Jewish Heritage Europe

At Oświęcim/Auschwitz: Honoring Those Who Died By Remembering How They Lived

Maciek Zabierowski is Director of Education and Special Projects at the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oświęcim, Poland — the town outside which the Auschwitz death camp was built.

The AJC educates about Jewish life in the town that became a symbol of Holocaust death.

Zabierowski here describes its latest project – creating a commemorative Memorial Park at the site of the town’s Great Synagogue, to be dedicated this fall, 80 years after its destruction at the hands of the Nazis.


At Oświęcim/Auschwitz: Honoring Those Who Died By Remembering How They Lived

By Maciek Zabierowski

“Thou shalt not hand Hitler posthumous victories.”

This proposed 614th mitzvah and famous quote from German-born Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim applies perfectly to the Jewish history of a small Polish town 37 miles west of Kraków.

Before Auschwitz became the ultimate symbol of the Holocaust, it was an ordinary Polish town known as Oświęcim, where Jews made their home from the early 16th century until the Holocaust, when most of them were murdered.

In the pre-war years, the majority of Oświęcim’s citizens were Jewish, and for generations they raised families here and contributed to a richly textured culture.

A 1919 view of the Jewish-owned Haberfeld distillery in Oświęcim, and the town’s castle. Photo: Auschwitz Jewish Center/Oshpitzin Museum

The Holocaust suddenly, and violently, ended the vibrant Jewish life of the town, which had been known in Yiddish as Oshpitzin. Of the 8,000 Jews who lived there on the eve of World War II only a handful survived, virtually all of whom left Oświęcim in subsequent years.

For decades, the stigma of Auschwitz has overshadowed both the daily life of the town as well as its pre-war Jewish past.

Interior of the synagogue in Oswiecim

The Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot synagogue is the only Jewish house of prayer still standing in Oświęcim, out of around 20 Jewish prayer sites from before the Holocaust. Opened around 1918, it served the Hassidic community until the war when it was closed down and turned into a German ammunition warehouse.

After liberation in January 1945, it was used briefly by a small group of Holocaust survivors. When they left it was nationalized by the Communist government and used as a carpet warehouse for decades.

With the post-communist changes in Poland from 1989, the synagogue in Oświęcim was reclaimed by the Jewish community in nearby Bielsko-Biała in the absence of a kehilla – Jewish community – in Oświęcim itself.

The synagogue was restored, and since 2000, it has been carefully maintained by the Auschwitz Jewish Center (AJC), an American-Polish non-profit founded by businessman and philanthropist Fred Schwartz (z”l) and operated by the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. The AJC also runs a Jewish Museum next door and cares for the neighboring Kluger Family House where the last Jewish resident of Oświęcim, Szymon Kluger (1925-2000), was born and lived. His passing marked the end of a permanent, living Jewish presence in the town.

Signage at the site of the Great Synagogue in Oswiecim, 2018

The AJC is currently working on a new commemoration project — that of the site of the town’s Great Synagogue, which was the central Jewish house of worship from its establishment in the 1860s until the war. This impressive building replaced the first synagogue, which dated from 1588, and stood at the heart of Oświęcim’s Jewish quarter. The largest pre-war synagogue in the town, it was famous for its ornate interior – and also for being the first facility with electrical lighting in Oświęcim.

On the night of November 29-30, 1939, the Nazis destroyed the Great Synagogue. Later, prisoners of the Auschwitz camp were forced to continue the demolition until no trace of the building was left.

An information panel marks the spot today, but now, eighty years after its destruction, the AJC plans to commemorate the Great Synagogue by unveiling a Memorial Park in its location, which will feature an installation with historical photographs of the building and a piece of the original floor discovered during archeological excavations in 2004. The floor tiles will be covered with hardened glass allowing visitors to see them. One of the original chandeliers found during the excavations has just been restored and installed at the Jewish Museum, while a copy of it will be hung in the Memorial Park dedicated to the Great Synagogue.

Material from the destroyed Great Synagogue in the Jewish Museum in Oswiecim

The Park will serve as an educational site for residents and visitors from near and far about the centuries-long history of coexistence of Christians and Jews in Oświęcim. The project is funded by institutional and private donors from all over the world, including the Town of Oświęcim and crowdfunding campaigns in the U.S. and Poland.

We are honoring those who died by remembering how they lived.

The only synagogue left in Oświęcim, with the adjacent Jewish Museum and the Kluger Family House, tells the story of Jewish life in a place least imaginable to ever have had a Jewish community. It is especially essential here in Oświęcim, the town so brutally experienced by modern history, where the majority of Jewish residents were displaced and murdered while half of the non-Jewish Poles experienced brutal expulsions, forced labor and incarceration in camps.

We firmly believe that the Jews of Oshpitzin deserve to be remembered not because of Auschwitz but precisely despite it. To let them be forgotten would be to admit posthumous victory to the Nazis and their collaborators.

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July 17, 2019

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Maciek Zabierowski is Director of Education and Special Projects at the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oświęcim, Poland.