915, when Bałuty, often referred to as the largest hamlet in Poland, was at last officially incorporated as a district of Łódź, it had over 100,000 inhabitants. It was crowded and dirty; much of it had no infrastructure to provide electricity, water, or sewerage; and its haphazard architecture bespoke poverty. Bałuty was a harsh place, but to generations of people who lived there it was the only home they knew: a place where they felt shielded from antisemitism. Here they played as children, loved and married, raised families, struggled to eke out a living; here they lived out their simchas and their tsures—their joys and sorrows.