Auschwitz center to buy last Jewish resident’s home

The Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oświęcim, the town where the Auschwitz concentration camp was built, has launched a fundraising campaign to rescue the house of Oświęcim’s last Jewish resident.

The Center, a Jewish study, prayer and educational center, plans to transform Szymon Kluger's home into a café that also will serve as a meeting place for local residents and visitors.

As part of its fundraising, the Center launched a Kickstarter campaign on April 8, to coincide with Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Before World War II, Oswiecim had a majority Jewish population.

Kluger died in 2000, the year the Auschwitz Jewish Center opened. His house is next to the Center, which includes a restored synagogue, a museum and educational facilities.

“According to the recent expert inspection, the retaining wall, which stabilizes our Synagogue, is in danger of landslide due to extreme erosion. Without support for this badly needed renovation, we could lose the Kluger House and the synagogue,” said the Center’s director, Tomasz Kuncewicz.

Kuncewicz said that the Center will establish a vegetarian café called Oshpitzin – the Yiddish name for Oswiecim — in the Kluger House that will serve as “a place of intercultural dialogue for residents and guests from all over the world.” He added, “We want to respect the town's heritage by offering local products and promoting local artists in Cafe Oshpitzin. By reinforcing the Kluger House and its retaining wall, the synagogue’s future will also be secured, so that visitors to Auschwitz can continue to have a Jewish haven for reflection in the town.”

Since 2006, the Auschwitz Jewish Center has been an affiliate of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York.

Oswiecim pushing its town today, no longer running from its Auschwitz past

Aan a town that exists in the shadow of death transform itself into a place of normalcy?

The question long has vexed Oswiecim, the town of 40,000 in southern Poland where the notorious Auschwitz death camp is located.

For decades, residents and city leaders have struggled to separate Oswiecim from Auschwitz and pull the town, its history and its cultural associations out from under the overwhelming black cloud of the death camp, which is now a memorial museum.

With only limited success to date, however, a new generation of town leaders is trying a different tack: bolstering Oswiecim as a vital local community, but also reaching out to connect with Auschwitz rather than disassociate from it.

“Ten or 15 years ago, many of us began thinking that the way to go was not to reject Auschwitz but to deal with it,” said historian Artur Szyndler, 40, the director of research and education at the Auschwitz Jewish Center who grew up in Oswiecim under communism.

The town has adopted “City of Peace” as its official slogan. And for years a Catholic-run Dialogue and Prayer Center and a German-run International Youth Center near the camp have promoted reflection and reconciliation.

Downtown, the 10-year-old Auschwitz Jewish Center makes clear that before the Holocaust, Oswiecim had a majority Jewish population and was known widely by its Yiddish name, Oshpitzin. The center includes a Jewish museum and a functioning refurbished synagogue—the only one in the city to survive. It runs study programs and serves as a meeting place for visiting groups.

And now the Oswiecim Life Festival, founded last year by Darek Maciborek, a nationally known radio DJ who was born and lives in Oswiecim, aims to use music and youth culture to fight anti-Semitism and racism.

“This place seems to be perfectly fitting for initiatives with a message of peace,” Maciborek said. “A strong voice from this place is crucial.”

The closing concert of this year’s festival, held in June, included the Chasidic reggae star Matisyahu. He gave a midnight performance for a crowd of 10,000 in a rainswept stadium just a couple of miles from the notorious “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“work sets you free”) gate of the death camp.

“It was an incredibly symbolic moment,” Oswiecim City Council President Piotr Hertig told JTA. “It was a very important symbol that a religious Jew was performing at a festival in such a place.”

Hertig said the new push to bolster Oswiecim and reach out more to the Auschwitz museum and its visitors is partly due to a generational shift in the town.

For a long time, most of Oswiecim’s population consisted of thousands of newcomers from elsewhere in Poland who settled here after World War II. But today’s community leaders increasingly include 30- and 40-somethings like Hertig and Maciberok who were born in Oswiecim and feel rooted here.

The town now has plans to go ahead with several projects that had been thwarted by outgoing Mayor Janusz Marszalek, who had particularly strained relations with the Auschwitz Memorial, according to Hertig. These include a new visitors’ center for the memorial and a park on the riverbank just opposite Auschwitz that will be connected to the camp memorial by a foot bridge.

“This will be a very good place for people to come after visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau, where they can meditate, reflect and soothe their negative emotions,” Hertig said.

Hertig said he hoped new programs and study visits developed with the Auschwitz memorial will encourage longer stays by visitors. Plans are in the works to build an upscale hotel in town and refurbish the main market square and other infrastructure.

“Auschwitz, on our outskirts, is the symbol of the greatest evil,” Hertig said. “But at the same time we want to show to others that Oswiecim is a town with an 800-year history that wants to be a normal living town.”

Located on the opposite side of the Sola River from the Auschwitz camp, Oswiecim has an old town center with a pleasant market square, several imposing churches, and a medieval castle and tower. In the modern part of town is a new shopping mall and state-of-the-art public library, as well as a big civic culture center that hosts a variety of events, including an annual Miss Oswiecim beauty pageant.

But few of the more than 1.2 million people who visit the Auschwitz camp each year ever set foot in Oswiecim or even know that the town exists.

“It is difficult to comprehend what it must be like to call this city your hometown,” said Jody Manning, a doctoral student at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., who is writing a dissertation on life in Oswiecim and Dachau, Germany, also the site of a concentration camp.

Local residents long have resented that most outsiders make no distinction between their town and the death camp.

“People from outside are sometimes shocked. They ask how I can live in Auschwitz. But I don’t—I live in Oswiecim,” said Gosia, a 30-year-old woman who works at the Catholic Dialogue Center. “This is Oswiecim, my hometown—not Auschwitz!”

It remains to be seen whether the new push can help remove the stigma from Oswiecim and achieve a less strained modus vivendi with the death camp memorial.

“People have the right to live normally, but I don’t think they’ll be able to disassociate from Auschwitz,” said Stanislaw Krajewski, a leading Polish Jewish intellectual. “The best they can do is to use it in a constructive way; the very name Auschwitz has a magical power.”

Restoring Hope

A prayer and study center honoring Jewish life has opened near the place that for more than half a century has been the paramount symbol of Jewish death.

Jordan’s Prince Hassan joined Roman Catholic clergy, Polish, U.S. and Israeli officials and Holocaust survivors in an emotional ceremony Sept. 12 dedicating the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oswiecim – the town outside which the infamous Nazi death camp was built.

The center complex, which includes study, prayer and educational facilities, encompasses the lone remaining synagogue in Oswiecim – the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue – which has been fully restored. It is the only active Jewish institution near the site of the Auschwitz death camp.

“There is in today’s ceremony a message of hope, of tikvah,” said Hassan, who attended the ceremony in his capacity as moderator of the World Conference of Religion and Peace.

“After survival comes revival,” he said. “The message here is that death is not the end of life.”Hassan, the brother of the late King Hussein, noted that he was aware of the “delicate nature” of his participation in the ceremony. But, he added, “further understanding through sharing in our common humanity is a duty of conscience.”

Former Knesset speaker Shevach Weiss, a Holocaust survivor from Poland who is now the chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, hugged Hassan warmly and welcomed his presence.

“The fact that you are here with us is a symbol of the continuity of making peace,” he said. “It means solidarity with the present time and understanding of what happened in the past.”

The $10 million Auschwitz Center project was conceived and sponsored by the New York-based Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation, founded in 1995 by philanthropist and businessman Fred Schwartz.Its aim is to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and mourn their loss, not by showing how they died but how they lived, focusing on the life, culture and history of the prewar Jewish community of Oswiecim as a microcosm of destroyed European Jewry.

“The camps represent the anonymity and mechanics of death,” Schwartz – known from U.S. television commercials as “Fred the Furrier” – said before the ceremony. “Our center counters this anonymity.”The center also hopes to establish itself as a positive, living Jewish presence near the place that is the world’s biggest Jewish cemetery and the ultimate symbol of the Shoah. There are more than 40 Catholic institutions in the area.

“This synagogue is a testament to the vibrant souls who lived life to the fullest within its walls,” said Michael Lewan, chairman of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, a co-sponsor of the project.

“Today, Oswiecim has reconciled with its past in an act of love, an act of peace,” he said.The Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue was restored to how it looked in the 1930s, when the town’s 7,000 Jews made up more than half of the local population and Oswiecim was widely known among Jews by its Yiddish name, Oshpitsin.

The building attached to the synagogue, once the home of local Jews, includes an auditorium, an exhibition on Jewish life in Oswiecim, and a family history center where people can trace their ancestry through computer databases.

The walls of the complex are hung with historic photographs of Oswiecim Jews and with prewar scenes of the town.

“My grandparents came from Oswiecim and had a most marvelous childhood here,” said Lucia Goodhart of Baltimore, who attended the ceremony.

“Opening this center represents not only a rejuvenation but a restoration of relationships. During the ceremony I felt my heart beating out of my chest,” she said. “It is a justification that we lived here. From despair, I have serious feelings of hope.”

The opening of the center took place against a background of controversy over the establishment last month of a discotheque in a local building that had been used for Nazi-era slave labor.

The Polish government joined Jewish groups in criticizing the opening of the disco and urged the owners to move it to another location.

At the dedication of the Auschwitz Center, Oswiecim Mayor Jozef Krawczyk welcomed the new center and new Jewish presence.

He said he hoped that the center would serve as an aid to reconciliation and called on Jews to be sensitive to the day-to-day problems of the city and its citizens.