Auschwitz, in 2011
by Kayla Green
Today marks Yom HaShoah, the day we commemorate those killed during the Holocaust. Across the world, people share stories of those who survived and those who didn’t, of yellow stars and barbed wire, of a terrifying life lived in ghettos and camps. Among the camps, Auschwitz is often pointed to as the pinnacle of the Nazis’ brutal science. The horror that occurred at the three death camps that comprise Auschwitz should be memorialized as, in the words of a plaque at the camp, “a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.” However, to some people, Auschwitz, or rather, Oświęcim (the Polish pronunciation of the word, which was used before Nazi occupation) is more than the site of the world’s most terrible genocide: To this day, Oświęcim still exists as a town.
More specifically, Oświęcim, (the place which once housed death camps Auschwitz, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Monowitz,) is now a small town, with a population of about 43,000 inhabitants and an area of 30.3 square kilometers. Every day, these 43,000 people go on living their lives, moving forward in a place so deeply tied to the past. To many, it must seem backwards to go on living this way, establishing a life in a graveyard. Even Oświęcim’s town square, filled with stores and businesses, is built on a bunker. The once-proud castle is now a coffee shop. The street that comprised the “Jewish quarter” is desolate.
Surprisingly, considering that Oświęcim does not have a single Jewish resident, the town does still have a synagogue, which serves as a Jewish museum, synagogue and education center.
The museum is built from the home of the Kornreich family, former residents of Oswiecim. The main exhibition is dedicated to displaying the nearly 500 years of Jewish history, tradition, and culture that once existed in Oswiecim, giving visitors a sense of what Jewish life once was in a place where such a thing seems incomprehensible. The museum is filled with photographs of individuals and families, documents and artifacts from local Jewish organizations and businesses, and Judaica excavated in 2004 from beneath the site of the Great Synagogue of Oswiecim. Personal stories of the Holocaust survivors from Oswiecim, who live in Israel today, are featured in a special exhibition.
The Temple component, known as the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, is the only surviving Jewish house of prayer in Oswiecim. Built in 1913, it survived a transformation into a munitions warehouse during the war and then a carpet warehouse during communism. In 1998, the synagogue became the first Jewish communal property to be returned to a Jewish community in Poland and the recipients of the property, the Bielsko-Biala Jewish Community, donated the synagogue to the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation. The building was completely restored to the pre-war condition described in testimonies and the recollections of survivors, and was re-opened in September 2000. Despite being the only Jewish house of worship within 3 kilometers of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the synagogue currently has neither Rabbi nor congregation.
Finally, the Auschwitz Jewish Center has an Education Center, dedicated to public education about the richness of pre-war life, the Holocaust, and the dangers of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. A wide range of programs, including workshops, lectures, seminars, meetings, tours, and cultural events, are available for visitors. The Center also organizes tours of the synagogue, cemetery, and town for family, school, and adult groups.
More than anything, it is the Education Center that gives the town of Oświęcim a sense of progress. Right in the center of a town that will forever be associated with genocide and hatred, there is movement toward a peaceful future.