In Oświęcim, the town in southern Poland where the Nazis built the Auschwitz death camp, a memorial park has been opened on the site of the destroyed Great Synagogue to honor the town’s once-thriving pre-WW2 Jewish community.
The Great Synagogue Memorial Park was inaugurated with a concert and candlelit ceremony November 28 — 80 years after the Nazis occupiers burned it down on November 29, 1939. The site was long an empty lot, with in recent years signage describing the synagogue. Oświęcim’s mayor, around 200 local citizens, and some 50 descendants of Oświęcim Jews attended the dedication.
The park is a project of the Auschwitz Jewish Center (AJC), a prayer and educational center established in 2000 that includes a museum dedicated to the Jewish history of the town, which was known in Yiddish as Oshpitzin and whose population before the Holocaust was more than half Jewish.
The Park project was supported by the town of Oświęcim as well as institutional and private donors from Poland and elsewhere.
The park “was yet another step in commemorating the Jewish heritage of Oshpitzin, the Jewish community which existed in the town known for being next to the site of Auschwitz,” AJC Director Tomasz Kuncewicz told JHE.
We aim at serving as a model of how to preserve the memory of a destroyed Jewish community. We created a simple, minimalist, green and welcoming space which on one hand commemorates the tragic history and on the other is a beautiful pocket park in the center of the town.
The AJC is housed in a complex that includes the restored Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, Oświęcim’s only surviving synagogue, which for decades after WW2 had been used as carpet warehouse.
The Memorial Park includes the demarcated outline of the footprint of the destroyed synagogue, within it a path made out of stone slabs, and several benches. (Click the arrow below to see pictures of the design.)
Archaeological excavations in 2004 discovered candlesticks and other material from the synagogue, including the Eternal Light (Ner Tamid), which are now displayed in the AJC’s Museum.
The Memorial Park includes a replica of the candelabra as well as a triangular structure containing historic photographs of the synagogue.
In his speech at the dedication of the Memorial Park, AJC Director Kuncewicz said that in today’s world we must learn from the past.
He noted that the destruction of the Great Synagogue in Oswiecim took place just one year after the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938 provided a prelude to the Holocaust. And he warned against increasing hatred, racism and politically exploited polarization in today’s world.
The November pogrom in Germany was the result of a campaign of hatred, spreading prejudice and superstitions against the minority, which constituted less than 1% of the society. They were portrayed by the political propaganda of the time as the main enemy of the German nation.
Today, unfortunately, similar mechanisms are again politically exploited, whether against refugees or more recently against LGBT Poles. The media, including even public ones, promote pseudoscientific theories, superstitions and prejudice against our fellow citizens and neighbors.
Remembering the history of 80 years ago only makes sense if today we do not look at hatred passively, otherwise we better forget.