On Sunday, we departed for Oświęcim to begin the final leg of our three week program. We will spend the remaining week of our time here.
Oświęcim is a small town with a long and complicated history. The first documented reference to the town comes from the twelfth century. Oświęcim was an located along local trade routes and, later with the development of the railroad system during the nineteenth century, the town prospered further as an important stop between Krakow and Vienna. The first references to Jews in Oświęcim date back to mid-sixteenth century. In the years prior to World War II, approximately half of the town’s population was Jewish. Under Nazi occupation, Oświęcim and the surrounding area was annexed into Greater Germany. In spring 1940, the Nazi government approved the establishment of a new concentration camp to house political prisoners. They decided to name the camp Auschwitz, the German translation of the name of the nearby town of Oświęcim. It became the site of the most famous extermination center of the Holocaust. The people of Oświęcim continue to live with this legacy today.
Oświęcim has a similar history to the rest of Poland in the sense that it is trying to recover and preserve it’s Jewish past. This is where the Auschwitz Jewish Center comes in. Established in 2000, the AJC is a “non-governmental organization which exists to serve as a guardian of Jewish memory, as well as to educate the public about the Holocaust.”* The Jewish Museum is located in the former home of the Kornreich family of Oświęcim. The exhibition uses a beautiful combination of local artifacts, photographs, and audiovisual testimony to tell the long history of Jews of Oświęcim before, during, and after the Holocaust. The Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation is also responsible for the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, the only remaining Jewish house of worship near Auschwitz-Birkenau. The AJC received the synagogue as a donation from the Bielsko-Biala Jewish Community and restored it to its pre-war condition. Finally, there is an on-site coffee house, called Cafe Bergson. The cafe has an interesting history that is also tied to the mission of the AJC. The building belonged to the last Jewish resident of Oświęcim. After Szymon Kluger, died in 2000, his descendents donated it to the AJC. Today, this space is open to the public and is used for various community events. For many, Cafe Bergson provides an entry point for the AJC and the Jewish history of Oświęcim.
*Auschwitz Jewish Center. “Mission & History.” Accessed July 11, 2018. http://ajcf.pl/en/museum/mission-history/