Oświęcim is a small town in southern Poland 31 miles west of Krakow. The town has a population of about 43,000 inhabitants and is situated near the Sola River (Wikipedia). Before World War II this town was just an ordinary Polish town with the majority of its citizens being Jewish. Today, however, most of the world refers to the town by its German name, Auschwitz. The town went from anonymity to housing the “ultimate symbol of the Holocaust” (AJCF). From Nazi Occupation to Communist control, the town has been trying to navigate the complexities of being a site of memory when every move or decision the town makes is subject to global media coverage.
Before the Holocaust, the Jewish community in Oswiecim was thriving and had been for nearly five hundred years. Today, the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue is the only surviving Jewish house of prayer in Oswiecim. The synagogue was built in 1913 and was active until it was forced to close under Nazi occupation. The Nazis stripped the interiors and used the building as a munitions warehouse. After World War II, a small group of Jewish survivors began using it as a house of worship, but this was only temporary. The survivors all emigrated from Poland and the synagogue was once again left without a congregation (AJCF). The building sat until the Communist government seized it under a 1946 Communist decree stripping Jewish communities and individuals of buildings and land. In 1970 it was turned into a carpet warehouse and remained so until the fall of Communism (NYT 1998).
Before World War II, about 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland. Only 250,000 survived, and most of them fled Poland’s Communist government (NYT 2001). Since the fall of Communism in 1989, Poland has been trying to restore Jewish property. This has been an extremely difficult process because the new owners are unwilling to give up property that was given to them by the Nazis or Communist government, or which they acquired because it was left vacant when the Jews did not return after World War II. On March 2, 1998 the decision was made by the Government’s Jewish Community Regulating Commission to restore the synagogue. The JCRC had been formed the year before under a law to restore religious property to Poland’s Jews. The commission has received 58 claims within the first year and had four years to seek restitution. The synagogue became the first Jewish communal property to be returned to a Jewish community in Poland and the Bielsko-Biala Jewish Community was the recipient because there was no longer a Jewish community in Oświęcim. The Bielsko-Biala Jewish Community then donated the synagogue to the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation (NYT 1998). After raising one million dollars, the Foundation restored the building to its pre-war condition as described in testimonies and the recollections of survivors (NYT 2001).
Today the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue has neither a rabbi nor a local congregation but provides a “sanctuary for prayer, reflection, and solace” (AJCF). There are Jewish Communities surrounding the area, butCheva Lomdei Mischnayot Synagogue is the only Jewish house of worship within2 miles of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp site (AJCF). The foundation bought the adjacent home of the Kornreich family of Oświęcim which has been converted into a museum commemorating the rich Jewish culture, and the former Jewish residents of the city. The main exhibition
focuses on the five hundred years of Jewish history. The Center sees the main exhibition as an “opportunity to connect with Oświęcim’s pre-war Jewish life through the exhibition of photographs and artifacts” (AJCF). Many of the artifacts, photographs, and documents, and the Judaica displayed in the museum were saved by the Jewish Community itself. The community had buried all of these materials under the Great Synagogue of Oświęcim, and in 2004 these materials were excavated supplying the museum with a rich collection of materials (AJCF).
The number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling quickly and because of this there has been a push, specifically during the last twenty years, to memorialize, collect, and salvage as much as possible before it is too late. In 1995, the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation was established in order to rebuild a Jewish cultural, spiritual, and educational center in Oświęcim (AJCF). Many of the inaugural members of this group were Holocaust survivors, some from Auschwitz itself. On the Auschwitz website it is described as a “non-governmental organization which exists to serve as a guardian of Jewish memory, as well as to educate the public about the Holocaust” (AJCF). In 2000 when the center opened its doors for the first time its mission was to educate the public “about the richness of pre-war life, the Holocaust, and the dangers of xenophobia and anti-Semitism.” In 2000 the last native Jew of the town died, leaving only one Jewish woman there, a survivor from Belgium who moved to the town to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.The Center also has an exhibition space for traveling and special exhibitions relating to Polish Jewish life and the Holocaust. The Museum has also created a documentary with photographs and testimony from survivors and former residents interviewed by the Shoah Visual History Foundation, a project of Steven Spielberg that is screened at the museum (NYT 2001). The Center also tries to help tourists and visitors in planning their visit to the town. Not only will they give tours of the synagogue but of the Jewish cemetery as well as the town itself (AJCF).
The Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation did not originate in the town, or even Poland. It originated in New York City and its affiliate since 2006, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, is also located in New York City. This has created a somewhat precarious dynamic with the town. The town is a site of memory in its own right and the relationship between the town and Holocaust memory is constantly evolving. The town itself did not decide there was a need to remember the Jewish community that no longer existed within the town. Rather it was an outside group deciding there needed to be this space for tourists and visitors. This center was created by foreigners for foreign tourists, not for the town itself. It has become a site of memory that is in the town, but not for the town.
The Auschwitz Jewish Center has no local roots to support it, and it has been approached hesitantly by the community at times. However the education initiatives put forth by the Center try to establish a relationship with the community. From programs engaging local school groups and community groups, the Auschwitz Jewish Center is trying to create a dialogue with, and within, Oświęcim about Holocaust Memory and Polish Jewry.
- “Auschwitz Jewish Center: Museum, Synagogue, Education Center, About Us,” (Auschwitz Jewish Center, 2012). http://ajcf.org/
- “Synagogue Near Auschwitz Restored To Jews,” New York Times, March 12, 1998). http://www.nytimes.com/1998/03/12/world/synagogue-near-auschwitz-restored-to-jews.html
- “Synagogue Reopens Near Auschwitz After 60 Years,” New York Times News Service, February 18, 2001. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2001/02/18/TR178458.DTL