The Polish town of Oswiecim means very different things depending on which language you’re speaking. Osphitzin, the town’s Yiddish name, was a place where for 400 years Jews lived and worked and worshipped. But most Jews today likely only know it by its German translation: Auschwitz—the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camps were built just outside the Polish town, and nearly all the Jews of Oshpitzin were murdered there.
The weight of history looms large in this sleepy town 40 miles from Krakow, where today about 40,000 people live. I visited Oswiecim in 2011, as part of a fellowship run by the Auschwitz Jewish Center, an organization devoted to preserving and teaching about the town’s rich Jewish history. Though operated by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, the Auschwitz Jewish Center is staffed by Poles, and I was struck at how much care—and pride—the Center’s staff took in their work. They are hoping to add a new stop into the typical tourist route from Krakow to Auschwitz, one that spotlights the long and textured tapestry of Jewish life in the area. It is perhaps most powerful in its depiction of the mundanities of everyday Jewish life in Oswiecim before the war, rooting the Nazi atrocities that would ultimately destroy the Jewish population in a very real time and place.
The Center is comprised of three adjacent buildings: The Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, one of nearly 30 pre-war synagogues, has been fully restored and is the town’s only surviving Jewish house of prayer (there’s no rabbi or local congregation, but the small synagogue is used for services by visiting groups). Next to that is the former home of the Kornreich family, which now houses a museum and educational center. And behind the museum is the former home of Szymon Kluger, the last Jewish resident of Oswiecim, who returned to his family home after the Holocaust and remained until his death in 2000. In 2013, the Center launched a successful online fundraising effort to restore the building and open Cafe Bergson, a vegetarian eatery far preferable to the town’s local KFC.
They’re hoping for that same magic with their new fundraising campaign to commemorate the Great Synagogue of Oswiecim, which was built in 1913 and burned down by the Nazis in November 1939. “For decades the Great Synagogue was the place around which the life of the Jewish community in Oświęcim was concentrated,” said Tomasz Kuncewicz, director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center. The plan is to fill the empty square with a memorial park, seating, and green space. An installation featuring historical photographs would be accompanied by a smartphone app offering visitors an augmented reality view of the former Great Synagogue.
“The goal is to create a site that will be meaningful for residents and the increasing number of tourists coming to Oświęcim in conjunction with their visit of the Auschwitz Memorial,” Kuncewicz said.
You can find out more about the fundraising campaign here.
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.