A mile from Auschwitz, a restored synagogue recalls flourishing Jewish life in Oswiecim


OSWIECIM, Poland (JTA) – In a typical pre-pandemic year, around 2.3 million people visit Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi death camp where nearly a million Jews were murdered.

About 30,000 – or about one percent – of them also visit a nearby museum that represents the last vestige of how Jews in the region once lived.

The Auschwitz Jewish Center opened in 2000 in Oswiecim, the sleepy town less than a mile from the infamous concentration camp. It includes a museum with thousands of artifacts, a small cafe which also serves as a community center, and a synagogue which is the only one remaining from the Jewish heyday of Oswiecim.

For centuries before the Holocaust, this city of about 40,000 people located about 30 miles east of Krakow had a large and vibrant Jewish community, with no less than 20 synagogues. About 8,500 of the city’s 14,000 residents before the Holocaust were Jews.

Today not a single Jew lives in Oswiecim. But the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, built in 1913 and a gathering place for the few dozen local Jews who survived the Holocaust, hosts prayer services for visitors who depart from the typical Auschwitz route and s’ venture into town. Although there is no resident rabbi, the synagogue keeps a Kosher Torah scroll in its ark.

“The kind of prayer you see here, by Jews who had just visited Auschwitz, is often intense,” added Tomasz Kuncewicz, the director of the center, who is not Jewish.

The Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oswiecim, Poland receives about one percent of the 2.3 million visitors who come to the former death camp each year. (Courtesy Auschwitz Jewish Center / via JTA)

The museum was founded just a few months after the death of Oswiecim’s last Jew, Szymon Klüger.

A childless Holocaust survivor who suffered from emotional issues and phobias, Klüger lived in a house adjacent to Lomdei Mishnayot. Shortly after his death, the late New York entrepreneur and philanthropist Fred Schwartz opened a museum in the synagogue. The old Klüger house has been renovated and reopened as Café Bergson, a cafeteria and educational center which is now part of the same institution as the museum.

“We want to represent Jewish life here before the Holocaust, not the anonymity of mass death,” Schwartz, who died in 2016, told the Jewish Telegraph Agency at the opening ceremony.

The permanent exhibition at the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oswiecim, Poland features expensive chandeliers that local Jews could have hidden under the parquet floor. (Cnaan Liphshiz / JTA)

Over time, the museum has crossed paths with a community that is committed to remembering Jewish life in Oswiecim. A newly created Facebook group called “My Jewish Roots Are From Oswiecim” helps connect descendants of Oswiecim Jews around the world – and provides artifacts and archival materials for the museum.

“If it hadn’t been for the museum, very few people would know that a Jewish community has existed here for 400 years, its memory would have vanished like what happened to thousands of communities across Poland,” he said. said Shlomi Shaked, the Israeli Facebook founder of the group, whose mother was born in Oswiecim.

The Facebook group generated unlikely connections. In September, Miri Doron and Dana Rab-Eyal, two women from Israel, discovered they were likely related when commenting on a photo on the Facebook group showing two Jewish women in Oswiecim in 1940.

Illustration: In Oswiecim, Poland, a water well is used in front of the so-called “Auschwitz synagogue” near the city center, during the interwar period (Jewish Center of Auschwitz)

And in July, Nava Meir Kopel, a retiree from the town of Nes Tziona near Tel Aviv, recognized her cousin, Kuba Zajdband, in a photo taken in Oswiecim in 1957 and uploaded to the Facebook group.

“To see him there is to go beyond words,” Meir Kopel wrote.

Some of the Jews with roots in Oswiecim donate family photos to the Auschwitz Jewish Center. The museum uses the artifacts it collects – from family photos and ornate chandelier memorabilia found under the synagogue floor, potentially hidden there by local Jews who would never return – to educate visitors.

Communist authorities nationalized the building after the war, emptied it and turned it into a carpet warehouse. In 1998, the synagogue became the first common property returned by the government to a Polish Jewish community. The beneficiary community, Bielsko-Biala, then donated the space to the Auschwitz Jewish Center, which restored the original furniture and revived it as a house of prayer.

“We prayed there together, with groups from all over the world, and I had a powerful and strong experience,” said Ayalah Gura, 20, who visited Oswiecim synagogue with her school in Israel. in 2019. “I realized that the mitzvahs, the Jewish culture, the faith, they are all for a bigger purpose, a common denominator. The conviviality that I experienced there was overwhelming but also positive. I felt like I had rediscovered Judaism and prayer.

Many foreign visitors are surprised to learn that a Jewish community even existed near the infamous camp, said Artur Szyndler, the centre’s resident historian.

Historian Artur Szyndler speaks to a journalist at the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oswiecim, Poland, November 9, 2021. (Cnaan Liphshiz / JTA)

“The reason many Jews settled here was the excellent rail and transport links here, which were ideal for factory owners,” Szyndler said.

He added that similar considerations led the German authorities to build here the largest concentration and extermination camp in Europe, of which barbed wire, watchtowers and gas chambers are perhaps the most important symbols. recognizable to the world of the horror of the Holocaust.

Some local Jews were used as slaves to build Auschwitz, which began as an internment camp for non-Polish Jews before becoming the epicenter of the genocide of the Jews. But most were deported to ghettos and then sent back to be murdered in their hometowns.

“It’s not as if the Jews of Oswiecim know the Final Solution better than the rest,” Kuncewicz said, referring to the Nazi plan to assassinate all Jews.

The Germans blew up the Great Synagogue of Oswiecim, which once stood on top of a hill not far from the museum. In 2019, the old foundations of the synagogue became a monument to its past, with a metal box with a photo of the building amid dozens of horizontal stone slabs, signifying overturned Jewish tombstones.

A colorized photo of the Great Synagogue, left, which dominated the “Jewish Street” in Oswiecim, Poland, before its destruction by the Nazis in 1939 (Auschwitz Jewish Center)

Many Oswiecim Jews had positive feelings towards the city before the Holocaust, according to Chaim Fischgrund, a 74-year-old Israeli teacher whose father, Avraham Baruch, grew up there.

“My father always spoke warmly of Oswiecim,” Fischgrund told JTA. “He was telling me about swimming in the river, and when I visit the place, I see it through his eyes, not as a place of murder of Jews.”

CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer, whose father was born in Oswiecim, said that on his first visit to Auschwitz in 2015, he also visited Oswiecim. “I couldn’t believe how close it was,” said Blitzer, whose Jewish parents left Poland after World War II.

The Oswiecim Jewish community “was very typical,” Kuncewicz said. “She had good relations with the non-Jews in the city, a long history and a vibrant existence. The only thing unusual about this is that the Nazis built a death camp nearby. “

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